Huskers win big with NIL deals, and we’re not talking about the guys

Aug. 18, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Nebraska Volleyball player Nicklin Hames serves during a game at the Bob Devaney Center in Lincoln. (Photo by Nebraska Public Media Sports)
Listen to this story:

Nicklin Hames has her sight set on a few goals before her legacy wraps up at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. First and foremost, the NCAA trophy is coming back to Lincoln – in the hands of the Huskers.

Not only does Hames have a second shot at the championship, she has an additional year to cash in on deals provided by NIL, the new, long-awaited opportunity that allows student athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

An NIL partnership can be as simple as an athlete pocketing $50 for posting about a coffee shop’s new drink – or as lavish as a free leased vehicle from an automotive group. Hames is even pursuing paid coaching opportunities that, before NIL, she could only do as a volunteer.

The NIL program propelled Nicklin Hames from the court out into the community. She got paid to host volleyball camps for kids and teamed up with local small businesses.

“I'm going to be a coach one day, and so now I get to give lessons. That's been the coolest part about it – also working with the local businesses who have supported us through everything, even when NIL wasn't a thing,” Hames said.

The setter’s success so far includes inking one of the first NIL Husker deals and, more recently, signing a brand ambassadorship with Adidas. Hames is proving NIL profit isn’t just for the men.

As they’ve displayed since being given the opportunity to compete fifty years ago when Title IX first became law: women can win – if given the opportunity.

Title IX mandated in 1972 that schools provide equal opportunity for women, but schools haven’t always lived up to the ideal. Some provide more funding and resources for men’s teams, for example. There are similar disparities with NIL, such as fewer business offers and lower compensation to women athletes.

The lack of NIL interest from companies is pretty obvious, too, according to Hames.

“They tend to go more toward football and men’s basketball, which can be frustrating, especially when your program is really successful,” Hames said. “That's tough sometimes.”

It might sting a little worse knowing Nebraska Volleyball is not only one of the best athletic teams in the state, but also the country. Earlier this week, the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll plucked the Huskers for the number one spot.

It’s a familiar story in many schools, according to data from Opendorse, a company that connects athletes with NIL deals.

Since the NCAA authorized NIL opportunities more than a year ago, male athletes made up 73% of Division I NIL partnerships. Women signed 26% of deals.

Bri Cassidy, Opendorse’s Director of NIL Education, said large football rosters skew data because of the sheer number of people on a team. Even so, each offer is more lucrative for men. For example, when businesses pay men to post to social media, they are offered more money than women are.

“[Male athletes] are making about $1,900 – versus a female student athlete that’s right around $1,000,” Cassidy said. “Autographs and appearances are also two other big ones where there’s a disparity.”

Opendorse’s data shows the men’s average earnings are right over $2,000 for deals involving autographs and signatures, whereas women's average earnings are around $500 per opportunity.

However, there is an area where women are faring better: licensing rights. That includes jerseys or posters featuring fans’ favorite student athletes. Women are pulling in $12,500 on average for those deals, whereas men are taking home $8,700.

Those deals can add up in a national market that’s expected to pull in $1.14 billion in the second year of NIL. The average student athlete at a power five Division I school is projected to pocket $15,000 over the next year.

Businesses see success with women

Cassidy says overall, excluding football’s larger rosters, the financial benefits for men and women are comparable. However, in some cases, women are taking in more cash.

According to Opendorse data, women’s basketball guards are averaging a higher valuation – $1,400 per deal compared to $730 per deal for male basketball guards.

Other sports with traditionally smaller budgets, such as softball and women’s swimming and diving, are collecting more money than expected. Both sports rank in Opendorse’s top ten for NIL compensation.

“I don’t think anyone has given softball the credit due,” Cassidy said. “And I don't think people give swim and dive [athletes] enough credit. Those are the athletes who are most likely going to be Olympians on campuses, but people don't talk about them that way. They're bringing in the money, so give them where their credit's due,” Cassidy said. "I don’t know how you don’t not talk about that.”

Top earning sports:

  1. Football
  2. Men's basketball
  3. Womens's basketball
  4. Women's volleyball
  5. Softball
  6. Women's swimming and diving
  7. Baseball
  8. Men's swimming and diving
  9. Women's track and field
  10. Men's track and field

Source: Opendorse

Hames said she learned through her Adidas deal that companies tend to see a higher profit or return on investment in campaigns with female athletes.

“And people don’t know that. There’s just such a small amount of women athletes included in those deals, but we sell more. People love to see those deals,” Hames said.

“It fires me up, because if you give us the chance, you’re going to get more of an outcome out of it than maybe if you were using a male athlete,” Hames said. “Women are badass. We should have them be a part of as many campaigns as we can.”

Hames’ social media shows the reach she has. Her Instagram account boasts 39,000 followers – considerably more than some of Nebraska’s star football players. Partnering with athletes like Hames, who engages with followers regularly, could give businesses more of a bang for their buck.

Muchacho’s owner Nick Maestas can attest to that. Nicklin Hames was one of the first NIL athletes his Lincoln restaurant partnered with – and still remains one of the most successful NIL deals he’s inked yet.

“It was great. I mean, the numbers on that were awesome. We paid her just a flat fee for one Instagram post, but the metrics on that kind of really blew up, and it was awesome to see,” Maestas said.

The business owner said he continues to see the impact of the women’s deals long after the social media posts fall off the feed. The small business owner said the athletes typically follow up their posts by eating at the downtown restaurant with teammates and family members.

“They seem to just genuinely care more, because they feel like they're a part of it,” Maestas said. “They're really, truly appreciative.”

Maestas is preparing to launch a new and larger NIL deal with the volleyball team – with Nicklin Hames headlining the partnership.

Who's missing out?

Some of the most successful collegiate athletes are watching from the bench as their teammates scoop up NIL deals. Due to murky boundaries with NIL and student visas, international student athletes can’t accept NIL opportunities while in the United States. Many are signing deals while they’re back in their home country – like Australian student athlete Jaz Shelley.

The Nebraska basketball standout led the Huskers in a string of undefeated performances in the 2021-22 season. Along the way to the NCAA tournament, she helped beat some of the best women’s teams in the country, such as fifth-ranked Indiana and tenth-ranked Michigan.

Her teammates netted deals off the court with local and national companies in the first year of NIL while Shelley had to sit them out her sophomore year. She watched as offers stacked up in her inbox during her record-setting season.

“I could reply, but it was more frustrating at the start, so I was like, ‘I’m just going to file this away, because I couldn’t do anything with them,” Shelley said.

She started calling businesses back as she planned a trip home to visit family in Moe, Australia over the summer. Shelley signed multiple contracts for specific dates that overlapped with her time home, then pocketed the NIL profit in her Australian bank account. As soon as she stepped back on American soil, the projects had to stop.

“I just wanted little kids to have the Jaz Shelley jerseys and hoodies. That was really important for me, whether I made money off it or not. It honestly was more the factor of I wanted them out there,” Shelley said.

Now she knows what she’s missing out on.

“When I was at home, I was able to do a lot of coaching. I wish I could do camps here.”

Shelley isn’t the only one. She’s one of two Aussie players on the Nebraska team coming off a record-setting season. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s tennis, golf, and swim teams have players hailing from other countries too like England, Japan and Italy.

Women athletes at smaller schools may be missing out on deals as well. Nebraska colleges in smaller conferences barely crack Opendorse’s top 25 list of conferences cashing in on NIL..

While Division I athletes pulled in an average of $3,711.00 within the first year of NIL, Division II athletes averaged $204, and Division III pulled in $309.

Opendorse’s Bri Cassidy has been hosting educational workshops and conferences around the country to get more athletes, especially those from smaller schools, on the NIL ship.

“People think at the small school level, there are no opportunities,” Cassidy said. The former Nebraska softball player said that's one of the biggest misconceptions about NIL.

“You’re seeing deals where athletes are just reaching out to people saying, ‘Hey, I’m a softball athlete. I use your product every day. I’d love to promote it if you allow me,’ and you’re seeing brands buy into that.”

Ensuring equality

The NCAA is holding a steady hands-off approach in NIL operations. Its two sticking points are not allowing “pay-for-play” deals, where institutions directly pay athletes, and not allowing financial incentives for athletes to join or remain on a team.

The rollout so far is posing challenges on a range of issues from staying in compliance to retaining tempted student athletes.

Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook pointed to NIL as a possible reason his team lost star player Kayla Caffey to Texas. Although, Caffey said a lack of scholarships at Nebraska pushed her to head south. In a recent interview addressing Caffey’s transfer, Cook said, “I think NIL poisons people’s minds I’ve seen.”

Nebraska has a dedicated NIL compliance team that educates players while navigating this evolving financial era of college sports. Jamie Vaughn, Nebraska’s Associate Athletic Director of Compliance, said enhancing players’ opportunities off the court compliments their mission to better fully develop athletes.

“I think you would be missing a huge opportunity if you didn't approach this as a life skills opportunity for these young people to learn about building a brand, how to leverage their reputation in the right way, and how to create opportunities for themselves,” Vaughn said.

And it can challenge schools to create a better springboard for athletes.

“Student athletes are going to be weighing those types of things, unlike in the past. They didn't have an option to,” Vaughn said. “I think it's probably too early to know how that's really going to play out long-term, but it's another factor, and it's a pretty significant factor that our athletes are going to be dealing with.”

Vaughn’s department hopes to make Nebraska an attractive school for NIL while abiding by rapidly changing guidelines. Schools also have to keep opportunities in line with Title IX.

Title IX: More Than A Game

“It’s the wild west right now, because there are no standard regulations that are evenly applied to all universities, players or programs,” attorney Cary Joshi said. She’s led historic Title IX cases with her firm, Bailey and Glasser, against colleges such as Clemson University and Dartmouth for eliminating women’s athletic programs.

Though there hasn’t yet been a suit filed against a college for supplying more NIL opportunities to men’s teams, Joshi said there are clear instances where that’s happening.

An example could be a university holding an event for fans to meet and pay for football players’ signatures and jerseys but not a similar event for the volleyball team.

“That’s a violation of Title IX. That is a classic example,” Joshi said. “The university may say, ‘Oh, we’re not involved.’ But it’s so hard to not be involved in something like that. The second that player has their Huskers jersey on, they’re representing their university, and now the university is involved.”

The lack of national NIL guidance also leads to less transparency in deals – ultimately keeping pay disparity in the dark.

“It’s a lot of agencies trying to collect the data, looking at different deals, but there’s no one place that says, here are all the athletes who have deals and here’s the dollar figure, what sport they play, what this is for – nothing like that,” Joshi said.

That could make it more difficult to point out violations.

And ultimately, Joshi said, women don’t want to sue.

“Women athletes don’t usually go to college and think they’re ever going to sue the university that they represent,” Joshi said. “There’s this feeling of, ‘I went to this school. I’ve worked so hard to get to this level of athletics. I got a scholarship. I’m wearing the jersey I represent.’ And then to think they’re going to turn around and sue the university – it’s just such a huge thing to ask a young woman,” Joshi said.

“It highlights the continuing inequity, where a woman who is trying to defend her rights under Title IX is being asked to bear the burden of doing that,” she said.

With women’s sports in the spotlight now more than ever, Joshi said it’s a unique chance to put all sports on equal pedestals.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get it right – to make sure that there is equity in this new phase of collegiate sports.”