University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban recently divulged that his quarterback Bryce Young—who has yet to start a college game—had already signed “almost seven figures” worth of deals tied to his name, image and likeness. If true, it is a staggeringly high data point in an NIL marketplace that has largely underwhelmed thus far. “The marketplace right now is heavily made up of local, regional, smaller brand deals,” said Darren Heitner (founder, Heitner Legal). “We haven’t seen many large brands dip their toes in the water just yet.”
But some see Saban’s comment as a mixture of hearsay and salesmanship, rather than a matter of fact (CAA and Young’s agent declined to comment). Conversations with college administrators, marketing agents, marketing executives and Heitner, the sports lawyer, indicated players at the top end of the NIL spectrum have earned around $500,000. “I haven’t heard of [anyone with deals] worth $1 million. I’ve heard of a lot of top players with numbers in the $400,000-$600,000 range,” said David Woodley (chief revenue officer, Playmaker).
Our Take: To be clear, no one thought Saban made up the number. But none of those we spoke to believed Young has made anything close to $1 million dollars in a marketing advance (from an agency) or in marketer compensation to date, either (Cash App is believed to be his only national sponsor). One high-profile athletic director said, “While I do not doubt that Bryce or his agent may well have made this representation to Nick, the chances that Nick has real knowledge about the deal [or deals] is zero.”
Saban also made the comment at the 89th annual Texas High School Coaches Association convention and coaching school. So, “it is safe to assume he was in sales mode,” the AD said. Saban’s suggestion that the deals are a product of the “Alabama brand” lends credence to that theory.
While the seven-time national champion coach was almost certainly looking to reinforce the power of Alabama’s brand and the “almost seven figure” estimate could well be inflated, Young is expected to be among the early winners of the NIL era. “I have no doubt that Bryce will be at the top of the market. And if he is sufficiently active on social media, his value may well [eventually] meet or exceed Nick’s projection. But I doubt we will know that for a while,” the AD said.
The reason we likely will not know for some time is because if Young does have around $1 million dollars in deals under contract, it is almost certain that a portion of the money is performance-based. “There is a lot of initial anecdotal evidence of athletes signing deals with high speculative value,” (e.g., royalty-based deals) the AD said.
We have seen deals with rosy but unrealistic projections done over the first few weeks of the NIL era because just about everyone is incentivized to pump the biggest numbers possible. “The other thing is, the real players [with big bucks] aren’t in the game right now,” the AD explained. “You largely have small potato companies, who don’t have the marketing budgets [doing deals]. So, they are doing royalty- or commission-based.”
The fact that college athletes at the top end of the market have likely “only” earned a half million dollars shouldn’t be particularly surprising (despite what some suggested the market might look like). As the AD explained, it is difficult for brands to make significant commitments to college athletes. “The time a [star player] is available to lend his or her value to you is so small. The window to activate against [him or her] or do whatever you are going to do is really tight,” the AD said. “Most college players, especially in football, don’t emerge until their sophomore or junior year and some of them are gone after their junior year. So, you’re not going to see a lot of national [companies] coming in [to sign athletes], and local markets are what they are” (think: offering free meals in exchange for appearances). The lack of national brands in play thus far helps to explain why the NIL marketplace has underwhelmed.
A player like Trevor Lawrence, who comes on the scene strong as a freshman and has at least two more full years ahead of him, could be among the exceptions and command a large financial commitment. Players with all but certain pro futures (think: Zion Williamson at Duke), where the brand or agency does not need to get an immediate return on its investment (because it is more about establishing the relationship with the player), could also draw outsized deals from national brands.
Another reason national deals have been few and far between is because the changes in NIL regulations took effect less than a month ago. “Anyone that has done marketing deals with brands and agencies knows it is pretty hard to get significant budgets passed through in a matter of weeks,” Woodley said.
Matt Davis (vice president, Excel Sports Management) agreed the slow start to the NIL era isn’t necessarily indicative of what the market for college athletes is or what it will be. “You have to give brands some time to spend and really evaluate the landscape. Just because millions of dollars haven’t been spent in the first two weeks, doesn’t mean that more money isn’t going to be spent.” Both Woodley and Davis suggested we would likely see some bigger deals from national brands announced over the next few months, which could push athlete earnings over the seven-figure mark.
To date, national brands entering the space to gravitated toward the college athletes with the largest social followings (like Heitner’s clients, the Cavinder twins), not necessarily the star quarterback or point guard. The AD theorized that is because “the major value [for brands] is going to be produced in social media by student-athletes who are effective influencers.” While it is possible such an individual could be the quarterback at Alabama, “a lot of those are going to be female Olympic sports athletes.”
But Davis wasn’t so sure. “Some brands are looking for social. [Others] are looking for performance [on the field]. You look at the NBA and there are some guys that don’t have social media, but they still get deals. While social will be one factor, the platform and stage [the athlete] is playing on will also matter.” The marketing agent expects there to be national brands that value the association with the star player at the top programs.