In late June, the NCAA announced historic rule changes allowing student-athletes to earn money from their personal brands. The decision opened the door to quid pro quos that only a few years ago would have spurred investigations, suspensions or dismissals.

Immediately following the announcement, Bay Area schools began touting Silicon Valley connections, alumni networks and marketing platforms as tools to help students secure name, image and likeness deals, often abbreviated as NIL. Despite those implicit promises, though, few tech companies have gotten involved in the burgeoning industry, according to players, administrators and experts interviewed by SFGATE. 

In the first seven months, a handful of Bay Area students have secured significant NIL partnerships: Stanford women’s basketball player Cameron Brink, for instance, does ads for Netflix on her Instagram. One Cal athlete has made more than $10,000, according to school officials. They declined to name that person, though they pointed to quarterback Chase Garbers and freshman women’s basketball player Mia Mastrov as examples of Bay Area athletes who are benefiting from the new rules. But Garbers told SFGATE he relied on help from family, not his school, when negotiating exchanges of products and cash for social media posts about coffee, sports drinks, protein shakes and clothes.

Garbers also signed on to endorse one of the only tech companies making NIL deals in the Bay Area so far, cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The company also inked a social media promotion deal with Garbers’ teammate Josh Drayden and spent $17.5 million to put its name on UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium.

At San Jose State, in the thick of Silicon Valley, quarterback Nick Starkel told SFGATE he’s made a few thousand dollars signing trading cards, but hasn’t seen tech companies descend onto campus to negotiate with college athletes. “I have not seen any of it, like zero at all,” he said last fall, adding that it hadn’t come as a surprise to him. 

But he does regularly hear from people who have little experience with NIL deals who seem to be looking for a quick buck. “I get reached out to probably, you know, every other day by a new marketing agent, by somebody that is just trying to get a piece of the pie,” he said.

California Golden Bears guard Mia Mastrov dribbles the ball during a women's college basketball game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the California Golden Bears on February 21, 2021 at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, CA. 

California Golden Bears guard Mia Mastrov dribbles the ball during a women’s college basketball game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the California Golden Bears on February 21, 2021 at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, CA. 

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot for a few, a little for many

FTX is one of the splashiest figures in the NIL market, giving monthly stipends to Kentucky’s entire men’s basketball team (in dollars) and paying BYU football players more than $500 each (in cash or crypto) to promote it on social media. 

But there are huge disparities among NIL offers. While the average NIL transaction on the brand-building platform INFLCR is $1,306, the median transaction is $51, according to numbers provided to the New York Times in December. More than 200 Division I schools around the country have arranged for student-athletes to use INFLCR’s app to connect directly with companies, as well as to post their school’s photos and videos to their own social media accounts

Jim Cavale, INFLCR’s CEO and founder, thinks the numbers will go up as students figure out the system. “I think that the data will show that student-athletes are going to learn and they’re going to become more savvy,” he told SFGATE last fall.

But the volume of tiny deals that athletes are accepting — and which rights students are granting to third parties — has surprised Darren Heitner, a Florida-based sports, entertainment and intellectual property attorney who helped develop the Sunshine State’s NIL law and has since assisted some students with deals.

“I would suspect that we start to see athletes generally become a bit more cognizant of the importance of not simply just granting their rights without true, equitable compensation,” Heitner said last fall, while acknowledging that some athletes don’t have the luxury to wait for better offers.

Schools roll out programs and resources, but big paydays are scarce

Garbers and Mastrov, the two students Cal put forward as success stories, both come from families with a business background. But going forward, administrators hope that in-house programs and resources can help others find their footing in the new landscape.

Within hours of the NCAA’s interim policy going into effect July 1, Cal Athletics announced its GOLDEN program, “a comprehensive set of resources for student-athletes to build their brands and take advantage of new name, image and likeness legislation.” It invoked its proximity to the tech space, saying the program would “capitalize on Cal’s alumni network and access to industry leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

A day earlier, when the NCAA approved the rule changes, Stanford announced the launch of Cardinal Connect, an in-house initiative that “aims to leverage Stanford’s campus and alumni resources to provide education and support to students.” In a statement, Athletic Director Bernard Muir said Stanford was “uniquely positioned to deliver NIL value” to its students. 

“Through our relationships in Silicon Valley, our world-class campus resources and an unparalleled alumni network, Cardinal Connect reflects our approach to NIL, and will provide students with the best education and opportunities to benefit from NIL,” he said.

Less than two weeks later, San Jose State got into the mix and announced its partnership with Opendorse, an athlete marketing platform that, like INFLCR, partners with schools across the nation to help student-athletes traverse the NIL space. “I think it’s one of those things where if you don’t have it, then you’re kind of getting left behind, because most schools are working on something,” Cal safety Elijah Hicks told SFGATE in an interview last fall. Hicks was part of a working group that developed the GOLDEN program.

Weeding out bad deals and lowball offers

Despite these school programs, some student-athletes have found it challenging to navigate the NIL world on top of their existing responsibilities. “Something that I’ve struggled with is having school and gymnastics, and then also trying to go through all of the [NIL] opportunities and still reach out for more opportunities,” said Mercedez Sanchez, a first-year graduate student gymnast at San Jose State.  

Some of Sanchez’s friends have gotten managers, she said, but she’s chosen to go it alone. Even without professional help, over the summer, she earned four-figure sums working at gymnastics camps in California and Pennsylvania, an opportunity she found herself. She’s also been using the Opendorse app, which has allowed her to quickly find reliable (if unspectacular) deals, like being paid $50 for an Instagram post about GummiShot energy gummies. Opendorse also introduced her to a company that turns shirts and jerseys into quilts; that one will net her $125 and a free quilt. 

Sanchez appreciates that Opendorse vets the offers for her, helping her avoid potential scams. Sometimes companies will email her and ask her to set up an account or sign in to her Instagram, she said. “I get worried about identity or passwords getting stolen. That’s I think my biggest issue with it: Not having somebody else who can check that they’re legit.”  

Opendorse is “a really great tool,” said Starkel, the San Jose State quarterback. One of the most useful features is a tool that suggests valuations for different kinds of promotion. “It tells you how much an Instagram post is worth, how much a Twitter post is worth,” Starkel said. But “a lot of companies just ignore that,” offering a tiny fraction of what the app recommends, he said.

Those who have been following NIL developments closely, like Heitner, see value in colleges proactively providing educational resources about endorsement opportunities. In Florida, for instance, financial literacy and life skills workshops are required for student-athletes. Bay Area schools, too, have placed an emphasis on education, including brand-building and personal finance talks from faculty and alumni and seminars led by tech company representatives.

But not everyone makes use of school-led NIL programs or resources. Though he considers the GOLDEN program a “great asset to have at Cal,” Garbers – by early October – hadn’t taken advantage of it. Instead, his NIL dealings have been more of a family affair. “I didn’t hire a marketing agent. I’ve kind of been doing all this on my own, asking for advice here and there,” he said.

Chase Garbers of the California Golden Bears reacts after the 31-24 overtime loss to the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium on September 25, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. 

Chase Garbers of the California Golden Bears reacts after the 31-24 overtime loss to the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium on September 25, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. 

Abbie Parr/Getty Images

What has Big Tech’s impact really been?

To date, about 90 Cal student-athletes — about 10% across 22 teams — have made a total of more than 150 NIL deals, according to Jay Larson, senior associate athletics director at the school. “That could be anywhere from getting some free gear from a startup clothing company to some deals that are in the thousands of dollars,” he said. 

School officials expect those numbers to climb in 2022. “I think a strong percentage [of student-athletes] probably simply have no interest in this space, but if you see 10% after six months without a whole lot of effort, I think it’s probably safe to say, over time, half the student-athletes at Cal would have an NIL deal,” Larson predicts.

Despite Bay Area universities highlighting their Silicon Valley connections, it’s difficult to draw a definitive line between tech-related NIL deals for student-athletes and local schools’ proximity to the Big Tech capital. Garbers believes that being at Cal gave him a leg up with FTX, though — as evidenced by deals struck from Kentucky to Utah — the cryptocurrency exchange has made plenty of deals at schools far away from Silicon Valley.

“I don’t think [tech companies] play much of a role right now, quite honestly,” said Tim Derdenger, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business who researches technology and sports markets. While he has heard of instances where representatives from Facebook and Twitter have gone to schools to help student-athletes build social media savvy, he thinks their involvement essentially starts and ends there.

Jeff Konya, athletic director at San Jose State, points out that the NIL landscape is still in the nascent stages. “This is really new to most of corporate America,” he told SFGATE last fall. “What I can tell you is that Silicon Valley has an incredible interest in our student athletes.” 

Aside from its partnership with Opendorse, San Jose State is setting up “a multi-media content solution” for its student-athletes through an in-house television show and radio network called The Charge, Konya recently added in an email. The 24/7 station would allow student-athletes to market themselves as they build their brands. “I see the role of the administration as providing our student-athletes the infrastructure so they can capitalize [on] NIL,” Konya wrote. 

Stanford, too, has been promoting relationship-building rather than cash, according to Carter Henderson, associate athletics director at Stanford. He argued that the school’s alumni and Silicon Valley connections offer lots of value, including town halls with tech execs being held just for student-athletes. Meta, for instance, recently conducted NIL-related educational seminars with Stanford student-athletes. As for the commercial side, “if I was a student-athlete thinking about NIL, I think this would be a really interesting kind of playground.”

A future in the billions

Whatever the current landscape, experts see huge growth ahead for the industry. Derdenger foresees “close to a billion dollars” in NIL deals in the next five years. But six months in, Derdenger — a former student-athlete himself — still thinks of the space as a kind of Wild West. “We’re all trying to figure this out and schools are trying to figure it out,” he said.

Still, he sees NIL as transformative for student-athletes and the college sports landscape. While so-called revenue-generating sports like football and basketball have gotten lots of attention, athletes in sports that don’t draw lucrative TV contracts, from golf and gymnastics to swimming, are benefiting, too. 

And in an industry where, for decades, virtually everyone involved profited except for the labor on the field or in the gym, student-athletes finally have an opportunity (albeit an uneven one) for a payday while they’re enrolled.

“You had the pie of profits, of money that was being spent on college athletics, from all different areas, and student-athletes … outside of [their education], they were getting zero,” Derdenger said. “At least now they’re able to get a small slice.”

Patrick Riley is a Santa Cruz-based freelance reporter. He has covered a range of topics and beats in Florida and California.