Kelley Lynch’s freshman year feels like a lifetime ago.
In the fall of 2019, Lynch — who earned National High School Player of the Year honors as a senior at East Coweta High in Newnan, Ga., — arrived in Seattle as perhaps the nation’s most prized prep softball prospect. Unsurprisingly, companies attempted to capitalize on her significant social media following.
But NCAA laws prohibited such partnerships.
“It’s not even that anyone was offering money, but people would say, ‘Hey, can we send you this product to post on your (Instagram) story?’” the soon-to-be senior pitcher and first baseman said last week. “I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry but I can’t do that.’
“Just looking now, I’ve been fortunate to work with Outback (Steakhouse) and even Coca-Cola, and it’s just so surreal. It’s really cool for all college athletes, but especially females to know how profitable we are now with social media, in this day and age. Just to know people see value in us is really, really cool.”
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It wasn’t always this way. Title IX — a federal law that ensures equal opportunities for men and women in “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” athletics included — was passed 50 years ago Thursday. And last July, the NCAA suspended amateurism rules related to name, image and likeness nationwide — allowing college athletes to profit from sponsored social media posts or ads, personal streaming channels, training lessons and camps, speaking engagements, merchandising, autograph sales, endorsement deals and more.
For Lynch and others like her, the NIL Era has made an immediate impact.
For others, however, it arrived too late.
“It’s tough,” said NCAA all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum, who carried UW to a Final Four and was selected with the first pick of the 2017 WNBA draft, in an interview with The Times last summer. “There were definitely times, especially the last couple years of my career, where we’d be selling out arenas on the road, nationally televised games, people wearing my number in the stands on shirts, but they can’t put my name on it.
“I really just tried to take it as, it’s a stage in your life. Now I’ve moved on to be a professional and I can make money off of what I do. But Seattle rent is not cheap. I was paying like $900 a month for a room, and I’m trying to pay for wifi. I’m trying to pay for gas in my car. There were some days where I’d look in my bank account and say, ‘Dang.’ I do think I would have for sure — whether that’s locally or nationally — made some good money. But here we are.”
A year of data supports that assessment. According to NIL platform leader Opendorse, 15.7% of total NIL compensation from July 1, 2021, through May 31, 2022, was paid to women’s basketball players — ranking behind only football (49.9%) and men’s basketball (17%). Even so, women’s hoops has accounted for just 4.5% of total NIL deals — meaning the sport’s top stars have disproportionately profited.
In March, Axios and Opendorse reported that each social media post from UConn standout Paige Bueckers was worth a whopping $62,900, followed by Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith ($44,200). Of men’s and women’s Sweet Sixteen entrants, the next three highest earners — Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren ($10,400) and Drew Timme ($8,400) and Duke’s Paolo Banchero ($9,000) — could scarcely compete.
Bueckers, of course, has become perhaps the NIL Era’s biggest star — inking deals with Gatorade, Cash App, StockX and Crocs. But the average compensation per Division I athlete is a more modest $3,711, according to Opendorse.
Which, for a college athlete, still pays dividends.
Especially when you don’t have time for a job.
“We have players who could be on a 20% (scholarship) or a 70% (scholarship). So everyone has their own story,” Lynch said. “If you’re not getting help from your family or anything financial like that, it can be really hard. Even if people just need to put food on the table for themselves, if they can’t do that because of their busy schedules, it really has completely changed the college experience.
“For me, I know with NIL I can go shopping now. I don’t have to worry about stuff like that. It has been a real game-changer for me, and I’ve seen that for a lot of other athletes as well on different levels.”
Added Plum: “In the summer, I hustled. I was working camps and refereeing. I tried to do what I could to scrap together that type of cash. But absolutely not (to the idea of working a job). You’re a full-time student and a full-time athlete, traveling on the road all the time. There’s absolutely no way that I personally could have held down a job. I know people do it. I don’t know how people do it. There’s no way.”
In a presentation to the University of Washington Board of Regents last month, athletic director Jen Cohen reported that at least one athlete from every UW sport — men’s and women’s — has benefited from NIL in some capacity. Lynch and UW softball All-American Baylee Klingler recently announced deals with Outback Steakhouse, while local sports merchandise company Simply Seattle partnered with eight Husky softball players to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Title IX.
Vintage Brand — a company that creates personal merchandising brands for college athletes — partnered with UW freshman hoops guard Jayda Noble this spring as well.
“We looked at the landscape and thought (women’s basketball) was really the sweet spot for NIL,” said former UW baseball player and Vintage Brand co-founder Chad Hartvigson. “We think those athletes are underserved, for one, but are very marketable. The athletes there understand social media a lot more than their counterparts on the football side. They’re more active on it. They know how to portray themselves. They do a really good job of taking great videos and putting up really great content that people aspire to watch.
“We thought, ‘Man, these athletes have strong followings.’ A lot of this is about social reach. It’s not about who’s the best player on the team. It’s about who can really market themselves and build their brand and show their dynamic personality.”
In that vein, posting content on social media has accounted for 67.6% of all NIL activities and 34.2% of all compensation — the most in both categories, according to Opendorse. Lynch, for one, credits a UW NIL course for educating her on the tax ramifications of NIL deals and how best to build a presentable brand.
“From a marketing standpoint, I need to really step back and write down my core values and who I am as a person,” she said. “How can I display that through my social media? Because I think it’s really easy to be surface level on Instagram, and people don’t really know you. They just see the pictures you’re posting. I want people to know more about me, as opposed to just looking at the pictures that I post and liking them.
“You look at (former UW national champion pitcher and ESPN analyst) Danielle Lawrie. She has mothers who follow her. It’s not just softball. That’s what I think is really cool about it. The world sees us mainly as softball players, but through NIL we’re getting to not only express our other interests, but we’re able to give back and help grow our sport. You look at all the camps softball players have been able to put on since NIL has passed, and it’s just amazing that we’re able to give back to the game and do our part.”
Of course, when it comes to NIL, football remains the biggest possible fish. And because of that, men’s Division I athletes have earned 73.5% of total NIL compensation since July 1, 2021, with women claiming 26.5%.
On the 50-year anniversary of Title IX, more work is required. Women’s athletics, on all levels, can continue to grow.
But now, at least, Lynch can post a product on Instagram.
“Working with (UW NIL collective) Montlake Futures has been so awesome, just them doing the work to find local brands and people who really want to support us and who really care about college athletes in Seattle,” Lynch said. “I’ve just felt so much love from our city and the small businesses since NIL started. I feel really blessed to be at UW, because we have so many of these resources and so many people who want to help us get as much as we can out of NIL while we’re here.”
Added Plum, now a standout guard for the Las Vegas Aces: “For these student-athletes to be able to capitalize on (NIL) is huge. We don’t have multi-million dollar (professional contracts) like the guys have, but this is a way to build your brand, build your business, and take steps to really elevate yourself throughout your college career. What a luxury. So absolutely, I think it helps female athletes a ton.”