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In many ways, the recent rule change by the NCAA – which essentially allows college athletes to profit off their social media activity and other uses of their name or image – was inevitable. Many of the most popular college football and basketball players now have tens of thousands of followers, and are legitimate influencers on a national scale. So if other Instagram and YouTube celebrities are able to make millions of dollars each year from promoting products and getting endorsement deals, why shouldn’t a top player from the NCAA?
Cashing in on social media posts
Starting in 2021, top college athletes could start making millions of dollars each year, just from running their Instagram, Twitter or YouTube accounts and picking up endorsement deals. And even average players from mid-tier schools (i.e. anybody who’s not Zion Williamson from Duke) could make enough money to finance one or more years of their education. In fact, even a highly touted high school prospect who has not played a single game at the NCAA level might be in line to collect a sizeable amount of cash – assuming they end up at a high-profile school like Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, USC or Duke.
At the end of the day, the ability to cash in on social media posts all comes down to two key social media metrics – the size of your online audience, and the amount of engagement that each social media post gets. If you factor in base rates that other social media influencers are getting, and do a bit of speculation about the sorts of endorsement deals and promotions that might be available for a certain athlete, it’s possible to come up with a few solid estimates about how much money could be at stake. For example, someone like QB Trevor Lawrence of Clemson – a Heisman Trophy candidate at a perennial national college football powerhouse – could make $15,000 per Instagram post and $1,000 per tweet. If Lawrence does a few promotional posts every week, you can see the numbers really add up.
Risks and concerns about social media monetization by the NCAA
On one hand, of course, this is great news for college athletes everywhere. Many of them will never become professional athletes, and so they will never cash in on a major NFL or NBA contract right out of college. So why not let them earn some money during their “peak earning years” and leave college debt-free? This would help to erase the notion that talented young men and women are being somehow “exploited” by the folks at the top of the economic pyramid.
On the other hand, the NCAA is opening up a Pandora’s box of potential problems. The NCAA already has a problem with “one and done” players who only stay for a single season before making their way to the pros. And, for decades, the NCAA has struggled to get the money out of amateur sports, viewing it as a corrupting and destabilizing influence. Paying teenagers millions of dollars while in college could further “professionalize” the NCAA and remove any doubt that NCAA football and basketball are massive, for-profit industries in which academics and other elements of the college experience are merely a footnote.
The new NCAA rule changes – originally designed to let players benefit from autograph and memorabilia deals – are likely to have far-reaching implications. At a time when many people are questioning the value of a university degree, we might have an answer as to why it makes sense to hang around for a full four-year college degree: it maximizes your ability to monetize your social media feeds and emerge from college as a full-fledged celebrity influencer.