In September of 2021, the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA and made it possible for college athletes to make money via brand endorsements, promotions, and online personas using their name, image and likeness (otherwise known as NIL).
Some college players were already celebrities on social media platforms, with millions of followers. Now, for the first time in history, they could label themselves creators and cash in.
Various agencies like Viral Nation and WME Sports quickly began signing college players, helping them land lucrative brand deals. As TikTok –– now facing a potential ban in the US –– became more and more popular across the globe, amassing over 1 billion active users, it inevitably became a central platform for NIL money-making.
Perhaps Olivia Dunne, a college gymnast, is the most iconic TikTok success story to date. With over 7 million TikTok followers, the teenage gymnast became a millionaire through her presence on the app, where she models clothes made by American Eagle and Forever 21 as part of major brand deals.
Last year, TikTok and Meta even partnered with INFLCR, the Teamworks-owned brand building firm, to help more college student-athletes capitalize on NIL endorsements. TikTok signed a three-year deal and pledged to help athletes like Penn State wide-receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Kentucky women’s basketball guard Rhyne Howard monetize and grow their TikTok accounts, with workshops on college campuses and coaching from creators.
However, last week the Biden administration gave the Chinese TikTok-owner ByteDance two options: divest its stakes, or face a countrywide ban. The ban would not only block out 150 million U.S. users, but drastically limit, or more accurately, change the landscape surrounding NIL.
With "the ongoing uncertainty of TikTok's future in the U.S., it's worth pointing out just how different the social follower distribution is of college athletes versus pro athletes,” said Bob Lynch, founder and CEO of global sports and entertainment intelligence platform SponsorUnited.
“Currently, almost half of total followers of college athletes come from TikTok, as well as a quarter of all engagement on branded posts,” Lynch added. “Short term, if a ban was implemented, we'd see a dramatic increase in Instagram engagement, though it would also create openings for other new and emerging platforms to gain greater traction in the NIL space.”
Short-form videos, popularized by TikTok in the social sphere, make sense, especially for athletes who amass followings through showcasing the way they fly through the air, move their bodies, dunk, jump, run, dive etc. With Reels gaining popularity across Instagram and Facebook, Meta will likely see an influx of viewers (U.S. users spent a collective 2.8 trillion minutes on the app in 2022).
Though Snapchat and YouTube –– apps more aligned with younger users –– could also see some of those minutes.
Still, college athletes largely dependent on TikTok could lose significant income. There’s a reason brands haven’t pulled out of TikTok during the ongoing controversy; the algorithm is too damn good for targeting specific (mainly younger) audiences. According to Nicole Penn, president of the digital agency EGC Group, a wide variety of brands are still using TikTok because “it’s where their audience is, and where they find organic wins that are difficult to find with Meta.”
I have to assume this proves even truer for college athletes, whose audiences are primarily TikTok’s most fervent users.
It will be interesting to see whether TikTok is banned, how ByteDance reacts, and what thousands of U.S. influencers say when their livelihoods are challenged, if not erased.