A Potential Future for Division III Athletics? Exploring the Wonders of NIL

“She has gripped the attention of the entire nation” – Ryan Ruocco, NCAA Sports Analyst

With 53.7 seconds remaining in the second half of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship game, the cameras are not fixed on the soon-to-win Louisiana State University basketball players, but on the disappointed face of Iowa Hawkeyes’ Caitlin Clark, who had been named the Associated Press’s Player of the Year just three days prior.

According to ESPN Press, there was a record high of 6.5 million viewers in person and behind screens who tuned into ABC that day for the game, all watching as the 6’0” phenom lit up the court. Although the Iowa Hawkeyes did not end up with a ring that night, Caitlin Clark sure won the long game. Since the championship game went down in 2023, the basketball star has earned roughly $818,000, according to On3Sports.

The Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rule, put into effect by the NCAA in the summer of 2021, ensures the right of collegiate athletes within the association to make financial profit. The top NIL earners make upwards of seven figures in advertising deals. Bronny James, LeBron James’s son, a basketball player at the University of Southern California–has been reported to have made $5.8M from deals so far, and he’s only a freshman!

Though these profits are substantial, not every college athlete is LeBron James’s son. Many collegiate athletes have smaller brand deals with local companies. Regardless of the dollar amount, the opportunity NIL provides is critical for the wellbeing of athletes across the country. Any income has the potential to change the lives of student athletes that have minimal time to work outside their strict athletic and academic schedules.

A common misconception regarding collegiate athletes is that they all have their college paid for by scholarships attributed to their athletic participation. But according to Forbes, only one percent of collegiate athletes have full athletic scholarships. The other ninety-nine percent make the most of their budgets by offering partial scholarships to meet any additional academic or miscellaneous scholarships students receive.

Accessibility to athletic scholarships also depends on the division the school is in. For example, there are 74,243 athletic scholarships given between the 350 NCAA Division I colleges, according to NSCA College Recruiting. In comparison, a grand total of zero combined scholarships from the 438 schools present in Division III are dispersed amongst their athletes. Division III colleges and universities tend to focus more on academic over athletic success, which limits their athletic budget a considerable amount, thus diminishing the opportunity for athletic scholarships.

Scholarships enable a broader range of students from various socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue higher education. But without financial aid from the athletic department, student athletes must look to different sources for  financial support. Whether it be federal aid, academic scholarships, or a part-time job, figuring out how to pay for college can be tricky.

NIL proposes a new avenue to rethink Division III athletics. What if these athletic departments did not increase their budgets, but rather increased their focus on obtaining business deals for their student athletes?

Some may believe that brand deals at lower-level schools are unrealistic, but with schools that have high numbers of donors and interactive alumni, this could be a real possibility. Any company –if compliant with NIL policy- can compensate a college athlete. According to Icon Source, “autograph signings, product endorsements, (and) social media posts” are just a few examples of NIL in action.

One of the roles that Kevin Wolma, the Assistant Athletic Director of Wellness and Compliance at Hope College, serves is to make sure that Hope is in compliance with the rules and regulations of the NCAA. In reference to Hope’s practices in NIL, Wolma confirmed that “currently we have a handful of student athletes who are a part of an NIL club while a few others are doing service for products.” According to nilclub.com, NIL clubs are online “athlete-operated fan (communities)”, that in exchange for a monthly subscription, fans are able to “gain access to exclusive content throughout the year”.

Wolma admitted that these clubs and product services do not generate much income for the players. He said that although “the average NIL deal for Division 3 athletes that have an NIL deal is less than 100.00 per year,” he is intrigued about its future. “As the NIL landscape continues to change it will be interesting to see this evolve in our community and the support we receive.” 

The Name, Image, and Likeness policy has the capacity to benefit athletes from big and small schools alike, and should be talked about more in the athletic departments of smaller schools, like Hope. Though local companies and businesses are not likely to provide the superstar level of compensation that Caitlin Clark or Bronny James receive, any deal has the potential to positively impact a student-athlete’s life. 

(Featured image: Nico Kazlauskas)

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