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NCAA’s NIL era arrives, some athletes are ready to cash in

June 30, 2021 GMT
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Ohio State lacrosse player Mitchell Pehlke, an aspiring YouTube personality who broadcasts a channel to 14,000 subscribers, poses for a photo outside his dorm at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on May 3, 2021. Pehlke has been cultivating his online following for years. When NCAA athletes are finally able to monetize their fame without compromising their eligibility, Pehlke is ready to restart the business of his brand. (Kyle Robertson/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)
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Ohio State lacrosse player Mitchell Pehlke, an aspiring YouTube personality who broadcasts a channel to 14,000 subscribers, poses for a photo outside his dorm at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on May 3, 2021. Pehlke has been cultivating his online following for years. When NCAA athletes are finally able to monetize their fame without compromising their eligibility, Pehlke is ready to restart the business of his brand. (Kyle Robertson/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

Social media stardom came unexpectedly to Haley and Hanna Cavinder. A way to pass time during the pandemic now has Fresno State’s twin sister basketball stars positioned to be among the most successful college-athlete entrepreneurs as soon as the rules allow it.

Ohio State lacrosse player Mitchell Pehlke has been cultivating his online following for years. When NCAA athletes are finally able to monetize their fame without compromising their eligibility, Pehlke is ready to restart the business of his brand.

A new era in college sports dawns Thursday when, for the first time, athletes at the highest levels of college sports will be permitted to be compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness. They can earn money based on their celebrity or fame without running afoul of school, conference or NCAA rules.

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The transition has been anything but smooth. More than a half-dozen states have laws set to go into effect Thursday designed to open up the market for athletes and bar the NCAA from interfering. The NCAA is on board with the idea of reforming its NIL rules, but change has come slowly and awkwardly. At some point Congress is expected to step in and provide a law that brings uniformity across the country.

Despite the uncertainty, the doors to the college athlete market are about to swing open and some of them are prepared to cash in immediately.

“I’m going to do as much as I can on that first day and just kind of keep the train going,” said Pehlke, whose YouTube channel has more than 14,600 subscribers. “But I think right now it’s figuring out what I want to do and then drawing it out with my compliance contact to see if that’s all OK, and then get everything prepared for July 1, and then just hit the ground running.”

The Cavinders are 5-foot-6 identical twins who posted similar stat lines for Fresno State as sophomores last season. Haley was the Bulldogs’ leading scorer at 19.8 points per game while Hanna averaged 17. Haley was the Mountain West player of the year.

The Cavinders are good enough to think about possible pro careers, but they are also the perfect example of how the NIL market will be a boon for way more than just star quarterbacks and point guards at high-profile schools.

Athletic accomplishment is only a small piece of the puzzle. In a world where anybody with a smart phone can be a content creator, the Cavinders’ TikTok videos that often combine dancing and basketball have really caught on.

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As the views and followers started piling up into the millions, Haley and Hanna found out their videos could have value way beyond family bonding during quarantine. Icon Source, a company that connects brands and athletes through an app, said wireless communications brand Boost Mobile plans to offer a deal to the Cavinders on Thursday.

“We have discovered you can, like, monetize all your accounts and you can create a profit off them, and then partnering with brands is really a cool, eye-opening thing,” Hanna said over a Zoom call from their home in Gilbert, Arizona.

“We never knew that could be a thing,” Haley added.

Blake Lawrence is the CEO of Opendorse, one of a handful of companies working with dozens of schools on NIL programming and education. He said the estimated value of a social media account can be determined by followers. A tweet, for example, can garner $10 per 1,000 followers for the account that posts it.

Instagram is closer to $20 per follower, according to Lawrence. TikTok followers are worth $3-$4 and YouTube followers range from $4-$7. Actual value is ultimately determined by engagement with the post, which companies can measure by likes, comments, retweets and shares.

The Cavinders said companies have been in touch but they are cautious.

“A lot of brands have reached out, but we obviously cannot work with them because of the rules and eligibility,” Hanna said.

The NCAA is close to a stopgap plan that will allow all athletes to be compensated for NIL usage. It is considering waiving its rules against such payments, schools would follow state NIL laws where applicable, and schools would set their own policies in states with no NIL law.

All the uncertainty has been a source of worry for the Cavinders’ parents, who fear an eager move by the twins could cost them eligibility.

“I know the girls keep saying, ‘Oh, July 1’ and they’re excited, but we still are just like, ‘OK, put on the brakes for a little bit until we make sure that it does get passed,’” Katie Cavinder said.

Pehlke also said he is proceeding cautiously with guidance from Ohio State and Opendorse, but expects to ramp up the business he had to shut down when he became a college athlete in 2020.

Pehlke has been a YouTuber since high school. Not only was he already monetizing his posts, but he was selling merchandise like T-shirts and Pop Sockets to his fans. Between the two, Pehlke said, the revenue could get into the “thousands” of dollars.

“But obviously with the (NIL) rules not in place, I had to turn it all down,” Pehlke said. “And that was just kind of devastating to me just because you put in so much work and I’m not a guy in this industry that’s just making viral videos. Like, this is going to be my life.”

Knowing the rules would change, Pehlke kept pumping out content. He treats it like a job, coming third behind school and lacrosse on his list of responsibilities.

“My friends will be there. They know I set strict boundaries with them where I don’t see them until Friday nights and Saturday nights because I know this is all going to pay off in the long run,” Pehlke said.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez isn’t a big social media guy, but he started thinking about ways to take advantage of the changes last fall. He started a podcast called Athletes Unfiltered with NIL in mind. He’s got some other ideas, too, such as putting his name on football camps or maybe signing autographs for money.

“The opportunity is too good to pass up and thankfully we have great people here at Nebraska that have helped me kind of get outside my comfort zone and become somewhat of a content creator,” Martinez said.

The Cavinders don’t know what their online stardom will lead to. They are passionate about health and fitness, so maybe the following they have built can someday help lead to a career in that field?

“We still think of ourselves as just basketball players,” Haley said.

Soon, though, they will likely be paid to be influencers.