Name, Image, Likeness: Leveling the playing field for female athletes
Story, video, and cover art by Lindsay Wyson.
This story is part of the March 2022 issue of The Daily Universe Magazine.
Tegan Graham and her teammates on the BYU women’s basketball team waited anxiously to see it for themselves. They had heard rumors and seen pictures of the unthinkable joke the NCAA called the women’s weight room, but they still weren’t sure if they believed it. It was the NCAA national championship tournament, after all.
As they walked into the mostly beige room, it lacked as much character as it did amenities. The disparity between the NCAA’s treatment of men and women became very real to them. The entire workout space included a single stack of dumbbells and a pile of yoga mats. In comparison, the men’s weight room had full dumbbell sets, barbells, benches and a plethora of other training machines.
Graham, who was a fifth-year athlete at the time, had just started the mass communications graduate program at BYU after graduating from Colgate University. She had been searching for a master’s thesis topic and this, gender inequity within Division I NCAA athletics, seemed like a perfect idea. “It kind of just clicked for me; it kind of made sense.”
As part of her research on gender equity in NCAA sports, Graham found that women’s basketball accounts for the second-highest-grossing income from Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals across the nation—behind only football. When asked if that statistic surprised her, Graham gave a cheeky grin and confidently answered, “not at all, not at all.”
Before July 1, 2021, NCAA rules stated that collegiate athletes could not receive monetary gain for their participation in university athletics. While any other student on campus had the freedom to build a social media following, make deals with brands and receive compensation for it, NCAA athletes could not. The Supreme Court ruled in 2021 against the NCAA which basically cornered them into flipping that policy on its back.
Many worried that allowing student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness would only benefit a few athletes. Some argued women would largely be left behind. These, among critics’ other complaints, were wrong.
Take a look at some BYU case studies. The most talked-about NIL deal across campus—and debatably the most discussed team deal in the nation—is with Built, a protein bar company with headquarters in Spanish Fork.
BYU alumnus and CEO of Built Nick Greer met with the football team on Aug. 12 to announce that each walk-on (non-scholarship) player would have their tuition covered by the company. The players erupted in cheers for their non-scholarship teammates. Yet, aside from the football deal with Built, many would argue that the female athletes on campus have had bigger NIL success than their male counterparts.
A large portion of that success comes from the Smarty deal.
Smarty—formerly Smarty Streets—is a tech company responsible for all online address verification. The company was founded by Jonathan Oliver, a BYU alumnus and father of one son and four daughters.
As a proud “girl dad,” when Oliver heard about the Built deal he was inspired and knew there was more to be done. “I quickly realized somebody should do something for the women athletes on campus, and then it hit me: It’s going to be me; I’m going to do it.”
Oliver said there were two qualifications to make any type of NIL deal. First, it had to be the right thing to do. “That was immediately obvious, like, are women athletes less valuable? No! They are just as capable, hardworking, and dedicated as their male counterparts.”
Second, the deal had to be a good financial decision. As a tech company, the female athletes couldn’t really help sell the Smarty product as easily as the football team could help Built sell protein bars, because there is no physical product at Smarty.
Oliver figured out a way for the deal to be symbiotic. Athletes were required to periodically post about the company on their social media.
“All of the links and exposure we get actually increases our search engine rankings, so that draws traffic to our website even if they don’t come directly through the post,” Oliver said.
The Smarty deal is groundbreaking for several reasons. First, it quickly proved that female athletes have a place in the NIL space, and that their value was significant. The Smarty deal offers $6,000 to each female athlete at BYU for social media promotions and attending Smarty events. For over 300 female athletes on campus, the deal totals nearly $2 million.
Oliver included every female athlete in the deal—from basketball players to the Cougarettes. “Overwhelmingly (the Smarty deal has) been extremely positive. I haven’t heard one negative thing about it, and I think it’s well-deserved,” Gary Verón, BYU associate athletic director for student-athlete experience said.
Due to federal policy, international athletes are unable to participate in a typical way with NIL agreements. However, Oliver managed to include international athletes in the Smarty deal by donating $6,000 per international athlete to the athletic department specifically to be used to support them—entertainment, resources for school, and more.
Oliver joined Graham on her master’s thesis podcast and said he believes “women’s athletics…may be less visible, but I don’t think it’s any less important.”
The current NCAA policy on NIL is that each state may create its own law to prohibit or set guidelines for what NIL agreements can look like. Utah does not have any legislation addressing NIL, so the limit of possibilities only falls to the university’s policy.
Verón explains that with the Smarty deal, BYU only offered guidance to Oliver. “We didn’t establish any of the terms or conditions—we helped educate Jonathan and his company as to what was permissible within NCAA and BYU policy, and then we fine-tuned a few of the details for him.”
The fact that most NIL deals do not need to go through the universities has been key in giving female athletes a way to find success around the power structures within the NCAA.
BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood believes the Smarty deal gives her players more financial freedom. “Soccer is not a full scholarship—my girls aren’t on full rides—that’s the way the NCAA has set it up. So, I get a certain amount of scholarships and I can divide it up…so the opportunity they have through NILs to earn money…that goes a long way.”
The reality is, female athletes are cashing in since NIL passed. National brands swiftly entered into NIL agreements with female athletes across the nation.
Nike signed UCLA women’s soccer player Reilyn Turner in 2021 to their first NIL deal. StockX, an online marketplace for streetwear and sneakers, entered into an NIL deal with Paige Bueckers of the UCONN women’s basketball team. Bueckers also entered into a deal with a small company named Gatorade.
“There’s a reason why Nike signed a female student-athlete before a male student-athlete,” said Graham. “It’s not because it’s a charitable organization—it’s because it’s a smart move. It’s a financially really smart move.”
Women’s sports hold two of the top four spots on the list of NIL compensation according to a 2022 report released by Opendorse. The highest average compensation for a single social media post is held by women’s basketball. The average TikTok post by a female basketball player is worth $2,805.
Why are posts from female athletes worth so much?
Consider a recent deal between Thrifthood and BYU women’s basketball player Shaylee Gonzales.
Thrifthood is a Provo-based vintage clothing and lifestyle company. The Gonzales deal was a first for Thrifthood. Co-founder and CEO Albee Bostrom explained that Shaylee’s success on the basketball court along with strong social media following attracted them to her. When Thrifthood became aware of NIL, they knew they wanted to get involved.
Store manager Warren McDade said that male athletes weren’t even on their radar. “From the beginning, we were all like, ‘we want it to be a female (athlete) no matter what.”
Gonzales was their top choice because of the relationship they had already created with her, since she had been a customer long before NIL existed for NCAA athletes.
But before she had signed with any brand, Gonzales mentioned to Graham on her podcast that she was flooded with interest from countless companies, “I’ve been getting lots of DMs from companies and just feeling so overwhelmed with that.” Her choice to sign with Thrifthood was a mindful one.
The deal between Thrifthood and Gonzales includes game day outfits, photoshoots, and more. In return, Gonzales promotes Thrifthood on her widely successful social media platforms. With 211k followers on TikTok, 130k subscribers on YouTube, and 80k followers on Instagram, the reach of Gonzales’ posts is remarkable.
“Social media allows athletes to control the narrative and to control their narrative…which is super, super important especially for female athletes who don’t get the media coverage they deserve,” Graham.
The value of social media under the NIL umbrella is unmatched. McDade remembers a visit from a customer who was the parent of an athlete on the opposing team playing BYU that week. The woman was on Facetime with her younger daughter at home who was audibly sad to miss out on going to “the store that Shaylee is with!”
Of course, Gonzales didn’t build that fanbase overnight. She has been building her personal brand for years. But she takes her role as an influencer seriously.
“We are big influences for others, and we can be examples to others, and a lot of younger girls look up to us,” Gonzales said.
Bostrom describes their relationship with Shaylee as, “a perfect little family.”
For McDade, the fact that women’s athletics are doing so well in the NIL space is not surprising. “I think from here on out, female (athletes) will continue to kill it. Female athletics just get slept on.”
NIL possibilities could be changing the future of that “slept on” status.
The NCAA women’s basketball tournament begins in March. How will the NCAA respond this year to the gender disparity gap that has long existed? Will Graham be shocked this time around? If so, let’s hope it’s because that gap is shrinking. The first year of NIL—if nothing else—has validated the worth of female athletes and proven that women’s sports are profitable.