The opportunities and challenges of endorsement deals for student athletes

This year's NCAA basketball tournaments have gotten the highest TV ratings in years. Since 2021, athletes have been able to capitalize on the popularity of college sports through endorsements and sponsorships. But for female athletes, it's also exposing the dark side of fan culture. Molly Yanity, a former sports reporter who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University, joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • John Yang:

    This year's NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments have tipped off as the sport is getting the highest television ratings in years. For nearly two years now, athletes have been able to capitalize on the popularity of college sports through endorsement, sponsorship and advertising deals, a policy known as name, image and likeness.

    It's a chance for college athletes, very few of whom go on to professional sports careers, to make some money. But for female athletes, it's also exposing them to the dark side of fan culture.

    Molly Yanity is a former Sports Reporter who now teaches Journalism at Quinnipiac University. Molly, when NIL, when name, image, likeness began, a lot of commentators said this was going to beneficial for female athletes in sort of the less glamorous sports, the sports that didn't get a lot of attention to give them an opportunity to earn some money, has it worked out that way?

  • Molly Yanity, Quinnipiac University:

    Yes, it has worked out that way. It has worked out that way in the sense that we see a lot of universities putting together collectives. I just read in the Athletic this week that UCLA, for example, women's basketball, is putting together a collective where each air will get something along the lines of $50,000 each.

    So, in that sense, yes, it is helping. It is putting money into the pockets of female athletes, particularly — and athletes and non-rev sports. It is not doing it to the extent of men's football and men's basketball courts. As a matter of fact, the only woman in the top 10 right now is a gymnast from LSU, Olivia Dunne, where her social media is valued at about two and a half million dollars.

  • John Yang:

    Let's talk about Olivia Dunne. There are many people who say that what she's doing on her social media isn't as much about athletic excellence as it is about sort of selling conventional standards of beauty. Is that a difference between the men and the women, how they're using NIL?

  • Molly Yanity:

    Without question, this is the entertainment business. College sports is an entertainment business. And Olivia Dunne has become — I mean, she is, you know, all traditional standards of beauty. She hits those. The thing that is really interesting to me about this is that it's literally impacted her safety when she went to a meet in Utah, their bus was surrounded by a bunch of boys and men clamoring for her attention. Security was brought in. It was a, you know, a less than desirable situation when we're talking about the safety of a young woman. This is where the money is for her right now.

    And you can't really say, hey, you know, she brought this on herself, or something like that. You know, she's just conforming to that traditional sense of where she is in the spectrum of things. We can look at this as, one hand, a great thing she is monetizing this. She can do what she wants, all the power to her for that.

    But on the other hand, there are going to be a lot of female athletes that can't capitalize on this. Their game is what they need to capitalize. And we've seen especially with the women's basketball tournament right now, I just watched a commercial with the entire South Carolina basketball team on it for under armor. That is still there, that does put money in their pockets. But being the entertainment business that it is, Olivia Dunne has found her niche and the universities are going to have to figure out how to protect their athletes when it comes to things like this.

  • John Yang:

    She's also — Olivia Dunne has also got a lot of criticism for being regressive, as it were, that the people who have fought for equality in college sports for women say it should be about athletic excellence and that this is going back to the idea of women as decoration. What do you say to those people?

  • Molly Yanity:

    Yeah, this is one of these things where — you know, one hand, I don't disagree with that statement, but on the other, as a gymnast, she's not going to go pro and make millions of dollars. This is her opportunity to do that. If her looks and her athleticism are what can bring this out, she has to capitalize on it. If what she is looking for is that money and you can't knock someone for that. Did they forget about Anna Kournikova, a tennis player who never won a major tournament, but her face was all over everything. She got endorsement deals. She's a millionaire because she has those traditional good looks.

  • John Yang:

    Are there any changes you'd like to see in the school's name, image, likeness policies to address these questions?

  • Molly Yanity:

    I think that conversation would take an awful long time for here, but very honestly, much of the name, image, likeness policy, if you will, came out of state legislatures, meaning that there's no federal policy, there's not even an overall NCAA policy. For all of the rulemaking that the NCAA purports to do, this is something where in one way or another, it has to get under control. And I say that with the quotes around it because it can't be limiting to the athletes. I think that the first things that need to happen are that universities need to provide safety, security for female athletes.

    And the other thing is that with the non-revenue sports particularly, I think we're going to be seeing, you know, a tidal shift in how college sports runs. And we're starting to see increments of that here and there. There's always been the haves and have nots in college sport. But really what I think we're going to see is a further separation of that.

    And when that happens, we're going to see non-revenue sports and revenue sports run differently, I believe. And the name, image and likeness will — I think we're just seeing the beginning of this, but there will be guide rails put in place.

  • John Yang:

    Molly Yanity of Quinnipiac University. Thank you very much.

  • Molly Yanity:

    Thank you, John.

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