When Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 became law, it ensured female athletes would have the same opportunities as males. However, while women’s college athletics have made huge strides in the last 50 years, the bulk of the media attention and endorsement money has still gone to male athletes, especially those playing football or basketball.
While that disparity is primarily caused by the lack of high-profile professional leagues for women’s sports, things may be starting to change. And that’s because almost every female college athlete can now cash in on name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals just like their male counterparts.
Notable among those high-earning female athletes are Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twins who play basketball for the University of Miami, and University of Connecticut basketball player Paige Bueckers. Bueckers is especially notable, as she was the first college athlete ever signed to endorse Gatorade and, though she’ll miss this season due to a knee injury, she’ll still likely earn more income as a college athlete than she would as a top pick in the WNBA.
“I mean, she (Bueckers) is going to make well over a million dollars. It’s not even a question,” said Jason Belzer, the chief executive of Student Athlete NIL, an agency that works with brands doing campaigns for student-athletes. “She probably has more value as a student-athlete from a marketing and endorsement perspective than she will as a pro, unless she becomes an absolute All-Star, Sue Bird-like person.”
However, though Bueckers, Dunne, Lee, the Cavinder twins, and others have earned NIL income thanks to their social media following and marketing savvy, many other female athletes in non-revenue sports now have income streams equal to or greater than their male counterparts. For some, it’s just spending money, but for others, it’s cars, cash, food, merchandise, and a steady revenue stream.
The downside to the NIL boon is that not all female athletes have received the same opportunities. Marketability, visibility, and social media presence plays a big role in that, but for some critics, sex appeal is selling more than social media presence. While it’s always up to the athlete to choose how they share themselves, many feel the pressure for women to use their sex appeal in their endorsements is a step backward.
“I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back. We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics,” said Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer. “This is a step back.”
VanDerveer’s criticism overlooks one of her own players, player of the year candidate Haley Jones, who chooses not to play up her sex appeal. Instead, Jones’s endorsement deals with Nike, Beats by Dre, SoFi, and others, rely on her social media presence where she highlights her life as a student-athlete without being overtly provocative. But not every female athlete makes the same choice or has the same opportunities.
Ultimately, it may be too early to decide that NILs will put both female and male athletes on an equal playing field, as many observers expect the market to recede once sponsors assess the return on their investment. But, until then, how a female athlete portrays herself is still the choice of that athlete. And, for now, thanks to NIL deals, female student-athletes now have income opportunities comparable to male athletes, and the power to choose what they want to endorse and how they want to be viewed as they endorse it.