How do Gophers athletes view NIL? We asked them

The NIL revolution | A Star Tribune series examining how the name, image and likeness era is transforming college sports:

. . .

She's seeing her name on the leaderboard more often. Her putts are falling and her scores are dropping. Her improving game is a boost for the Gophers women's golf team, and yet, those birdies are not the only thing propelling Emma Carpenter into the spotlight. She's a rising star because of NIL.

While the senior plays her final rounds for the Gophers this spring, Carpenter gets closer to achieving her goal of becoming a professional play-by-play broadcaster. Thanks to name, image and likeness (NIL), the all-encompassing phrase referring to relatively new policies enabling athletes to accept sponsorship deals, it's likely you'll hear Carpenter's name soon, if you haven't already.

"NIL has completely changed my life," Carpenter said. "Not at all from a monetary standpoint, but more that it gave me the opportunity to grow my platform and build my personal brand, and continue to put my voice in sports out there."

Brand is the buzzword in the NIL era. Each athlete is now their own profitable entity, using their platforms that have helped the NCAA generate over a billion dollars annually for its schools and conferences. And while million- and billion-dollar deals now power modern college sports, the Gophers athletes who shared their NIL experiences with the Star Tribune for this story said NIL has impacted their personal missions and careers more than their bank accounts. But, as is the case for most college students, cashing paychecks does help.

Senior basketball player Parker Fox recently opened his first Roth IRA account. Sophomore basketball star Mara Braun and junior linebacker Cody Lindenberg are big savers and put aside a good chunk of their NIL income. Volleyball sophomore Mckenna Wucherer is saving up to purchase a car this summer. And senior gymnast Mya Hooten got to add a few stops when her education recently took her overseas.

"I studied abroad, and then we traveled — the NIL money helped with that," Hooten said. "We traveled to London and Santorini. [The money] helped, but I try to save my money. I love shopping, so I spend some money on some new shoes or some outfits, but I try to save as much as I can."

Gophers athletes have agreed to about 300 NIL deals worth at least several hundred thousand dollars since the start of the 2022-23 school year. The exact amount is unknown, as compensation in many NIL deals is rate-based on actions such as number of sales or social media impressions. Several athletes, for instance, earn 4% of each sale of a clothing item featuring their name, image or likeness. Others make 40% commission or more.

Student-athletes disclose their deals to athletic departments, which organize the data and share it with the NCAA. Athletes earning money from NIL deals are considered self-employed and taxed accordingly.

Minnesota's reported NIL data, acquired by the Star Tribune, shows that between August 2022 and January of this year, Gophers athletes agreed to 272 NIL deals. Football players secured more deals (59 total) than any other sport, yet 61% of Gophers NIL agreements went to ­women.

NIL deals come together most frequently via a collective, a middle entity between athletes and those looking to contribute. Dinkytown Athletes, the official collective of the University of Minnesota, finds deals for its athletes that are usually in the form of a live appearance or a social media post. Appearances can consist of autograph signings, meet and greets, or attending community events.

In social media deals, a company might ask the athlete to make a post using their product or supporting their business. Of the 272 recent Gophers NIL deals, social media-related endorsements accounted for 57% of those agreements.

Companies seek athletes with strong followings across social media so their products reach more people. "Followers play a big deal in what brands you get because they want you to have a big audience," Hooten said. "It's important to get those followers up."

Athletes can grow this following through partnered posts with their teams and companies, frequent interactions with followers or by having a uniform direction of their posts. For example, when you follow Carpenter on Instagram, you become one of nearly 75,000 people following along with her journey as she goes from collegiate athlete to achieving her broadcasting dreams. Over the last few months, Carpenter has posted photos of her hosting a Q&A session with Vikings tight end TJ Hockenson, interviewing famous golfers for 5 Clubs Golf media and announcing games for Big Ten Plus and ESPN — all doors that opened because of NIL.

"My whole career with working through social media and then also trying to be a traditional broadcaster, those things have really piggybacked off each other. I know that I wouldn't have gotten some of the opportunities that I have if I didn't have a little bit of an online presence," Carpenter said. "Now as a journalist and as a broadcaster, having an online presence is a huge piece of it. It advanced my career so much more quickly than it would have otherwise."

Carpenter isn't alone in career building with NIL. Although she isn't one of the 222 Gopher athletes who have been a part of Dinkytown Athletes, the collective has connections with major companies in the Twin Cities, including six Fortune 500 corporations, and has helped set up athletes with opportunities that could pay off after graduation.

Fox acknowledges that the basketball is going to stop rolling one day, making opportunities he gets through NIL and Dinkytown Athletes to network and interact with the community even more important.

"I want to keep playing basketball for as long as my body can and as long as I can hang on to it," Fox said. "But I think eventually, I want to stay in the sports world, and gaining those connections through social media that are building up who I am as a person has been vital."

NIL, more than money

Making these connections is also meaningful for athletes who strive to make a difference in their community.

Braun, a Wayzata High alum, has built her audience of more than 35,000 basketball fans and followers across Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) through a variety of ways, including playing for the Gophers, USA Basketball 3x3 and NIL sponsorships. Her agreements include a deal with electronics giant JBL, as well as Minnesota-based companies like KLN Family Brands.

Given her reach, Braun can also use her platform to support and raise awareness for causes that are important to her, such as the Special Olympics. Braun, whose uncle had severe disabilities, has worked with Special Olympics Minnesota since high school. She's seen the growth of NIL — and her own brand — as an opportunity to stand for something that matters deeply to her.

"For me, I want to represent myself as a person bigger than basketball," Braun said. "Being able to represent them and stand for things bigger than myself was what's really important to me, and I think [the NIL topic] can get lost in the money, but for me, it's bigger than that."

Lindenberg has used NIL to make connections with people who can help him in his goal of making the NFL. However, he's also utilized his platform in philanthropy. Lindenberg works with St. Jude's and the Dylan Witschen Foundation, an organization named after a former football player at Lindenberg's high school in Anoka who passed away from brain cancer in 2010. In addition to supporting fundraisers in his hometown, Lindenberg donates 100% of the proceeds he earns from his personal merchandise to the Dylan Witschen Foundation to fund finding a cure for cancer.

By next season, Lindenberg aims to donate money to the foundation for every tackle he makes and have that matched by a company he's affiliated with.

"To me, it's just another way to amplify my platform and what I believe in," Lindenberg said, adding "that is what I really think the NIL space is for."

While NIL has completely transformed college athletics, the income involved for a large majority of Gophers athletes isn't life-changing. It's the opportunities that have come in the first three years of NIL that are making a difference in Minnesota.

"It brings new opportunities and opens doors for us athletes," Hooten said. "I'm a senior and I've never had these experiences before."

. . .

The NIL revolution: Please read previous installments of this series at