High School ‘Unicorns’ Chase NIL Money as Coaches, Agents Eye Limits

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As college players nationwide begin to reap the benefits of profiting off their name, image and likeness, topnotch high school players are following close behind.

In the past two weeks two of the nation’s most recognizable high schoolers have taken steps to begin making NIL cash. The first is 6’2″ shooting guard Mikey Williams, the No. 7-ranked player in ESPN’s class of 2023. Williams signed with Excel Sports Management in hopes of securing millions before the San Diego native even touches an NBA floor.

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Meanwhile, Quinn Ewers, a high school quarterback ranked No. 2 in the class of 2022, decided to leave Texas’ famed Southlake Carroll High School early and enroll at Ohio State in order to profit off his name as well.

“Over the past few weeks, following Texas’ UIL informing me I would be prohibited from profiting off my name, image and likeness,” Ewers said in a statement on Twitter, “I’ve taken the time to think about what lies ahead of me, both in the short- and long-term. However following conversations with my family and those I know have my best interests in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for me to enroll at Ohio State and begin my career as a Buckeye. This is not just a financial decision; this is about what is best for my football career.”

What both Williams and Ewers have in common is stellar play in their respective sports and a significant following on social media. Maxx Lepselter, the president of Maxx MGMT, a marketing, media and brand management company, believes those are the most important factors for high school players seeking to cash in on NIL.

“For a high school player, the film has to speak for itself,” said Lepselter, whose clients include Chiefs’ wideout Tyreek Hill, Broncos’ safety Justin Simmons and Sacramento Kings’ guard De’Aaron Fox. “High school athletes have more to gain from the small, regional level. A lot of the opportunities that they will generate will come from brands that are connected to their sport.”

As the NIL world continues to open, high school coaches are having to adjust, too. “I think that it’s OK to try to benefit from the greatness that they have developed,” said Ted Ginn Sr., head football coach at Glenville High School in Cleveland, a powerhouse whose alumni include Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and Ginn’s son, Ted Jr., who just finished a 14-year NFL career. “But I think that we should put parameters in place because we are going to lose our kids chasing a dollar. We’re going to lose the part of developing them as young people.”

Ewers has yet to announce any imminent NIL deals, but the 17-year-old Williams’ representatives say he has deals on the horizon. “Everything’s on the table,” said Matt Davis, vice president at Excel Sport Management. “We’re talking beverage, trading cards, video games, a shoe at some point or merchandise, depending on which way we decide to go. The only brands that are off the table that are ones that require him to be 18-years-old and over.”

Williams’ massive following on social media make him a unicorn when it comes to high school NIL. The high-flying guard, who will play this year at a new school called Vertical Academy, has already amassed more than 3 million followers on Instagram and 50,000 followers on Twitter. On Instagram, Williams has more followers by himself than each of the six players ranked above him on ESPN’s 2023 class combined. He’s even surpassed former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick Cade Cunningham.

“I like to look at him as an anomaly,” Davis said. “You’ve got someone who is obviously talented on the basketball court but has also grown such a unique social following. There’s not many people out there like him, and for us as a firm, we wanted to make a big splash in the space.”

It remains to be seen if other high school athletes across the nation will try to profit off their name, image and likeness. NIL laws across different states vary, which can cause players to make moves like Ewers did. Or they may stay put, deciding to play all four years of high school and handle NIL money if the opportunity arises in college.

It’s created a new, uncharted market. “I think it is legitimately the wild west,” Lepselter said. “In reality, I think people are somewhat mistaken to think that the NIL space, for the most part, on the high school side is going to be extremely lucrative. I don’t think you’re going to see too many brands activating in the high school space.”