US Olympians in college wrapping arms around new financial opportunities granted by NIL

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Just over a week ago, the NCAA changed its rules so college athletes across the country could profit off their name, image and likeness. In just over two weeks, some of those athletes will compete for the United States in the Tokyo Olympics.

"Definitely the perfect storm,” said Brody Malone, a Stanford gymnast who won the men's all-around competition at the Olympic trials June 26 and last Friday signed a deal with EndlessRope, which makes a strength-training device.

Malone, who has two seasons of eligibility left, added: “Until about a week ago I wasn’t even thinking about all this stuff. I was going to have another two years before I ever had to worry about this stuff. It seems like it’s all happened so fast, but I’m super-grateful for it.”

Malone is among more than 40 U.S. Olympians across at least seven sports with remaining college eligibility who stand to benefit from the NCAA's new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules — none more than those on the women's gymnastics team. Four of the five athletes in that group other than veteran pro Simone Biles have said they plan to compete for college teams after the Tokyo Games. According to a statement to USA TODAY Sports this week from the NCAA, those gymnasts will remain eligible to do so even if they also appear in a post-Olympics exhibition tour that could pay each of them more than $100,000.

Brody Malone competes on the rings during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at The Dome at America's Center.
Brody Malone competes on the rings during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at The Dome at America's Center.

Jordan Chiles, who has committed to attend UCLA, already has released a line of merchandise, and other similar activities seem likely.

“In the world of gymnastics, there’s nothing higher than the Olympics,” said AJ Maestas, the CEO of Navigate, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in college and professional sports rights valuations. “And those athletes have massive social media followings. They’re also at the top level of their sport, so they’re the equivalent of being an NFL player.”

While the NIL rules change will benefit college-eligible Olympians, U.S. athletes have been able to profit off their performance since 2001, when the NCAA adopted a provision allowing those who win to keep the medal-prize money awarded through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. without consequence. The NCAA adopted a similar rule for international athletes in 2015.

U.S. Olympians will earn $37,500 for each gold medal in Tokyo, $22,500 for each silver and $15,000 for each bronze, according to the USOPC website. These amounts likely don’t fully reflect the take-home for medalists in some sports, as several national governing bodies fund additional performance bonuses under the USOPC program.

An exact number of college-eligible U.S. Olympians is difficult to determine due to extra eligibility that the NCAA is allowing in the wake of cancellations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in addition to gymnastics, U.S. teams in swimming, track and field, diving, rifle, women's water polo, and men's wrestling include college and/or high school athletes.

The track and field team includes Oregon's Cole Hocker, who won the men's 1,500 meters at the trials, upsetting 2016 Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz. The swimming and diving teams have a combined 28 college-eligible Olympians, including 11 high school students. Among those is Torri Huske, who is set to become a freshman at Stanford, and won the women's 100-meter butterfly at the trials with the third-fastest performance of all-time.

Cole Hocker, a rising junior at Oregon, will represent the U.S. in Tokyo in the 1,500 meters.
Cole Hocker, a rising junior at Oregon, will represent the U.S. in Tokyo in the 1,500 meters.

The most popular college-aged athletes competing in the Games could earn from $20,000 to $100,000 annually from social media posts, camps, commercials, and sponsorship deals, Maestas said. Even lesser-known Olympic athletes have earning potential between $1,000 and $10,000 per year because of their international presence. College athletes also now can be paid for appearances, autograph signing and coaching.

Tyler Downs, a 17-year-old Olympic diver and Purdue commit, has more than 32,000 followers on Instagram and 520,000 followers on TikTok. Ishveen Anand, founder and CEO of OpenSponsorship, a platform connecting brands to athletes, estimates that he could make $9,000 for a one-off social post, $13,500 for an appearance and $81,000 on a long-term deal.

That is only a baseline value and doesn’t account for a possible boost in following during and after the Games. According to Anand, Olympic exposure brings with it money-making opportunities. With NIL in place, not only can these athletes make money during the peak of their careers, but they can do so without giving up their college eligibility.

“Every four years, these athletes get huge exposure. Their social media profiles grow, their status grows, but then they’re not very current because they’re not competing all the time,” Anand said. “I think the beauty of it is that they can ride on their success, not just every four years.”

Hocker could do extremely well. He has at least two years of eligibility remaining, and he could leverage the Ducks' partnership with Nike to reap the benefits of sponsorship and endorsement without leaving school.

“I could see it happening. And they don’t want someone else to have him,” Sheryl Shade, an agent who represents Olympic athletes, told The Indianapolis Star.

Hocker hasn’t negotiated any deals yet, according to his father, Kyle.

"We don’t even have a base point,” Kyle Hocker said. “We’re talking about something that hasn’t been presented yet.”

Gymnast MyKayla Skinner, who said this past weekend she will give up her final season of eligibility for Utah, says she has taken down some photos on social media before because she didn’t want to run afoul of the NCAA.

“Not being able to take anything for your name has been kind of hard," Skinner said. "Just because, I feel like in college, you have so many big names that go out and represent the universities. It’s just really cool, I think, for athletes (to) be able to start taking stuff and making stuff for their names."

Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at The Dome at America's Center.
Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at The Dome at America's Center.

Chiles’ mother, Gina, understands how important NIL is, especially for athletes like her daughter who are often in their prime — and receiving offers — before they are out of high school. As a parent, Gina Chiles knows she would have supported her daughter, regardless of what decision she made. But she’s excited about the opportunities this will create for her daughter, without Jordan sacrificing her dreams of competing in college gymnastics.

“I want her to be able to have it all," said Gina Chiles. “That’s difficult, especially for gymnastics, choosing to go pro or go to college. This will allow them to feel more comfortable with their path, knowing that they can still get the education that they want, but also be able to benefit from all of the hard work that they’ve put in.”

Chiles made the Olympic team June 27, and her social media footprint has been increasing by the thousands. Based on her current Instagram following, Anand predicts that Chiles could make $4,000 off a social campaign, which is typically one Instagram post and one Instagram story. An appearance from Chiles could net her $6,000, and an integrated, long-term deal could be worth nearly $40,000. As her following grows, so do her rates.

Chiles already is booked to be part of the Gold Over America post-Olympic tour.

Even with the NCAA's rule changes, there is still a question about whether NIL opportunities as a collegian will be lucrative enough to compete with athletes’ potential earnings from going pro. Erriyon Knighton, a 17-year-old sprinter who broke Usain Bolt's under-18 world record for the 200 meters, and Athing Mu, a 19-year-old middle distance runner who won the women's 800 at the trials, are among U.S. Olympians who recently have decided to forego college eligibility and turn pro.

Sarah Wilhelmi, the USOPC's director of collegiate partnerships, says she thinks athletes and the NCAA are trying to evolve with the changing landscape of sports. But she also acknowledges that the same opportunities aren’t available for every athlete in every sport.

“There’s a line of demarcation of pro, it’s kind of a relative term,” Wilhelmi said. “You could be pro in field hockey and not make very much money in a given year. I think it is important to be cognizant of the sport-specific landscape and what you’re trading off.”

Sometimes the trade-offs are about more than just money. Swimmer Katie Ledecky won her five Olympic gold medals at a time when she had to choose between going to college and fully cashing in on her renown, which she could have started doing as a high schooler. She held off until she had competed at Stanford for two seasons.

“Katie had to make a really hard choice,” said Dan Levy, who represents her. “She chose to stay in school and go to Stanford and pursue her degree, but also compete for a national championship and swim with teammates, who are some of her very best friends now. But she had to leave a lot on the table and sacrifice a lot to do that. And now, these athletes won’t be asked to make that choice.”

Contributing: Nancy Armour, Christine Brennan, USA TODAY Sports; David Woods, The Indianapolis Star

Follow Alyssa Hertel on Twitter @AlyssaHertel

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: What could collegiate Olympians earn with new rules?