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Getting Paid: The Truth Behind College NIL Deals

By Jaylen Williams and Manny Aponte

Since the creation and acceptance of Name, Image, and Likeness deals (NILs) in 2021, a billion-dollar market has emerged; whose growth has been as explosive as the players signing these deals. NILs allow NCAA athletes to profit whenever their name, image, or likeness is used. Such endeavors can include monetizing social media accounts, signing autographs, teaching camps, starting businesses, or appearing in ad campaigns. In some cases, these student–athletes are making significant amounts of money.


Most of the funds these athletes receive come from large donors and brand deals from companies of all sizes. Currently, the highest-paid college-athlete in the NIL market is University of Southern California basketball player, Bronny James.  He has reportedly earned approximately $5.9 million from partnerships with Nike, Beats by Dre, and PSD Underwear. With these collaborations, James is learning how to market himself as a top student–athlete.


Many have debated the wisdom of giving college students large quantities of money. Just a few years ago, players who left college early in hopes of turning professional were criticized.  At that time, several coaches, commentators, and fans believed that a free education was fair payment for college-athletes. The advent of NILs has disrupted that mentality. For the first time, student-athletes are able to use their athletic ability to build a financial future, without dependency on playing professional sports. Players like Blake Corum, a former running back for the Michigan Wolverines, used his significant NIL profits to build a sizable real estate investment portfolio while still in college.

However, even players within popular programs (like the 2022–2023 South Carolina women's basketball team) do not earn as much as one might think. Although each player on a team receives approximately $25,000 from the NIL deal (established by the Gamecocks’ NIL collective, the Garnet Trust, and NOCAP Sports), the average NIL transaction ranges from just $1,500 to 1,800 for NCAA Divisions I–III ; and the combined average annual compensation is only $3,438 per athlete. In fact, most college-athletes simply receive free food and gear from their NILs.

On the other hand, these numbers seem paltry compared with certain deals announced by schools like the University of Oregon. In 2022 alone, the school inked NIL deals valued at more than $2 million for its football team. Similarly, the University of Utah gave every scholarship athlete on its football team a 2024 Ram 1500 Big Horn pickup truck with a Night Edition package, valued at more than $50,000. 

Because NIL deals are considered taxable income (and student-athletes are not considered employees), recipients may need to pay self-employment taxes, and make quarterly estimated tax payments for the money they receive.  “These financial implications only underscore the need for high school and college athletes to learn about financial decision making, money and investing,” said Dion Woods, co-founder of the DIME Program- a 501c(3) dedicated to giving high school students the tools and knowledge to build wealth.


NIL deals involve certain contractual obligations. When offered large amounts of money, student–athletes can be fooled into signing deals that either limit their future earning potential, or create conflicts with NCAA, school, and/or state laws. As with many college scholarship scams, some athletes are asked to pay fees to help them land good NIL deals. Beyond this, there may be steep financial penalties for athletes who wish to terminate NIL contracts early.

The future of NILs is still being written, but as long as the public’s appetite for collegiate competition remains high, there will always be money made, lost, and wasted. In some cases, the stakes are not high: a few thousand dollars or free chicken wings for a full semester. However, with the growing number of college-athletes earning significant income, the stakes will certainly get higher but the truth behind how players are financially impacted may continue to eludes us all.

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