Western North Carolina college athletes navigate new world of endorsements

MAKING THEIR PITCH: Soccer players Ashley Macfarlane, left, and Anna Doane are among about 20-30 UNC Asheville athletes who have participated in NIL activities. Photos courtesy of UNCA Athletics

As a soccer player at UNC Asheville, Ashley Macfarlane has played in 26 games, logged 935 minutes and earned about $3,000 in cash and products.

The sophomore from Raleigh landed an endorsement deal with Adidas, made personal appearances at country music concerts and created social media posts promoting various national brands. “It’s changed my life for the better,” she says. “I’ve made some really amazing connections, and I get to grow online.”

Until 2021, it would have been inconceivable for an NCAA player like Macfarlane to get paid for endorsements and personal appearances. The organization’s long-standing rules on amateurism forbade athletes from profiting off their names, images or likenesses — commonly known as NIL.

But that changed when the NCAA, responding to new laws in several states, modified its rules to allow athletes to sign so-called NIL deals. The result has been a seismic shift in the college sports landscape, with some top athletes signing seven-figure contracts and companies paying out more than $900 million for endorsements in 2021-22, according to some estimates.

Many of the big NIL deals have gone to football and basketball players in the Southeast Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and other power conferences, but smaller Division 1 programs have felt the effects as well. Officials at UNCA and Western Carolina University estimate that a total of more than 150 athletes at the two schools have participated in NIL activities, which earn them money or merchandise.

“I would say 90% of that is [promoting brands] through social media posts, whether it be X, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat,” says Travis Chandler, WCU’s assistant athletics director for compliance.

Proponents of NIL say the emphasis on social media is particularly beneficial to female athletes, who often have large follower counts but receive significantly less traditional media coverage than male athletes.

Outside of social media, UNCA and WCU athletes have appeared in commercials and brochures promoting local businesses. About 100 WCU athletes sell branded T-shirts and hoodies through a company called Influxer. UNCA basketball star Drew Pember has hosted a camp at A.C. Reynolds High School and partnered with Bear’s Smokehouse Barbecue, which offers the Drew Pember Combo (choice of meat, tots, mac and cheese, and bacon crumbles, in case you are wondering).

Chandler and Erin Punter Spence, UNCA’s assistant athletics director for compliance, say helping athletes navigate the uncharted, sometimes confusing, NIL waters is a priority.

“We want [athletes] to take advantage of NIL,” Chandler says. “It’s not just for the starting running back and quarterback; it’s for everyone. But we also want to make sure they understand the implications associated with engaging in these activities and what could be the fallout.”

Making sense of NIL

North Carolina has not adopted a law regulating NIL, but Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order in 2021 spelling out some rules. Among other things, the order prohibits universities themselves from entering NIL contracts with students and forbids “direct inducement” deals.

“It can’t be, ‘If you come to our school, we’ll give you an NIL deal for this much money’ or ‘If you stay at our school and don’t transfer, we’ll find you an NIL deal for this amount of money,'” says UNCA’s Spence.

The order also allows universities to ban NIL deals for products — such as tobacco, alcohol or gambling apps — that “may negatively impact the image of the institution.” And they can regulate the use of team logos and other intellectual property in NIL endorsements.

Beyond such guidelines, though, school officials are limited in how much they can get involved with athletes’ NIL activities. Mostly, they try to provide guidance about the various rules and give athletes tools for connecting with potential partners.

WCU reviews companies that athletes are considering signing with to identify potential problems. For instance, Chandler says, the school might want to find out more about a nutritional product to make sure using it will not result in a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.

“If I do have questions about the product, we do some homework on our end to protect the student-athlete,” he explains. “We’re not going to tell them no unless it violates a policy because we don’t have the ability to do that. But if it does violate a policy, we will have that discussion with the student-athlete.”

MATCH MAKER: Western Carolina University tennis player Isabella Sambola says she has had fun using her social media platforms to promote products. Photo courtesy of Sambola

Not every athlete has found NIL easy to figure out. One WCU baseball player told Xpress he avoids NIL activities because of the complexity of the rules and regulations. And even some who have landed NIL deals, like WCU tennis player Isabella Sambola, admit the whole thing can be confusing.

“It’s hard to navigate alone when we have so much on our plate,” says Sambola, a sophomore from New Orleans. “We [athletes] have no problem taking on the responsibility, we can commit to it. It’s more of a question of how to get to that commitment.”

To help athletes in that regard, WCU and UNCA have deals with digital marketplace companies that connect them with brands. WCU works with Icon Source, while UNCA partners with Opendorse. In both cases, participating athletes create a profile that allows interested companies or individuals to reach out to them.

But athletes do not have to go through those companies.

“There are hundreds of marketplaces out there,” Chandler says. “And it doesn’t have to go through a marketplace. It could be a student-athlete reaching out to our local Bojangles and saying, ‘Hey, I want to work with you, let’s talk about it.’ So it’s really up to the student how they want to work on those things.”

Many deals, especially on the social media end, are for national products or brands. But UNCA’s Spence thinks NIL presents opportunities in Asheville and Cullowee as well. The Drew Pember Combo is just one example.

“If you wanted to have three people from the basketball team at your store to sign an autograph to try to bring people in, that’s something that could happen,” she says. “This is a way for local businesses to support the athletes and get the advantage of being associated with them.”

Finding deals

Athletes interviewed by Xpress say they have found deals in a variety of ways.

WCU tennis player Sambola initially got involved with NIL through Icon Source but found it difficult to use and didn’t find many opportunities. She now uses a marketplace called 98strong, which connected her with Bad Birdie, a sports apparel company. For $200, she created a TikTok video, an Instagram Reel, an Instagram main post and other social media content promoting the brand.

“I do my own videos, so I do have experience when it comes to being an influencer,” she says. “It is nice to make money while doing something that I find fun. Making content and social media is really a side thing I like that is relaxing for me after having a long day of practice.”

UNCA soccer player Anna Doane says she just recently started pursuing NIL deals because she doesn’t have much time left at UNCA.

“It’s just something extra you get to do as a student-athlete,” says Doane, a junior from Jackson, Mich. “You get to put yourself out there and you get to represent your school, represent yourself. I think it does show businesses how much hard work you’ve already put in, and you get something extra for that hard work.”

She landed one deal through Opendorse, but her biggest endorsement to date, for a post-workout recovery drink mix called Liquid I.V., came through another marketplace.

UNCA’s Macfarlane connected with Fluid Sports Nutrition, a different post-workout recovery drink mix brand, through Opendorse. But she has landed more than 20 other deals through different means. Among other things, she has made personal appearances at concerts by country music acts like Lainey Wilson and Old Dominion.

Promoting herself and the products she endorses has helped raise her social media profile and allowed her to connect with new people, she says.

“Most of my [followers] between Instagram and other various social media platforms [are] young girls looking to play at the collegiate level,” she says. “The best part of it is for me when I get the texts and DMs from young athletes looking up to you or coming to the games. It’s honestly amazing and makes all of it worthwhile.”


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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