By Mike Malloy for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska —Of all the things elite college volleyball players have to think about, now add this:
How much to charge for an autograph or a selfie.
Last week, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted unanimously to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Rules will be codified by January, 2021.
The immediate reaction, of course, focused on football and men’s basketball. Imagine what a Heisman Trophy candidate or hoops All-American could make? Volleyball players may not have that type of fame, but at certain schools — Nebraska in particular — the announcement could be a game changer.
The Cornhuskers have led the nation in attendance the past six years, averaging more than 8,000 fans a match. Lincoln (population 280,000) is big enough to offer numerous businesses-endorsement deals but small enough that the University of Nebraska is the only major athletic brand in town.
“I can tell you right now that we’ll have players that will get endorsement deals,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.
Would he use that in recruiting?
“Heck yeah,” Cook said without hesitation. “I’m going to be telling recruits they can come here and make money.”
Cook, correctly, noted that outside hitter Lexi Sun has more followers on Instagram (55,500) than Nebraska starting quarterback Adrian Martinez (35,400) and is certain that popularity would lead to a financial windfall. Sun, though, isn’t sure about the impact of the NCAA’s decision. She said Nebraska volleyball players already receive a lot of benefits other students do not.
“Coach told me before I got here that ‘You guys are going to be celebrities wherever you go.’ I didn’t believe him, but then I got here and it’s true,” Sun said.
Setter Nicklin Hames said players are treated “like queens” on campus, but still, she’s in favor of the decision to allow players to make money.
“It’s kind of hard to think ‘we should be getting more’ but at the same time, you think in the back of your head ‘what if I sold my jersey?’ ” Hames said.
Though their primary focus is on the court, players do talk about the issue, Hames said. She and her teammates routinely sign autographs for free, both after matches and around town, and it would he awkward, she admits, to do so for cash.
“To have those fans who support you no matter what, you don’t want to be like ‘give me 20 bucks,’ ” Hames said.
The NCAA has resisted for years efforts to pay college athletes, but its hand was likely forced when California passed a law in September that would allow college athletes to benefit from their name, image, and likeness beginning in 2023. Several other state legislatures began drafting their own bills, lest schools in their state be at a competitive disadvantage. In Congress, Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican, introduced similar legislation. The bill, which would strip away the NCAA’s tax-exempt status if it continues to forbid athletes from profiting from their name, likeness, and image, has bipartisan support.
“We clearly have the NCAA’s attention,” Walker said in a statement after the NCAA’s announcement. “Now, we need to have their action. While their words are promising, they have used words in the past to deny equity and basic constitutional rights for student-athletes.”
The NCAA currently allows athletes to receive scholarships that cover tuition, meals, housing, and classroom materials. It also recently allowed a stipend — set by the university, generally between $2,000 to $5,000 a year according to the Associated Press — for incidentals.
If it were up to Cook, the benefits list would stay as is.
Though he plans to use any liberalized rules to his advantage, Cook fears that players could focus more on making money and less on their team. Changes could also lead to division in the locker room, since star players would almost assuredly make more than backups.
“I’m old school. This is amateur sports,” Cook said. “They’re not professional athletes.”
Two former college athletes said that they’d have relished the chance to make extra money while they were in school. Jenny McDowell, who coached Emory University to the Division III national championship last season, played at Georgia in the late-1980s. She remembers a lot of hungry nights, and arduous trips back to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa.
“The cafeteria was not open on Sundays. Toward the end of the semester, you didn’t have money for food,” McDowell said. “I came from a lower-income family and I had to find rides home for 16 hours because I couldn’t afford to fly home. That was real then, and it’s real now.”
McDowell used to oppose athletes making money, but her mind has changed.
“When I look at the magnitude of the money, something has to change,” McDowell said.
A few coaches asked about this either declined to comment or said their respective universities told them not to.
Matt Ginipro, the 13th-year coach at Appalachian State of the Sun Belt Conference, called the move “a step in the right direction. “
“To put it in perspective, we were dinged for an NCAA violation a bunch of years ago because one of my player’s pictures was used on a fraternity’s flyer for a charity event. Since it was raising money, a student-athlete’s name, image or likeness wasn’t permissible.
That’s just silly,” Ginipro said.
“Student athletes are permitted to get jobs, but they can’t be brand ambassadors on their own social media — a job market that is growing a ton lately — because of current NCAA rules. Why can they drop fry baskets at McDonalds for minimum wage, but can’t get other jobs because of their own name, image and likeness?
”That’s just silly.”
Ginipro, too, recognized that there are plenty of “Pandora’s Box scenarios,” especially in football and men’s basketball, but added, “let’s stop restricting the kinds of jobs these kids can get when a lot of them need that money to make ends meet.”
Mike Anderson, who played linebacker at Nebraska from 1989-1993, recalled many of the same hardships as McDowell. Back then, players weren’t even allowed to hold off-campus jobs.
“That would have been a dream (to make extra money). Back then, the scholarship money was just enough to survive,” Anderson said.
Despite that, he’s opposed to paying players in any form, and fears that doing so could “ruin college athletics.”
The competition for the largest volleyball fan base isn’t close. In 2017, Hawai’i was second in attendance at 6,395 a match — nearly 2,000 less than Nebraska. Texas was fifth that season at 3,607. Numbers in lower divisions are even starker. Since the NCAA began tracking attendance figures in 1998, the highest average number drawn by a Division II school was Nebraska-Kearney’s 1,851 in 2005, and no Division III school has ever posted an attendance figure greater than 1,000.
“There’s going to be a small percentage of athletes that can make money,” McDowell said. “At the Division III level, I highly doubt that.”
McDowell added Nebraska is perfectly positioned to benefit from any rule changes.
“Places like Auburn, Alabama, or Athens, Georgia, or Lincoln, Nebraska — those are the places where people would recognize those athletes, as opposed to Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago,” she said.
How many endorsement opportunities Lincoln could offer is anyone’s guess, but it seems Best of Big Red memorabilia shop is a sure yes. Manager Joey Rupp said “we’d be crazy” not to work with current players if allowed. Her store currently has a John Cook-signed volleyball (it’s yours for $79) but doesn’t have any former volleyball players’ signatures.
“The minute they’re done with school, they’re off and gone, and it’s hard to get them back. To get them while they’re current would help us,” Rupp said.
Rupp said that it would have been a financial bonanza if Mikaela Foecke, Sarah Pavan, Jordan Larson, or any other former Nebraska volleyball great had the opportunity to make money from their signatures.
“We have a big volleyball following, especially the younger generation. Girls growing up follow these players and want to be like them,” she said.
Ron Romero, owner of Schaffer’s appliance and furniture store, hasn’t used endorsers in past marketing campaigns, but that could change.
“It opens up some possibilities. We’d look at it,” Romero said.
Anderson, the former Nebraska football player, said any rule change wouldn’t affect Anderson Ford — the car dealership he purchased from his father in 2008. He doesn’t believe in using endorsers.
“If they do something that isn’t in-line with your values, then you put yourself in a bad spot,” Anderson said.
Though he won’t be participating, Anderson is sure many businesses in Lincoln will.
“Our volleyball team would probably benefit as much as the football team,” he said.
So how could a college athlete make if the rules were changed? It’s impossible to say what the going rate is when the going rate hasn’t been set, but AJ Maestas of Navigate Research — a Chicago-based firm that counsels companies on how to make effective marketing investments — said that college players could make a decent living.
Endorsement opportunities in professional sports are limited to a precious few. An NFL roster may have two or three players making $1 million in endorsements while the rest, “might get some free shoes or a furniture discount when they move into their house,” Maestas said.
And it would be so in college sports as well. Someone like Lexi Sun, who leads Nebraska with 3.6 kills per set, could make $10,000 to $20,000 a year just from her sizeable social media following. And if Sun knew that the number of followers translated into bigger dollars, she could work to expand her social media following and command even more, Maestas said.
But that’s just social media. Bigger paychecks come from traditional endorsements. An in-store appearance, where a player would sign autographs for a few hours, could fetch $500 to $2,000, Maestas said.
Popular players at a school like Nebraska might benefit from a business owner who might overpay for an endorsement deal to help the team.
“I bet there are several dozen small businesses that could afford a $100,000 to $200,000 investment into a marketing campaign like that,” Maestas said. “They may not be rational business decisions that we would recommend to our clients, but for a super fan you throw that logic out the window.”
Maestas added that the time to cash-in is while a player is still in college and enjoying the relative stardom being a starter on a team affords. Their earning potential drops significantly after they leave the team.