As the University of Cincinnati enters the Big 12, top student athletes hope to cash in
It's been almost two years since the NCAA allowed college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, otherwise known as NIL. Previously, student athletes faced harsh consequences if they were found accepting money or gifts during their time in school. Now, the new rules around NIL have given them the green light to pursue business deals and even start brands of their own.
NIL has completely changed the landscape of college sports nationwide, especially at schools in major athletic conferences where lucrative deals for collegiate athletes have become the norm.
The University of Cincinnati will enter one of the biggest stages in sports when it joins the Big 12 Conference in a few weeks. The move could mean big things for UC's athletes who have been making the most of NIL since the beginning.
Dontay Corleone is a defensive lineman on UC's football team. He's one of the best players in the country at his position and was named a Walter Camp Preseason All-American earlier this year. His excellent play on the field last season has gotten him plenty of attention, and he's been working to turn that popularity into a profitable endeavor.
Earlier this year, Corleone and other UC student athletes entered into a partnership with the Cincinnati-based company Medpace. The deal involved the athletes making social media posts promoting the company, wearing clothing with the Medpace logo, and making appearances at the company's headquarters.
Unlike athletes before him, Corleone is able to make money from these deals and live comfortably while he's playing for the Bearcats. He could be heading to the NFL within the next few years, but in the meantime, the extra money makes getting through college a lot easier.
"I basically can get anything that I want without having to worry about next week or anything like that," Corleone said. "I'm just in a good spot."
Corleone says things in the NIL world have been running smoothly for him and he hasn't been a part of any partnerships he wasn't satisfied with. But NIL is still new territory for universities and student-athletes alike. That's why UC's Athletic Department brought in Greg Harrell from Altius Sports Partners, a NIL advisory firm, to help educate athletes on the business side of things.
As general manager of NIL at UC, Harrell assists athletes to develop strategies and helps them identify companies they may be able to work with.
"Some athletes come into my office every single week. Others come in bi-weekly or monthly, but it's really like a one-on-one counselor experience like you would get in other areas of campus where they're just seeking support and getting experience in business development, marketing and sales," Harrell says.
Corleone meets with Harrell weekly to discuss ways to shape his personal brand. The big defensive lineman has built a persona based around his name Dontay — or Don Corleone for short.
"Some fan just nicknamed me 'The Godfather' and I just took it. So whenever I post something, under the comments they always put 'The Godfather' and I just ran with it," Corleone said.
He hopes to use that name to his advantage in his next pursuit: the restaurant business.
"I'd like to do a NIL with like, Dewey's Pizza or Skyline," Corleone said. "I love my Skyline."
Deals don't always equal cash
The impact of name, image and likeness is far-reaching. Athletes in other sports that typically don't get the same attention as football are able to carve out their own business models as well.
Camryn Callaghan is a UC women's lacrosse player. She's only a freshman, but has already established herself as a dominant college athlete, leading the team in scoring this past season and securing an invite to try out for the USA women's lacrosse U20 national team.
In just her first year on campus, Callaghan signed a deal with a smoothie shop near UC to create TikToks promoting the company.
"In return, it's like a gift card for the whole month or free smoothies all month, so I was able to get some smoothies for my coaches and my teammates, so that's been fun because I can share it with everyone around me," Callaghan said.
While this kind of exchange isn't typically what comes to mind when people talk about NIL, Harrell says deals for many athletes don't always involve money.
"Previously, before NIL, an athlete couldn't accept a free meal," Harrell told WVXU. "Now you can go into a local restaurant here in Clifton, you can accept it in exchange for a social media post or something. So, NIL doesn't have to be cash."
Both Corleone and Callaghan say their NIL agreements mostly involve posting on social media, which allows them to promote brands without taking too much time out of their busy schedules.
The importance of social media in NIL has created new avenues, especially for women, Callaghan says. In her experience, women in college sports are better at leveraging social media than men.
"I definitely see more females on TikTok creating good content. I know the males are working on it," she said. "I have a couple friends from the track team that I could give some lessons to about TikTok."
Still, according to a study from the NIL technology company Opendorse, most NIL deals are going to male athletes, highlighting the long-running gender inequality in sports.
In an attempt to close that gap, UC Athletics held its first-ever "In Her Likeness" event in the spring to discuss how female student athletes can develop their own brands and navigate the NIL space.
While progress could take a long time, athletes like Callaghan are excited about where NIL could go at UC, especially when they start competing in the Big 12.
While it's hard to know for sure how changing conferences will affect students' NIL deals, Harrell says a bigger platform means a bigger audience.
"You could be playing games in different parts of the country that you weren't before and maybe the connection to the University of Cincinnati has a higher level of interest from a brand standpoint," Harrell said. "It will certainly make a huge impact on NIL at UC."
The University of Cincinnati will officially join the Big 12 Conference July 1.