It is no secret that current and former college athletes off the field, ice, court, etc. take part in brand endorsements (e.g., meet and greets and autograph signings), but those opportunities are not how or what they were before.
For years, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) had rules that prohibited their athletes from making money for their image while running the risk of eligibility disputes. That all changed on July 1, 2021 when the idea of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) were put into effect and college student-athletes began “to promote, partner, or represent brands” in regards to the rules of NIL everywhere.
As the NIL era hits its third year anniversary mark in five weeks, the world of athlete compensation has transformed due to the increased awareness that athletes spend reaping the rewards of their new profound personality.
Although NIL has been around the college world for nearly three years, its timeline started to be prevalent in conversations dating back to September 30, 2019. Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) and staff writer Dan Murphy highlights what the NIL timeline looks like for the entirety of the NIL process from 2019 to 2021.
With all this talk of NIL, some current and former student-athletes have made the decision to create an agency where they use their expertise to help other current athletes optimize their brand through NIL.
What is Limitless NIL?
Limitless NIL was created by Sean and Liam Clifford, a set of brothers who both are current and former student-athletes for Pennsylvania State University.
Hawkins, along with Trevor Robinson, the Director of Brand Relations and co-founder, were also a part of the initial founding group of Limitless. According to Hawkins, “We were all the ones who kind of molded this thing together but essentially it came from Sean's experiences with NIL as a student athlete. It came down to being prepared, reading up and studying up on where the rules were heading and understanding that NIL was coming down the pipeline.”
The Limitless NIL agency did not launch until about eight months after NIL had been legalized in part to Sean Clifford making the decision that there was a “better way to equip student athletes with the skills and the tools that they need to navigate NIL at the highest possible rate of success,” as stated by Hawkins.
The motto of Limitless NIL is “to be an agency that’s for athletes by athletes.” Its motto has stayed the same since signing their first student-athlete to now, with Limitless having nearly 60 athletes in and being over a year old.
Besides the motto, the vision or purpose as mentioned by Hawkins is “ We want to build an agency that equips student athletes with the keys to their own success. This is an athlete friendly group and the reason we started this was because we felt like student athletes needed to be educated and protected in this space that can be tough to navigate.”
During the creation of Limitless NIL, Hawkins claimed it was a team effort. Robinson’s role has been on the brand side of things, where he leads their market and orchestrates deals while Hawkins role is to recruit clientele. Sean and Liam Clifford have similar roles where they are essentially the visionary of shaping the direction the company goes. The team has experienced a few challenges including being able to pivot when the space of NIL rapidly evolves in early years.
Limitless NIL on NIL History
As I talked with Hawkins, I quickly learned what he believes is the true definition of NIL, “Name, Image, and Likeness is a newer rule that the NCAA created that allows for student-athletes to capitalize on essentially the brand of who they are. I think there are a lot of different caveats and different ways you can look at it from who a person actually is to who they are on social media, and the brand they build.”
Hawkins expresses that the history behind NIL had originally included conversations that were set up due to the idea of it being fair for the athletes and the other students at said universities.
“In terms of the history of NIL, for a long time there was discussion around whether or not it was acceptable for student-athletes to be getting paid off their NIL, especially in fairness to the other students at these universities. NIL has since evolved both from the student-athletes perspective but also on a business to business level. Everybody is kind of evolving and growing and learned how to navigate the space in the first two years and I still think we are just scratching the surface with the way NIL can really be,” Hawkins said.
Why NIL is Important
During my interview with Hawkins I asked him why being a part of an NIL agency and having NIL partnerships is important, “NIL means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. A lot of different student-athletes are experiencing it, but most importantly the reason it’s important to me is because it gets student-athletes to begin to see themselves as a business earlier in their careers.”
Agreeing with his statement, he mentions that NIL really represents an opportunity for student-athletes to really impact themselves, their families and the people’s lives within the communities they come from.
Brands have provided multiple opportunities for Limitless NIL and have allowed the student-athletes to work with brands that just make sense and align with their values and goals. More recently, Limitless NIL has started a partnership with PSUDylan on Instagram, a page that helps change the way PSU athletics are covered.
The process of becoming an athlete for Limitless NIL is not that hard, but the team remains selective in certain aspects of the prospecting and recruiting. They tend to look for student-athletes who would be interested in working with them and are proactive in NIL.
To end the interview with Hawkins, he told me his advice he would give to student-athletes looking to gain a role in NIL, whether that is with Limitless NIL or not.
He advises student-athletes to “really harp on finding out what your authentic content is going to look like because off of that authentic content is where you can really build the best brand.” He further states, “if your content is authentic you go further, people find you when you're being authentic. The right people find you, the right businesses find you and it’s easier to get to where you want to go when you're fully being yourself and fully living in that world. One of our best clients, Anna Camden, regardless of what brands approach her, regardless of any of the extra businesses that goes on in NIL, Anna has done a really good job of really staying true to herself and making that authentic content because of that she does a great job in NIL. I would encourage every student-athlete to follow a similar route because it’s a route we’ve seen work time and time again.”
Social Media’s Impact on NIL
Social media has played a big role in athletes becoming their own brand through their NIL opportunities of developing their own merchandise, promoting products, and event appearances. Popular brands and other small businesses have taken the time to reach out to popular athletes in a multitude of ways via Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube.
No matter the athletic performance or popularity on social media, it is important to remember that certain athletes, such as the quarterback or Heisman Trophy candidates, do not have an increased chance of finding NIL deals over lesser known athletes. Bigger universities versus the smaller ones are similar to the idea of NIL partnerships.
When thinking about what sport and its athletes would make the most money in NIL deals one would assume it'd be football as it has gained lots of traction due to player performance, championship game rule changes, transfer portal, etc. That was not the case as two female basketball players cashed in on NIL potential first.
Icon Source reported “$917 million in the first year of NIL” among college athletes estimated earnings. With that number comes the top highest paid athletes to reach popularity with their big-name players. Football and men’s basketball have seen 67% of all NIL compensation around the NCAA.
A Few of the Highest Paid Athletes
Bryce Young, former quarterback for Alabama, has earned $3.5 million in NIL revenue from multiple brand deals and partnerships. Although he is no longer a part of the Crimson Tide, he can still participate in brand deals and partnerships as an NFL player, something that other quarterbacks such as Justin Fields, Chicago Bears quarterback, has done in recent years.
Notable NIL deals for Young:
Dollar Shave Club
Dr. Pepper commercials
Courtyard Hotels by Marriott
Notable NIL deals for Dunne:
Leaf Trading Cards
Twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder, former basketball players from both California State University and University of Miami, have earned $1.6 million in NIL revenue through their up to date and popular brand deals and partnerships.
Notable NIL deals for the Cavinder Twins:
WWE (post-grad NIL deal)
Six Star Pro Nutrition
As universities carry on with adding more and more players to their athletic teams through signings, recruiting and transfers, the process for student-athletes to be involved and gain from NIL will become easier and proactive in a more dedicated way. For now, this “NIL For Dummies”: A Look Into Athlete Compensation is simply a basic overview of NIL and what it means for student-athletes as they continue to engage in it.
Edited by: Kaya Crawford