When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2021 that college athletes had a right to profit from their image, it whipped athletes, brands, and donors into a frenzy akin to the California Gold Rush.
One day after student-athletes legally could earn from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), brands sent at least 1,000 deals on Opendorse, a tech company that connects athletes with brands via its online marketplace. Since then, the rules about who participates in NIL deals have been far from hard and fast.
Brands far and wide have sponsored athletes. Those include heavy hitters already entrenched in sports marketing like Nike and Gatorade as well as more niche team-ups like Kool-Aid sponsoring a 'Kool-Aid'-nicknamed player or delivery app GoPuff partnering with an offensive lineman to promote berry-scented candles. Meanwhile, student-athletes across a bevy of sports and from schools big and small have garnered payments for their notability.
It wasn't always like this. Some big-ticket college sports, primarily football and basketball, have been money earners for years. As an example of the industry's economic power, the primary governing body of college sports in the U.S., the National Collegiate Athletic Association, collected $1.12 billion in revenue in 2019.
However, long forced into the "amateur" designation, student-athletes couldn't legally profit, and many of the dollars generated by college sports went to coaches and school administrators instead. Now, those athletes can tap into the free-for-all of NIL deals and, finally, pan for their share of the gold.
And what a gold nugget they found. Brands spent $917 million on student-athletes in the first year of NIL deals, according to an estimate by Opendorse. Another athlete marketplace, INFLCR, calculated in its end-of-year report that athletes pulled in $1,815 per transaction during the 2021-22 school year. It's hard to argue that NIL deals have been anything but lucrative for student-athletes.
To get a better sense of this latest wrinkle in college sports, Stacker compiled a list of 20 college sports that collect the most money through NIL deals, as calculated in a 2022 report by Opendorse. This data set also includes the share of NIL activities—such as social media posts or autograph signings—each sport makes up.
We'll first examine the various activities that make student-athletes the most money. Then we'll highlight notable NIL deals and tales across the 20 most profitable college sports for athletes. Keep reading to dig into what makes this up-and-coming industry tick.
You may also like: 25 athletes who came out of retirement