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Last July, the NCAA made it permissible for college athletes to profit from their own personal brand — known as name, image and likeness, or NIL. The ruling sparked immediate conversation about whether high school athletes should be afforded the same right. A year later, a growing number of states have landed on the side of the entrepreneurial high school athlete.
NIL is a broad term that, in this case, means students can leverage their status as accomplished athletes to earn money. Compensation can come from product sales, endorsements with other brands, public appearances, training camps and more.
Opportunities are likely to be more scant for high school athletes than college athletes, mainly due to marketability. They’ll probably make less, on average, too. Student-athlete content platform INFLCR’s NIL Year 1 Report puts the average value of all transactions for college athletes at $1,815, and the median value of all transactions at $53.
Still, it's a rapidly evolving industry that can turn a teenage phenom with an interested and engaged following into an entrepreneur overnight.
Take the experience of Elliot Cadeau, a Swedish American top-ranked high school basketball player. When New Jersey began to allow high school athletes to monetize their NIL in January 2022, he had suitors, both inside and outside the U.S., ready to partner up.
While Cadeau’s success won’t translate to most student-athletes, NIL can be the lightning rod that draws kids to business and finance early. For young athletes and entrepreneurs paying attention, the following foundational lessons may apply.
Read the fine print
Rules, regulations and stipulations are a reality of any entrepreneurial industry. High school athletes seeking NIL deals need to be clear on what’s copacetic. Parents should also be well-versed in these rules.
“It’s important that they understand what’s authorized by the high school that their son or daughter attends, and understand the policies that apply there,” says Luke Fedlam, partner and chair of sports law at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, LLP in Columbus, Ohio.
One policy that’s clear across states that allow NIL: Paid activities cannot be affiliated with the student-athlete’s high school.
For rules that are less clear, Fedlam, who’s also a co-managing partner at NIL consulting and education company Advance, suggests finding a qualified, independent third-party resource to interpret rule books, contracts and related documents. An attorney is a good place to start.
Be honest and authentic
Quid pro quo between the student-athlete and the company they’re working for is a core tenet of these arrangements, says Fedlam.
It means the student has to make good on the service he or she has agreed to be paid for. If the contract states they’ll make five social media posts a month to promote a company’s line of sneakers, then they have to follow through. Otherwise, it’s money for nothing, and that’s not cool, or legal.
What Elliot endorses has to be a good fit, stresses his mom, Michelle Cadeau. One partner, Swedish company Barebells, makes nutrition bars. Rest assured he likes and eats the bars, she says, noting how important authenticity is in the brand deal business.
Formalize the business
For the Cadeau family, they’re in the business of Elliot. He’s the brand.
And when he became legally marketable, Michelle Cadeau says they formed a limited liability company, or LLC, opened a bank account and enlisted the services of a certified public accountant. That was a smart move since taxes aren’t withheld upfront for most independent contractors.
Seek trusted advice
High school athletes earning pay for NIL is new and untested. “It’s extremely important to have somebody guiding you,” says Michelle Cadeau. As a parent, she guides her son where she can so he can focus on what matters.
“I do all his financial stuff, so nothing comes to Elliot until he needs to make a decision,” she says.
They've also hired an agent to help them navigate the gray area of NIL deals and negotiate with potential partners.
Budget earnings (and learning) for later
While the majority of paid student-athletes won’t be working with a substantial windfall, a little spending discipline will benefit all young entrepreneurs.
Sure, teenagers with a wad of cash will want to have some fun with it. But those who learn how to budget, show restraint and put a portion of their earnings away will make the transition to adulthood smoother, especially if going pro doesn’t pan out.
Fedlam views NIL as a boon to youth financial literacy. “What gets me excited is that name, image and likeness is a conduit to deliver real-world, practical education to student-athletes at a younger age,” he says.
“When you talk about their opportunity to make money, they want to listen and engage.”