Big Sponsorships Grab Headlines, But Even Small NIL Deals Empower Student-Athletes

October 25, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, Renee Grutzik,

You’ve probably heard of some of the massive “name, image and likeness,” or “NIL,” deals making headlines across the nation. Those deals allow college student-athletes to cash in on their fame, sometimes with deals reported to be worth six or even seven figures for marquee names.

But at the University of Virginia, it’s the small endorsements going on behind the scenes – compensation for endorsements on social media, for example, or making personal appearances – that help most student-athletes. 

Take UVA volleyball setter Ashley Le’s deal with Avoli. In the summer, the third-year media studies major signed a deal with the apparel and footwear company that bills itself as the first and only athletic brand designed exclusively for female volleyball players. The company launched in July. 

The company reached out to Le through Opendorse, a digital platform dedicated to educating student-athletes about, and connecting them to, NIL deals. 

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After she inked the deal, Le, alongside Harper Murray of the University of Nebraska and Reilly Heinrich of the University of Texas, became the company’s first endorsements, and Avoli featured the three volleyball players in an ad campaign on the company’s website. 

“I would say this is the first real NIL deal I’ve had,” Le said. “I’ve had smaller ones … but this is one where I’m excited to represent and be the face of a brand.”

While Le’s deal with Avoli is not providing her a six-figure salary, the partnership marks a pivotal moment in her career. It allows her to gain real-world business experience, network with marketing professionals and turn a profit, all while juggling practices and classes. 

NIL opportunities allow student-athletes to capitalize on their personal brand, similar to a celebrity’s ability to be compensated from a brand deal with a company, but tailored specifically for student-athletes. Before, collegiate athletes were barred from accepting gifts or sponsorship money.

The idea of allowing student-athletes to accept sponsorships has been hotly debated, and litigated, for more than 20 years. It was in 2019 – four years after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the NCAA in a case in which former University of California, Los Angeles basketball player Ed O’Bannon contested the organization’s right to prevent athletes from profiting off their own names, images and likenesses – that the potential of NIL came to full fruition.

Ashley Le
Avoli, a footwear company designed exclusively for female volleyball players, connected with UVA setter Ashley Le through Opendorse, a platform that student-athletes with sponsorship opportunities. (Contributed photo)

That year, California enacted the Fair Pay to Play Act, establishing the first legislation allowing student-athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness, and other states quickly followed suit. By the summer of 2021, the Virginia lawmakers passed their own NIL legislation, giving intercollegiate students-athletes the opportunity to earn compensation.

As evidenced by former UVA basketball player Ben Vander Plas’ participation in Pringles’ “March Mustache Collection” ad campaign, some UVA athletes have signed with widely known companies. However, according to Lo Davis, executive director of Cav Futures, “Only the top 1% [of athletes] really make meaningful income or revenue from NIL.” 

Cav Futures is a not-for-profit organization that aims to support Virginia student-athletes with personal branding strategies and creates opportunities for career education and advancement.  

“Our goal is not only to help the top 1% of athletes, but also the other 99%,” Davis said. 

Through Cav Futures, Davis helps create short- and long-term opportunities for Virgina athletes to build their brand. 

As a former Virginia baseball player, Davis has a deep understanding of the student-athlete experience at the University. After graduating in 1991 with a degree in rhetoric and communications studies, Davis did marketing work for Herman Moore, a former Virginia football player who forged a successful NFL career. 

Lo Davis

Having been a UVA baseball player, 1991 alumnus Lo Davis did not have the opportunity to benefit from NIL in his student-athlete experience. Today, in his role as the executive director of Cav Futures, Davis assists athletes in securing brand sponsorships. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“After Herman retired, I could have gone anywhere, but I decided to come back to Charlottesville to start my own business,” he said. “I did that for about six or seven years, but my passion has always been sports and helping young people.” 

Davis worked for the Virginia Athletics Foundation for 12 years. But after NIL was approved in Virginia, Davis knew he wanted to be a part of that new opportunity.

In July, through a corporate sponsorship with Virginia Sports Properties, Cav Futures was named the official NIL collective of Virginia Athletics. The organization has worked with lacrosse player Ricky Miezan, women's soccer player Rebecca Jarrett and women’s basketball player Kymora Johnson, among many others. Cav Futures is working with Reece Beekman of the men’s basketball team to renew his second year of a partnership with local McDonald’s franchises. 

Cav Futures helped Camryn Taylor, a fifth-year forward on the women’s basketball team, get in touch with TAPS, an organization that supports military families who have dealt with the death of a loved one during service. Over the summer, Taylor worked with Cav Futures to expand her NIL portfolio by networking with marketing professionals and making connections with brands. 

“NIL has helped me get outside my comfort zone … and build on my communication and networking skills,” she said. “I want to go pro, so being able to network and present myself in a way that would make people want to work with me is important. 

“I’m always learning new things that come with branding and marketing yourself,” she added. “Right now, I’m trying to get my [social media] following up and engage more with the fan community.” 

Taylor Camryn
Through her collaboration with Cav Futures, women’s basketball player Camryn Taylor is seeking to strengthen her connection with the fan community through social media. (Photo by Virginia Athletics)

Although Cav Futures is a NIL resource, Virginia student-athletes are not obligated to use its services. Some work with other sports marketing agencies. And, as in Le’s case, some brands reach out to the student-athletes first. 

“[NIL] is a great opportunity for student-athletes, especially if you’re not on a scholarship, because it’s just another way to make some money,” Le said. “Having something outside of my college sport to be a part of, having another team to be on, is a great feeling.” 

Le, who is pursuing an entrepreneurship minor, said the exposure to marketing opened her eyes to what her future can offer. 

“I’ve been interested in marketing, but now, being a part of Avoli and talking to some alumni, PR is also something I’ve been really interested in recently,” Le said. “Just going to the Avoli shoot in the summer, I got to meet so many people in different aspects of marketing, stuff I didn’t even know about.

“I think it’s been a good door to lead into, just to see what is out there for me.” 

Whether athletes choose to use Cav Futures or another NIL platform, small NIL deals are shaping student-athletes’ lives and exposing them to all that branding has to offer. 

“Obviously, student-athletes want to play for some of the greatest coaches in the country and get a world-class education,” Davis said. “But not having a robust NIL program may give the athlete a reason to possibly look elsewhere.

“NIL is a small piece of it, not the full piece,” he added, “but it’s a part of why student-athletes choose to come to Virginia.” 

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications