Rayquan Smith, a running back at Virginia State University who has landed 88 brand deals, fancies himself as the “King of NIL.”
That’s “name, image, likeness” — a set of rules allowing athletes to sign endorsement deals and earn money while in college. The National College Athletic Association enacted the policy in 2021, a major step forward for college athletes who previously weren’t paid for their labor.
Smith initially felt a bit flat-footed when it came to landing NIL deals. At the time of the policy change, he played football at Norfolk State University, an HBCU in Virginia. He said staff at the university were not much help — Norfolk State lacked programs to assist athletes in understanding and managing NIL opportunities.
“I saw other people posting on social media from Power 5 schools, and they were getting one deal for almost $100,000 to $500,000. And I knew that money like that would not come to someone like me because I go to an HBCU, and nobody knows it, and nobody knows me,” Smith, now a first-year graduate student, said.
That experience isn’t unique to Smith. As the landscape of NIL has evolved, athletic departments and athletes have had to race to keep up, and make the most of the influx of funds. And there are just a few collectives — organizations that funnel donor money to athletes — associated with historically Black colleges.
NIL deals bring major earning potential to athletes who can navigate the new system: More than $900 million was reportedly spent in the first year of NIL deals. Bryce Young, a former quarterback at the University of Alabama who now plays for the Carolina Panthers, landed deals nearing $1 million, the Athletic reported in 2021.
Smith took proactive steps to get his name out there. In a single night, he contacted more than 100 companies via email, seeking potential NIL deals. Despite his efforts, Smith initially received only two yes responses, both of which involved unpaid brand promotions. He still tried to make the most of it.
“The first couple of deals, I asked for free products to build my portfolio up to get where I am now. I started slow, and didn’t ask for money,” he said.
Smith now exclusively accepts paid partnership offers, with the exception being those deals with big-name brands such as Under Armour, which have a greater “return on investment” and can allow him to benefit from the brand’s large audience, he said. Smith has recently landed deals with brands including Coach and CVS. He has also signed an agent.
Collectives are structurally independent of a school, but fund NIL opportunities for their school’s student-athletes. Their revenue comes from various sources, including boosters, businesses, and fans, and the collective then sends those donations to the student-athletes.
Some collectives can allocate significant sums of money to their collegiate athletics, which creates some inequity in the oft-evolving system, said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and associate clinical professor at Arizona State University.
“The big institutions have devoted a lot of resources to this. It has created a new industry, which for them, it’s like ‘Great, we have a new place to spend money,’” she said.
That isn’t necessarily the case at HBCUs, where athletes have to work harder to land deals.
“The PWIs [predominately white institutions] will get more opportunities than the HBCUs. They look at PWI schools more and get more exposure than HBCUs. We don’t get as much exposure as I think we should,” Smith said. “Hopefully, it is changing, and eventually, we can start getting more exposure to get more NIL deals.”
While efforts are being made to examine NIL disparities, the existing data is somewhat limited. Currently, most of the available data primarily addresses gender-based disparities, said John Holden, an associate professor of sports management at Oklahoma State University. Unfortunately, one significant gap remains in this conversation — the absence of a centralized tracking system for HBCU athletes’ NIL collective revenue.
Jackson said the difference in resources is tied to a pattern that stretches back decades. Universities in the Power Five conferences — the highest level of college athletics in the country — have many more resources than any HBCU program.
Those programs have a history of attracting players who might have otherwise picked an HBCU in decades past, and they enjoy an advantage because of the litany of opportunities they can provide, be it tied to an athlete’s sport or, more broadly, in the campus community.
“Of course, there will be a massive disparity because the top PWIs have picked apart the top HBCU football programs generations ago. We do not have any HBCUs in the Power Five, and the Power Five is a league apart. The revenues that come in and the donors who are investing in sport at that level are just a different world from the other levels,” Jackson said.
She added that by not placing HBCUs at the top levels of major college athletics, administrators have effectively relegated them to a lower level of football and men’s basketball, which are the main revenue-producing sports. Jackson credits this issue as chief among those that have put Black colleges at a disadvantage.
“The idea that anything going to athletes is suddenly the thing that brings all sorts of inequities to college sports is really disingenuous,” she said.
Jackson highlighted the implications of a free-market system that disproportionately favors certain athletes over others.
“What happens is certain bodies are privileged over others. Certain personalities are privileged over others because it’s a free market,” Jackson said. “A lot of policies within a school environment that have protections around gender equity, and racial equity, don’t exist in a free market.”
Holden, the associate professor at Oklahoma State, said the biggest factor in NIL deals is media coverage, which drives what teams brands see as valuable.
“When you have Alabama or Clemson playing on ABC Sunday night during the year, those players are given exposure that players at an HBCU generally will not have because of the lack of media coverage,” he said.
One other major factor in acquiring NIL deals is maintaining a strong social media presence and knowing how to market yourself, Holden said.
That has been true for Smith, too. Consistently posting across various platforms is critical, Smith said — and he passes that advice on to his teammates. “If this is what you want to do, then do it. Don’t say you want to do something, then when it gets to that time you don’t want to do it,” he said.
Currently, Smith hopes to establish a team shop, offering athletes from every sport the opportunity to sell their customized apparel to fans, including items such as sweaters, hoodies, and sweatpants. His goal is to establish a place where his teammates and other peers can benefit from the use of their image.
Looking ahead, Smith is determined to make a lasting impact. To further his mission, he founded SponsorPro, an innovative NIL marketplace. The platform is dedicated to empowering HBCU athletes, along with collegiate athletes, to realize their full potential for NIL earnings. SponsorPro acts as a bridge, connecting athletes with businesses interested in collaborations, and offers vital insights on navigating the NIL landscape.
“It’s a big opportunity once HBCU athletes start learning that you can start making money off of your NIL,” he said. “And once they learn how to do it, it will be a much bigger deal. I am trying to be the person to help them get to that next level.”