On the left side of Angel Reese’s neck, behind her ear, is a tattoo of the letter A and the number 10, in red cursive writing. The tattoo, which she got in June, represents her name and her longtime jersey number, which she currently wears on the University of Maryland women’s basketball team. Reese hopes that A10 branding and a logo she helped design will soon be on T-shirts, sweaters, and other merchandise that people can buy.
“I was always ‘A10’ in high school, and I was like, maybe this could be my brand,” she says. “I’m going to get it trademarked and everything so that nobody else can take it.”
Before July 1, the National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibited athletes such as Reese from profiting off their personal brand, regardless of what sport or in what division they played. But since the governing body adopted an interim policy across its three divisions allowing all incoming and current NCAA college athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL), athletes that once had to navigate the complex web of compliance rules that often prevented them from making money are pouncing on opportunities to profit off themselves and their associated brands. The interim policy—enacted after the Supreme Court decided on June 21, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, to uphold a lower court’s ruling that NCAA rules restricting “education-related benefits” violated antitrust laws—will remain in place until federal legislation or new NCAA rules are adopted. Meanwhile, colleges can adopt their own policies with additional restrictions, as long as they are consistent with the laws of the state where the school is located.
The portion of the Maryland legislature’s bill that relates to NIL stipulates that the state’s public colleges cannot prevent student athletes from earning compensation from the use of their own name, image, or likeness. The NIL policies in that bill do not go into effect until 2023. In Virginia, NIL language was recently stricken from a spending bill, while D.C. has not introduced an NIL bill.
“With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement released with the interim policy announcement. “The current environment—both legal and legislative—prevents us from providing a more permanent solution and the level of detail student-athletes deserve.”
For many college athletes, including those who play in or hail from the D.C. area, the rule change was long overdue. Reese, ranked the No. 2 women’s basketball player in the class of 2020 by ESPN, says brands have been reaching out to her since high school. She would usually receive the promotional requests via direct message on her social media accounts, but because she feared breaking any compliance rules and losing her college eligibility, she ignored them.
Now, the 19-year-old from Randallstown, Maryland, has signed multiple deals that have paid her thousands of dollars cumulatively. The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation approved her LLC, she finalized her A10 logo with the intention of trademarking it, and she hired a sports marketing agency to help her partner with even more companies. Reese is also one of several NCAA athletes who has inked a deal with the skincare brand Starface.
But with the NCAA leaving the formal policies up to individual schools and states, many athletes have found the process overwhelming, stressful, or confusing. With the new NIL rules, the spotlight shines even brighter on athletes already balancing academics, sports, and everything else that comes with being a college student. Those in demand are taking full advantage of the rule change and figuring out the process as they go, often on their own.
“I mean, I was really happy, honestly, because so many people have DMed me before like, ‘Hey, could you rep my brand? Could you do this and that?’ I’m like, I don’t want to do anything illegally, and everybody was just offering me money,” Reese says. “And then it’s like, I was overwhelmed on July 1. I had no clue about anything.”
Howard University men’s basketball player Tai Bibbs didn’t know what to expect on July 1, the first day the NCAA’s new rules went into place. He wondered if he, a fifth-year transfer from Columbia University, would receive a bunch of calls, and if the experience would be similar to his initial college recruiting process, when he spoke to multiple people at a time.
When the day arrived, Bibbs, 22, hoped to receive some calls, but the demand for his image wasn’t instantaneous.
“It’s uncharted territory, for real,” Bibbs says. “I think everyone’s kind of still learning as we go.”
While playing as a 6-foot-3 guard at Columbia, Bibbs averaged 6.5 points in three seasons with the Lions. Losing the opportunity to play his senior year because the Ivy League canceled the 2020-2021 winter season due to the pandemic did not help raise his profile. Bibbs doesn’t have the same social media reach of Reese or other high-ranked recruits or athletes that have amassed large followings on Instagram or TikTok. But he still intends to carve out a place for himself in this new landscape of college athlete endorsements.
With the help of his former Columbia basketball teammate, Jake Klores, Bibbs was able to secure a deal with GCDC, a bar and restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on July 1. Klores is currently working on an app called Workhorse, which aims to connect college athletes with local businesses for marketing opportunities, and is connected to GCDC through his uncle, who started the restaurant. In a tweet posted on July 1, Bibbs wrote that any Howard University student who presented their student ID would get 10 percent off their meal for the month of July.
For the promotion, Bibbs says he received $200 in gift cards to the restaurant and a onetime payment of $50. Randall Brumant, another graduate student transfer from Columbia University, also signed the deal. Both Bibbs and Brumant played for Howard men’s basketball head coach, Kenneth Blakeney, a former assistant coach at Columbia.
“I’m not sure if more things will come during the season or how that will even look,” Bibbs says. “But I’m still hoping to do as many deals as possible. It’s a really, really cool thing that we are able to kind of profit off this sort of thing.”
Even if Bibbs isn’t getting paid thousands of dollars in endorsement money, the extra money goes a long way. The Ivy League does not give out athletic scholarships, and while Bibbs did receive a sizable financial aid package that he says “a lot of” athletes receive, he believes an extra couple hundred dollars would have made living in New York City as a Division I collegiate athlete more comfortable and perhaps even helped him perform better on the court. He took out student loans last year to share an apartment in the city with teammates.
Thinking back on his time at Columbia, Bibbs recalls times when he would be hungry after practice and the closest open options near campus would be fast food restaurants. He dealt with injuries throughout his freshman and sophomore years and now believes it could have been attributed to his diet.
“There’s definitely times where you’re hungry, and you’re eating like peanut butter jelly, or, like, mac and cheese all the time,” Bibbs says. “As collegiate athletes, I think we definitely grind and we put a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, and, I mean, the dining halls aren’t great. One, like the food doesn’t always taste that good and two, it’s not really like great food that you’re putting in your body. And the unfortunate thing about it … is the fact that oftentimes healthy food is way more expensive than food that’s not so good for you.”
Bibbs also believes that the new rules will allow him access to different opportunities, such as modeling, that he may not have had previously. Such opportunities come at a time when attention paid to college athletes is increasing due to their social media reach and their comfort in expressing themselves on those platforms.
“It’s like the biggest platform many of us will have for the rest of our lives so I’m just trying to maximize this opportunity,” he says.
Rohann Asfaw, a cross-country and track runner for the University of Virginia, started his TikTok account in the fall of 2018. Within four months, he had amassed more than 100,000 followers. Asfaw, who turned 22 earlier this month and is studying to get a master’s in educational psychology, used the app to post videos of himself dancing and participating in other viral trends and memes. He now has 1.3 million followers on the platform after uploading several posts a week. But because of NCAA rules, Asfaw could not profit from any of the popularity he gained from the app.
He feels relieved that the rules have changed but also frustrated that it took so long.
“I definitely missed out on a lot with the rule being what it was in the past,” Asfaw says. “It sucks to think about it, it really does. I know I missed out on a lot of money. I know not too many athletes can say the same, but I try not to think about it too much, just ’cause it’s sometimes unfortunate. I mean, I can’t really go back. I wish they had made the decision earlier ’cause I know it was in the works for a while.”
Asked to give an estimate of how much potential money he could have earned had the rule change been in place earlier, Asfaw says it’s “way too much to even calculate.” In 2019, when his account was most popular and he posted every other day, Asfaw says he would have looked into hiring an agent and sold merchandise or T-shirts with his face on it. As with Reese, he was approached via social media by brands asking him to promote their products long before July 1, 2021. One person, he says, offered him $100 to dance to an original song the artist recorded.
“People would all the time ask me to dance to their songs, to kind of promote their songs,” Asfaw says. “I was a little iffy about doing that because I was like, ‘Am I going to lose my eligibility?’ So that would have been a big thing.”
Asfaw, who grew up in Rockville and won multiple Maryland 4A state titles as a cross-country and track-and-field runner for Richard Montgomery High School, has yet to sign any endorsement deals. Instead, he has been focusing on an online teaching job for the Fairfax Collegiate Summer Program, school work, and running, and wants to take his time before diving into any endorsements.
“The last thing I want this to do is stress me out,” Asfaw says.
Asfaw used to spend hours a week on his TikTok videos, before cutting back on posting this past year. Sometimes he would show up to races sore from practicing dances. “I don’t want to do that again,” he says. “At the end of the day, I really just want to be really fast at running.” But he adds that he would have felt “more pressure to upload” content if he had been hired by a company that was paying him. Many of the deals that NCAA athletes sign require them to post about the product on their social media accounts.
While this allows athletes to use their platform to expand their reach, studies have shown that social media use can have detrimental effects on a user’s psychological health.
“It’s just another added layer of something to think about to put on their plate and to manage,” says Hillary Cauthen, a clinical sports psychologist based in Austin, Texas. “And that takes a lot of mental energy. It takes emotional energy. And so there is a bit of a concern there of like, how are we going to best educate our student athletes so they are prioritizing themselves and things that matter for them?”
Reese, who has more than 52,000 followers on Instagram and around 38,000 followers on TikTok, embraces social media. She doesn’t consider posting product endorsement content pressure because she is constantly posting to those accounts anyway. Plus, Reese wants to use her platform and brand to grow women’s basketball.
“Being able to be in the spotlight and getting the same attention as the men are is really important to me,” she says.
But Reese is also cognizant of her time and her own limitations in finding deals and sifting through offers, so she hired a marketing consultant from GSE Worldwide, a talent representation and sports marketing agency that represents professional athletes in a variety of sports, including football, tennis, golf, and since July 1, college athletics. Reese is the agency’s first basketball player and women’s college athlete, according to Jeanine Juliano, the director of talent marketing for GSE Worldwide.
“I think what really differentiates her, aside from her being so great at what she does on the court, is that she’s wonderful at social media,” Juliano says. “So it really makes it quite easy. It’s almost more like an influencer.”
GSE typically charges a standard of 20 percent commission on their clients’ deals. Reese’s mother, also named Angel, helps her vet businesses and endorsements. Sometimes the companies ask for Reese and her brother Julian, a freshman on the Maryland men’s basketball team. Reese says that one of the challenges is making sure she is involved with the right companies. She says she’s declined many deals. “I don’t want to get into something that I’m not interested in, just doing it for the money,” Reese says.
Her mother is concerned that deals could impact team dynamics, not just on the Maryland women’s basketball team but at other schools, with players potentially getting jealous of teammates due to the attention from NIL deals. But Reese says she hasn’t encountered that. Her Maryland teammates are all supportive, she says, and Reese encourages the less social media savvy to post more often. And while the University of Maryland launched a student athlete development program called MOMENTUM and partnered with Opendorse, a sports technology company specializing in athlete endorsements, to provide personal brand development resources, it is up to the athletes to seek out deals.
“They have to work at this,” says Jason Yellin, the strategic communications officer and an associate athletics director at Maryland. “A lot of people think that this is going to be—not that it’s not going to be easy, but you have to work at it just like anything else. I mean, there’s a lot of different components to it.”
The Maryland athletics department has sent out its own interim NIL policy to its more than 550 college athletes. Among the rules are that compensation earned is not provided in exchange for athletics performance or achievement, NIL compensation opportunities are not performed when the athlete is engaged in official team activities, and that athletes cannot use university or athletic department registered trademarks.
“This is not a pay for play situation,” Yellin says. “Compensation is earned and is not provided in exchange for athletic performance. You can’t pay somebody for being like All-Big Ten or All-American … They have to do something, quid pro quo, they have to earn that. They have to actually do something, they have to go and make an appearance, sign autographs, do a Cameo, do a lesson or run a clinic, any of those things, merchandise, promoting something on social media.”
When Route One Athletics, which describes itself as “an e-commerce platform that specializes in making trendy, affordable state pride apparel and accessories,” announced its partnership with Reese on Instagram last month, no Maryland athletics or school logos were visible in the photo. The same goes for the recent photo shoot Reese did for the Imperfect Brand, a clothing company based in Annandale. Reese says she is also talking with Jimmy’s Famous Seafood and hopes to start a clothing line for tall women.
The NIL rule change has allowed Reese to explore her passions outside of basketball, and while her ultimate goal is to play basketball professionally at the highest level, these opportunities give her a taste of her potential future.
“Once I’m done with basketball, I want to be a model,” she says.
On June 14, 18-year-old Torri Huske of Arlington set the American record in the women’s 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Trials and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. A few weeks later, a day after the NCAA’s interim NIL rule went into effect, Huske’s family received a call from a well-known competitive swimwear apparel company. Speedo, TYR, and Arena would all eventually contact them.
“We had always thought that depending on what she did in the Olympics, then that would be the situation that would be the trigger, if she did well,” says Huske’s father, Jim. “And instead, basically setting the American record in trials really made people a little anxious [to sign her]. Because it was so close to the world record.”
On Aug. 13, Huske announced that she had signed a deal with TYR in an Instagram post. Both she and her father declined to share the monetary figure of the deal, but Jim says it is a “multiyear deal” that is “very fair market.” TYR also sponsors Olympic gold medalists and professional swimmers Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, and Lilly King. At the Tokyo Olympics, Huske finished fourth in the 100-meter butterfly, just one one-hundreth of a second behind the bronze medalist, and won a silver medal as part of the 4×100-meter medley relay. She will head to California later this year to swim for the Stanford University Cardinals and would not have been able to sign a deal like this before the rule change.
“I think it was really overwhelming, just because it was happening so fast,” Huske says about signing the TYR deal while training and competing in the Olympics. “I was thinking about it before a little bit, but it was never something that was really on my mind.”
Jim estimates that he had about 20 to 30 calls with people at Stanford, 50 to 70 calls with TYR representatives, and another 15 to 20 calls with a lawyer that helped them through the process. Because Stanford swimming has an agreement with Arena, Jim says the 20-page contract has a lot of “flexibilities listed in it.” He believes that while Huske competes for Stanford, she will wear Arena and wear TYR in nonschool competitions.
“Torri doesn’t want to stick out,” Jim explains. “She wants to be a full-fledged team member. So while she’s swimming for Stanford in Stanford, she will be wearing their suit and their equipment and that sort of thing … But when she swims like at Worlds next year, or some of the other big meets … she’s going to be swimming in TYR.”
While the contract will help financially, Jim says that Huske won’t be living off it. Stanford offered her an athletic scholarship, and the TYR deal will further help set her up for life after college. Still, Huske says that some of her older peers have marveled at how everything seems to be falling into place for the young Olympian and first-year college student.
“The luck of draw that these rules came into effect right when I’m about to go into my freshman year of college is like very lucky,” she says.