If you weren't aware, college athletes can make money from NIL deals now. The NCAA begrudgingly began allowing athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness in July 2021 — and in those two short years, the NIL ecosystem has rapidly evolved.
That means there are more opportunities than ever for college athletes. It also means there are a lot of questions and legal gray areas around different NIL deal practices from state to state.
Vaughn Seelicke is here to help dispel some of the misconceptions around NIL deals and help college athletes — especially those who may not think they're necessarily perfect candidates for brand sponsorships — better understand their opportunities.
Like, for instance, that you don't have to be the starting quarterback at a "Power 5" school to get interest. Case in point, Seelicke is a rising sophomore kicker and Economics major at Tufts University in Boston. "And I got my first deal before I ever played a game of college football," he tells RootNote.
The High School To College Pipeline
Seelicke's first athletic passion was in soccer, but when he got a stress fracture in his back around his sophomore season, it completely derailed his dream of a pro future and set him back for college recruiting. "My dad kind of sat me down and said, 'Hey man, soccer is going to be really, really tough after this injury,'" Seelicke says. "He never pressured me to play any certain sport, but he knew I loved them so he encouraged me to go all-in with football."
Seelicke's soccer skills easily translated to kicking in football — and kicking well, too. His school were state champions three times over, not to mention minor social media celebrities for being known as a team that never punted and always kicked onside kicks. However, for Seelicke, this unusual philosophy actually made it really hard to get game film for different college teams.
Still, Seelicke received multiple offers to kick from top-notch schools. By the summer before his senior year, he knew he was playing college football — he just didn't know where.
Around his senior year, he started paying close attention to the possibility of landing some name, image, and likeness deals in college. "It was definitely on my radar," Seelicke says. "I remember going to one of my friends who was going to play at the D1 level and saying, 'Hey are you looking at this? I think you're going to get some NIL deals, and if we get in there before it gets flooded with too much, it could be something, especially for you, but for me too.'"
But outside of Seelicke's own curiosity (and frequent Googling), neither his outgoing high school nor his incoming university provided any assistance or education to players about NIL. In fact, Tufts athletic conference NESCAC specifically forbids players from using any of its schools logos in NIL promotion. "You can't put the Tufts logo on anything you're using to try to get deals, which is unfortunate and makes NIL deals more difficult for NESCAC athletes," Seelicke says.
Landing The First Deal
Seelicke's first NIL deal came with Force Factor, a performance supplement company that has since expanded into major chains like Walmart. He found them on Mogl, a marketplace app that aims to connect brands with athletes.
The exchange was pretty simple — free product for a few social media posts on Instagram and TikTok — but it was an important first step into a world that presents a ton of opportunity. "It was kind of crazy because I got that deal before I ever played a game of college football," Seelicke laughs. "I had just made the team. They were like, 'Ok, awesome, we'd like to work with you.' I was like, 'Really? I haven't even played a game yet, but awesome.'"
Altogether, Seelicke landed three deals in the summer before his first season. Once the season started, he focused solely on football. Once it ended, he returned to the NIL deal hunt. "So in two summers, I'm approaching 10 deals as an athlete who has only played one season of college football," he says.
Since that first deal, Seelicke says about 50 percent of his deals come from Mogl and about 50 percent from his own personal outreach. He's tried a few different marketplace apps, but Mogl has been the best for him (he notes he landed another deal a few days before our interview).
Clearing Up Misconceptions
NIL Deals Aren't Just For Athletes With Huge Followings
If there's one key takeaway for college athletes, it's that the size of your digital footprint and online following is much less important than you think it is. Seelicke's online profiles, for instance, average in the few thousand followers, not the tens or hundreds of thousands people might assume are necessary to be attractive to brands.
"Brands want people who are genuine," Seelicke says. "I think there's this narrative that NIL is a Division 1 thing, that it's only for the Power 5 schools. I think there's a tremendous opportunity for smaller market athletes to help pay for their college through NIL that no one's really tapping into or working on."
Be Professional, But Be Yourself
We've all seen the types of brand deals and sponsorships that make us think, "There's no way this person actually uses this product." You know, like, "There's no way LeBron James drives a KIA," or, "There's no way Nicole Kidman stays at the Comfort Inn."
Companies are trying to be more cautious of actually appearing genuine in who they associate with their brands. That's why micro influencers who come across as genuine have a great shot with companies. "I'm not going to be the face of a national campaign," Seelicke says. "But when I say things, people believe me, because I'm a lot like the people I'm talking to — rather than, say, some of the bigger athletes where you kind of zoom out on their audience."
This means you should also be very intentional in what companies you reach out to and work with. Make sure you actually care about the product or service you're representing. And be sure to have a clear social media aesthetic, easy-to-find contact information, and maybe even a personal website if it suits your style.
You Don't Have To Be Making A Ton Of Money To Make It Worth It
The truth is, some companies and deals don't even include cash payments or stipends. And that's ok — especially when you're just starting out. Don't be afraid to work with companies in exchange for products (if they're products you genuinely enjoy) or their services. Actually being a customer or user goes a long way in developing a relationship.
"I'm not supporting myself full time, but I'm making enough money to make it worthwhile," Seelicke says. Everything helps, especially for D2 and D3 athletes who may be at schools that don't offer the same level of scholarships.
And the reality is, the vast majority of college athletes are still teenagers or in their early twenties. There's strong value in developing these relationships with brands and companies early on.
Some Deals Can Be Long-Term, And Some Are Very Short
Some of the companies Seelicke works with let him know right up front that they're just testing the space. "Some of the smaller companies I've worked with, they're like, 'We don't have enough marketing budget to turn this into a long-term relationship,'" Seelicke says. But others will tell them this is exactly what their budget is going towards and if you're professional and timely, there's a great opportunity to create longer relationships.
"Two of the companies I've worked with, I'm in the process of working with again," Seelicke adds.
Agents Will Come Calling — Do Your Research
If you start landing a few deals on your own, you'll probably start hearing from agents who want to represent you. This is ultimately a personal decision with trade-offs.
In Seelicke's case, when agents came knocking, he chose to remain solo. Their pitch was that they could land him other deals he doesn't have access to. But they would also take a percentage (typically anywhere from 15 to 25 percent) of all of his deals — even the ones he landed by himself. Some agents have clauses that won't even allow clients to handle their own deals.
In other words, just be sure to do your research if representation comes knocking. And if your school tries to pool all the potential deals under their own agent, keep in mind that you have the right to investigate and work independently.
There's A Lot Of Information Out There, But Not All Of It Is Good
Seelicke relied mostly on Google and conversations with peers like Jack Betts when he first leapt into NIL deals. Since then, his own personal experience has helped him inform his current tactics.
The lead takeaway?
Don't believe every blog post you read. Especially because a lot of them are from anonymous sources who are simply trying to be the first search result, opposed to outlets who talk to athletes and do the work to provide first-hand knowledge (wink).
"Sometimes I'll read an article and think, 'Oh yeah, this is great' — but then a few sentences later in the same article will be like, 'Oh this is not right at all,'" Seelicke says. "Try to read as much as you can, but it's such a young space that the best way to learn is by trying. Create something. Reach out to companies."
There's No One Correct Way To Find Companies
Some marketplaces are great. Some companies make their point-of-contact for marketing pitches easy to find. But others can be like a never-ending LinkedIn treasure hunt. And if you don't make it very easy for companies to find you, there might be even more unnecessary friction.
At the end of the day, doing your research upfront makes it worth it. And just because you may not see a company or product you like listed on a marketplace or actively seeking NIL deals, don't assume it's not a possibility. "I still think there's a large need for a better way to connect athletes and companies," Seelicke says.
But if you can find at least one good email address, you can usually make your way to the right person. As long as you're professional in your outreach and provide companies with an idea of what they can expect by working with you. Even if you haven't landed a deal just yet, start by making a piece of content talking about a product you love and share that with them.