First in an occasional series on how NIL is impacting Philadelphia-area collegiate sports programs
Student-athletes are now allowed to profit from their names, images, and likenesses, better known as “NIL,” and although seven-figure deals are possible with the biggest NCAA names, college athletes don’t have to be Paige Bueckers from UConn’s women’s basketball team or Alabama quarterback Bryce Young to get in on the action.
St. Joseph’s freshman goalkeeper Christian Matson is an athlete unknown by most college sports fans. However, Matson sought out an NIL opportunity regardless. He landed a sponsorship from a goalkeeping glove company called Set GK, and the process wasn’t all that complicated.
“I’ve got 1,300 [Instagram] followers. I have friends with well over 20,000, friends that are professional athletes, and I have friends with 10 followers. It really doesn’t matter,” he said. “I put in an application, and within two days I heard back that I would receive it.”
Set GK hands out discounts on equipment to its athletes based on a multitude of factors.
“Fifty percent is your base, 75% depending on the promos that they have you put out, and free [equipment] is mostly what you do on the field or what you do in the classroom,” Matson said. “So, if your team is playing well, you are playing well, you have clean sheets, you are going to be able to get free [equipment.]”
“... you are going to be able to get free [equipment].”
St. Joseph’s women’s field hockey is ranked ninth nationally. As team recognition grows with success and popularity, so does the profile of one of its midfielders. Cassidy Atchison is sponsored by the hockey stick brand Grays (more specifically, Longstreth, which is the United States distributor of Grays). For Atchison, Instagram was the platform that opened this door.
“A couple girls had posted about it, so I inquired about it through Instagram DM,” Atchison said. “I DM’d Grays Hockey and they referred me to Longstreth. I got in contact with one of the women from there, and I had to fill out this application that asked me a variety of questions field hockey career-wise, and why would I be a good fit for the brand.”
Atchison and Matson both are sponsored by companies that sell equipment for their sports, although athletes are not limited to just that.
St. Joseph’s men’s basketball graduate student and forward Taylor Funk thought outside the box on sponsorships. Funk is sponsored by Restore Health and Wellness Therapy, Discover Lancaster, and Make Your Mark Barbershop. To get these unique sponsorships, Funk had to market himself as being different from other athletes.
“I think one thing that separates myself is trying to go a little above and beyond than just a simple Instagram story, which is what a lot of athletes are limiting themselves to,” Funk said. “For Restore, we made a full commercial, and it’s all on my Instagram.”
Funk has 3,530 Instagram followers and his tag is @Taylor_Swish.
Sponsorships can also go beyond free gear or free haircuts. The connections that athletes make with the people involved in these companies go a long way. Matson has met many other goalkeepers and coaches thanks to his sponsorship with Set GK.
“[I’m] in group chats with other high-level coaches and players, and you can bounce ideas off them. It’s just a great resource, and on top of that you learn about other goalkeepers and other goalkeeper styles, which is awesome,” Matson said. “It’s a huge network.”
Building connections with these companies can also set athletes up for careers outside of their sports.
“Having [sponsorship connections] in your back pocket to maybe reach out to and say, ‘Hey, I’m now out of college and got my degree in this and this [is important.]’ So, you’ve just got to make pretty good connections,” Funk said.
NIL is still new, but Atchison believes that over time women’s sports will grow in viewership and popularity thanks to the new rule.
“I definitely think it’ll bring a more competitive edge,” Atchison said. “Now that you have your certain athletes representing specific brands, I think it will be something that would increase viewership.”
Atchison sees sponsorships in men’s and women’s sports being used the same way.
“Michael Jordan has his own line with Nike and that was something people really grabbed on to. And now people are doing that with the Alex Morgans of the world or the Abby Wambachs,” Atchison added.
Added Funk: “I think it might keep people in college longer. Imagine if Zion Williamson was doing this right now. He would probably make more than his rookie contract.”