NIL is a different game for women. Exhibit A: UF gymnastics


GAINESVILLE — UF gymnast Leah Clapper arrived from Michigan in 2018 possessing athletic prowess, academic purpose and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Little did Clapper — a wide-eyed, overwhelmed freshman brimming with insecurities and ideas — realize she would be custom-made to usher in a new era in college athletics.

Upon the July 1, 2021 launch of Florida legislation allowing athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness, Clapper positioned herself to reap the rewards.

Clapper wrote a thesis on NIL during the fall semester for her Applied Theory course at UF and focused on the law during her capstone project to culminate her master’s program in mass communications.

In November, Clapper introduced a board game, Balance Palace, to inspire other gymnasts. The 21-year-old recently launched the Web site, NIL Island, seeking to help other athletes capitalize on the legislation.

“It just blows my mind and goes to show that a lot can happen in 12 months,” Clapper said. “I finished a master’s degree. I basically started two businesses. I had thought that maybe I would go and get a job after college. Now I want to be an entrepreneur. I’m set on it and hopefully I can make it happen.

“All of that in just one year makes me think, ‘OK, where can I be one year from now?’ That really excites me.”

The evolution of NIL opportunities for female athletes will depend on whether the law is ultimately applied as intended.

NIL’s launch allowed those playing college sports to earn money based on the ability to promote a business or pitch a product tied to the athlete’s popularity and reach.

Many have capitalized to varying degrees. Yet most of the big-money deals generating the biggest headlines have gone to transfers from other colleges or top high school prospects in revenue sports, particularly football.

“We sort of skipped right over the commercial activity,” said Lynda Tealer, UF’s executive associate athletics director for administration. “We do some of it; just that this whole notion of direct cash transfer came online so quickly. People are still trying to figure out how to manage it and regulate it, particularly as it relates to recruiting.”

Clapper and her teammates have experienced the possibilities and pitfalls of NIL.

Clapper estimates she’s struck deals with 15 companies and generated income in the “lower five figures.”

NIL also allowed gymnasts Megan Skaggs, Leanne Wong and Trinity Thomas to benefit and in some cases share the wealth.

Skaggs partnered with 10 different charities — one for each of Florida’s regular-season meets — for her Tiny Bow Project, a nod to the bows the 23-year-old wears in her hair while competing. The 12-time All-American pitches other products, including Meltdown Energy drink, but donated much of the proceeds from “Tiny Bow.”

“It was really inspiring just watching her do that and use NIL for good,” Clapper said. “It was so motivating and the best thing that can come out of NIL, it felt like.”

Leanne’s Bowtique, launched by the bow-wearing Wong, has been popular with young gymnasts eager to emulate the look of the Gators’ star and 2021 silver medalist at the World Championships. Thomas, the reigning NCAA all-around champion, has capitalized on her share of NIL opportunities and might stage a gymnastics camp before returning for a fifth season.

Lucrative deals have been more elusive.

Despite the headwinds, Clapper and Co. found themselves in the right place at the right time compared with the young women who built Florida’s gymnastics program into a national power.

“When I heard that NIL was coming, I got super excited,” said Clapper, who boasts multiple Web sites. “I always thought it was unfair that everybody else in the world could get a sponsor on social media or work with a company and college athletes weren’t allowed to do that.

“It just felt strange.”

But as NIL unfolded, the opportunities and success stories felt all too familiar.

Members of a gymnastics squad stacked with All-Americans and sporting a runner-up at the 2022 NCAA Championships had to hustle and jump through hoops to generate NIL opportunities.

“Of course when you initially think of a branding deal with an athlete, you’re thinking of how can we simulate what a professional football player or basketball player would do?” said Skaggs, who earned a BA in advertising and master’s in entrepreneurship at UF. “Those are two really big spectator sports, so you’re bringing that to the college space. But you also have crazy good sports here at UF with our female athletes. You can just keep naming them.

“But women have maybe stayed on the back burner because we haven’t had super big companies reaching out to us.”

A deal in May with the College Hunks Hauling Junk moving company was a step forward. The Tampa-based business has more than 150 locations and a net worth above $100 million.

Clapper said she, Skaggs, Wong, Thomas and Savannah Schoenherr received $2,000 apiece for about an hour’s work. The quintet allowed the company to create video content of them to be shared on each gymnast’s social media channels.

“That is the absolute easiest thing that I’ve done in NIL,” Clapper said. “It was a huge win for me. Every other brand deal that I’ve done I’ve been in the thick of it, negotiating it, creating the content myself. The College Hunks deal, I literally showed up.

“Everything else has taken me like 12 hours.”

College Hunks quickly emerged as an NIL force when it signed Miami quarterback D’Eriq King at 12:01 am July 2, 2021, to lead a marketing campaign. Co-owner Omar Soliman is an alum of the Coral Gables-based school, where football is king.

Football has similarly dominated the NIL space.

Based on data compiled by Opendorse through June 20, football earned 49.9% of NIL compensation and 29.3% of the activity in the space. Men’s basketball is next at 17% of total compensation and 7.6% of the activity.

When it comes to brand compensation, 62% goes to men’s sports athletes while they also get 93% of donor compensation and 72% of fan compensation.

“Male sports are outearning their female counterparts,” Elizabeth Wyman, communications and public relations specialist at Opendorse, wrote in an email. “But like any scenario, there are outliers.”

Basketball stars Paige Bueckers of UConn and Destanni Henderson, formerly of 2022 national champion South Carolina, and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne were NIL high earners, the latter more for her 1.9 million Instagram followers than her performance.

Photogenic Miami transfers Haley Cavinder and Hanna Cavinder burst onto the NIL scene due to a large social media presence, including 4 million followers on TikTok.

“There’s either very few women getting opportunities or the big opportunities are all pretty much men,” said Thomas, the Gators’ star. “Definitely I feel like there’s a big gap. When everything was said and done, most of the companies jumped on what they knew.

“Them taking a little bit more of a leap of faith really will end up making all the difference.”

Thomas’ experience highlights that NIL is not a meritocracy.

No UF athlete on the 2021-22 sports calendar had a better year than Thomas. She won the NCAA all-around title and recorded 12 perfect 10s, becoming one of three finalists for the Honda Award given the top college athlete in women’s sport.

Like many 21-year-olds, Thomas is saving to buy a car. By comparison, Gators 2021 backup quarterback Anthony Richardson inked a deal with Gainesville Dodge last fall providing him a dealer car through the end of the 2023 season.

Thomas’ representative, Michael Raymond of Miamihas come up empty pursuing a similar deal for his client.

“My agent has been on it, has been trying, but it’s hard when you’re a female athlete,” Thomas said. “They’re handing out cars to the boys like nothing.”

NIL deals are not required to be public, preventing a clear accounting of who receives what from whom.

What is clear: Capitalizing on NIL requires effort for most athletes.

“There are a lot of female student-athletes that are able to take advantage of this opportunity in ways big and small,” Tealer said. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity. Some of it is the profile of the athlete, regardless of gender, and their interest in really pursuing NIL.

“It takes some work. You have to connect with the right folks. But I do see a lot of opportunity there.”

Traditionally, even the best female student-athletes lacked profile, popularity or impact on a school’s bottom line similar to top football and men’s basketball players.

NIL deals were expected to be a game changer. Beyond increased exposure the past decade on social media, female athletes offer unique marketing opportunities for companies.

“We’re just incredible people outside of our sport — beautiful, smart young women,” said Skags, an Academic All-American. “We have a lot going for us just how hard-working we are, how determined we are to be successful not only in our sport, but outside of sport in the community, in the classroom. When you talk about NIL, it is very valuable to have an athlete who’s not only great at their sport but can serve in other areas outside of athletics.

“That speaks very strongly for myself and my teammates.”

Skaggs and Clapper were honored June 13 in Atlanta during the inaugural NIL Summit featuring hundreds of athletes from around the nation. Skaggs earned the Athlete Advocate of the Year while Clapper was named Scholar-Athlete of the Year after she posted a 4.0 GPA during the spring semester.

Notwithstanding the individual victories for many athletes, the song has remained the same since NIL’s launch 12 months ago. Football and men’s basketball sucked much of the oxygen out of the room.

Companies might sing a different tune during the 2022-23 season.

“Going into Year 2, all parties have a better idea of ​​what to expect and what role they want to play in the NIL era,” Opendorse’s Wyman wrote. “Brands and sponsors have realized how marketable women are, especially with activating fan bases. Women tend to use a full four years of eligibility, therefore forming connections with the local market for longer than some high profile student-athletes in men’s sports.

“With a longer runway to plan for, Year 2 should bring more national ad campaigns and female student-athletes will be a big part of that.”

Whatever happens, Clapper is sure to be front and center as she returns for a fifth season.

One of her messages: “It’s not a zero-sum game. Everybody can win it at NIL. There’s enough room for every athlete.”

Seeing the changing landscape since she was a freshman, Clapper can only imagine what lies ahead. In 2018, she started a food blog to share recipes, cooking tips and her athletic experiences but quickly learned monetizing it would jeopardize her NCAA eligibility.

Clapper found other value from the pursuit, learning how to build an online community and personal brand. When NIL arrived, few UF athletes were more prepared.

Yet Clapper is as curious as anyone to see what’s next.

“Being a student athlete in 2020 looks so different than what being a student athlete is now — and the same will be true in 2025,” she said. “The changes that could come in the next five or 10 years, nobody knows what’s going to happen. But I’m pretty positive the experience of being a student-athlete on a campus will feel completely different.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @Osgators.

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