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Scoggins: Minnesotans take the lead in new era of moneymaking college athletes – Minneapolis Star Tribune


Olympic champion Gable Steveson met the media on Monday to discuss his unique opportunity to wrestle one more season for the Gophers while earning a (presumably) large paycheck promoting WWE, his new employer.

Later that evening, Suni Lee attended the glittering Met Gala fashion event in New York City. She wore a designer gold dress — on-brand for a gold medalist — and her night included a write-up in Vogue. Next up for the Olympic gymnast: “Dancing with the Stars” starting Monday.

And to think, less than a decade ago, the NCAA would have monitored, and regulated, whether these two college athletes put cream cheese on their bagels after practice.

Sadly, that’s the truth, not the punchline to a joke.

Finally clear of archaic rules, the name, image and likeness (NIL) era of college sports is moving at warp speed, and Minnesota is setting the market in athlete profitability.

Lee, Steveson and UConn basketball star Paige Bueckers of Hopkins represent three of the most marketable college athletes who reportedly have earning potential in the seven figures.

Former Minnehaha Academy point guard Hercy Miller, the son of rapper Master P who is now at Tennessee State, already has signed a $2 million deal with a tech company.

Miller’s former Minnehaha teammate Chet Holmgren, a freshman at Gonzaga, is expected to have lucrative endorsement opportunities based on his national profile.

This is all new frontier, and Minnesota’s best and brightest are showcasing the earning power that comes with the marriage of talent, success, popularity and brand.

“Life has done a major (change),” Steveson said.

Rather than having to choose between life-changing money and being a college athlete, as was necessary pre-NIL, athletes now can have both. Athletes in every sport are benefiting, not just the two highest-profile, football and men’s basketball.

Lee, Steveson and Bueckers have star quality that makes them attractive to advertisers. Gymnastics. Wrestling. Women’s basketball.

“They are examples of what can happen when student-athletes in their younger years are intentional about connecting with an audience and building their personal brand,” said Sam Weber, an executive with Opendorse, a company that helps athletes profit off their popularity. “From the day they step on campus now, every athlete has an opportunity to monetize that audience.”

The term is “influencers.” The gist is that college athletes with enormous social media followings have marketing opportunities now thanks to NIL.

Bueckers filed for a trademark on her nickname “Paige Buckets” through Los Angeles-based marketing agency Wasserman Media Group. The Wall Street Journal reported that industry experts predict Bueckers could earn $1 million annually in endorsements.

“It’s how you market yourself on social media,” Steveson said. “(But) NIL won’t happen unless you are winning. Big companies, big corporations want people who are going to make their brand bigger.”

The shortsighted NCAA failed to understand that this is a two-way street. Those who fought against NIL legislation for years missed the larger point, that promotion brings attention to the product, which is especially beneficial to sports that don’t receive as much fanfare as the two most visible sports on campus.

Bueckers’ talent and wide-reaching social media presence bring more eyeballs to women’s college basketball.

Lee and Steveson won gold medals in dramatic fashion. Think Gophers wrestling and Auburn gymnastics won’t experience residual benefits from that? Of course they will. Marketing, attendance, recruiting and overall visibility of those programs will get a significant boost from their presence. It’s just common sense.

Athletes are being exposed to new things and real-life lessons. NIL is a business transaction, something Steveson learned when he signed his WWE contract and heard how much will be taken in taxes.

“I’m like, ‘Wait, what?'” he said. “Taxes and you have to fill out those 1099s. That’s all new to me. Luckily, I’ve got good people in my corner that took care of all that.”

He can focus on what he does best – dominating on the wrestling mat and entertaining crowds … with some WWE promotion mixed in. Lee soon will be dancing on TV before performing gymnastic routines at Auburn. Bueckers will be the face of women’s college basketball with endorsement deals to come.

Still college students, only now free to make money off their special talents and enormous popularity.

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