Thilo Kunkel, Ph.D.

The social media value of student athletes

New research together with Bradley Baker, Thomas Baker, and Jason Doyle shows that name, image and likeness legislation could benefit both male and female student-athletes.

More and more states introduce bills that make it illegal for the NCAA or other college sports associations to place any restrictions on the type or size of endorsements deals that college athletes could sign in the future.

In these states, student athletes would soon have the ability to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL).

The research

For the first part of the study, which was completed prior to the 2018 NFL and NBA drafts, Kunkel and his colleagues scoured through the social media profiles of Division I football and basketball players. This was no small data pool. In total, 7,591 football players from 55 different schools and 1,139 men’s basketball players from 71 different schools had their number of followers tracked as part of the data analysis. They then applied a CPM, or price of 1,000 advertisement impressions on one page, to each individual athlete.

Some of the top-tier athletes skew higher, but we found there was potential monetary value for just about every athlete on social media.

The study shows that the annual social media account value of athletes with just 10,000 followers could be worth more than $5,000. For athletes with 100,000 followers, that number balloons to more than $50,000.

However, it’s not just the football and basketball players who could have a chance to cash in. In the second part we tracked the social followings and engagement of all student athletes at four institutions, which represent two top-tier and two mid-tier NCAA Division I universities: Clemson University, Stanford University, Temple University and Jacksonville University. In total, 2,130 athletes were analyzed: 821 from Stanford, 453 from Jacksonville, 441 from Temple and 415 from Clemson, examining a total of 20,978 Twitter posts and 16,453 Instagram posts.

Some of the top-tier male athletes skewed higher, just because they’re in the news all the time, but there was no significant difference to female athletes. In fact, when we consider the median, female student-athletes actually ranked higher than male athletes. On average, they also post more content than their male counterparts. For years, the NCAA has said that NIL would not be beneficial for female student-athletes, but our research shows that’s not valid.

The takeaways

This doesn’t mean that student-athletes should plan to make a living off social media shoutouts or micro-influencer marketing. However, should legislation get passed, it’s likely that almost every athlete with even a moderate social following might have an opportunity to earn some extra income.

This opens opportunities for athletes to monetize and compete with their university for sponsorship money, as companies can go right to the athlete and just ask for a shoutout across social media instead of sponsoring the athletic department. That’s going to be the easiest way to do this, and one of the first ways we will see athletes profit off of their NIL.

Universities need to prepare for this to educate their athletes and provide guidance on staying compliant with how they can and can’t use the university brand in their personal sponsorship activities. This is just the beginning of a fundamental change of the college athletics industry with many challenges and opportunities.

Kunkel, T., Baker, B., Baker, T., & Doyle, J. P. (in press). There is no nil in NIL: Examining the social media value of student-athletes’ names, images, and likeness. Sport Management Review. Download

The social media value of student athletes

Research Impact

The research has been picked-up by mainstream media across the United States and helped shape the NIL policy of the California Community Colleges. A list of media outlets that mention the research is presented below: