We’re about seven months into the name, image and likeness era that allows college golfers to profit off of their abilities, and we’re nearly a month into that same freedom officially being afforded to all other amateurs through the modernized Rules of Golf.
The opportunity is there, but few players have taken advantage of it. When they have, the deals have mostly been limited to free products and possibly a small stipend on the side.
Among the few exceptions to this trend is NIL headliner Rachel Heck. The world No. 3 amateur and reigning NCAA champion out of Stanford has struck partnerships with Ping, Stifel, Excel Sports, Whistle Sports Network, Accel Performance and Six Star Pro Nutrition. Heck is receiving $10,000 from Ping, not including gear – although she has long played the brand’s clubs.
A video profile of Heck was released Jan. 18 on Whistle Sports Network and quickly climbed to well over 100,000 views. Few college golfers can command that type of attention, and Heck has capitalized. She previously has told Global Golf Post that she plans to stay at Stanford for all four years, so NIL could help the sophomore earn some cash prior to her pro pursuits.
Outside of Heck, there has been little of meaning in the collegiate-golf NIL space.
Cole Hammer of Texas signed with WME Sports for his representation and recently announced a deal with Optimum Nutrition. Ollie Osborne of SMU – the 2019 U.S. Amateur runner-up – signed with Ping alongside Heck. TaylorMade is paying Pierceson Coody, Hammer’s teammate and the No. 2 amateur in the world, and Coody has alluded to other deals in the works. Heck’s teammate Rose Zhang, ranked No. 1 in the world, has been patient with NIL deals to this point but is expected to receive substantial interest from one of the major manufacturers.
While it was initially believed that top-ranked men’s amateur Keita Nakajima signed an NIL deal with the PGA Tour as part of its new Netflix documentary, several reports have stated that players are not being paid to appear. It wouldn’t be a surprise, however, if Nakajima landed a major NIL deal.
But beyond a precious few, the cash dries up quickly. According to data from endorsement-technology company Opendorse, both men’s and women’s golf accounted for 0.1 percent of NIL compensation through the end of 2021.
“The NIL thing is overblown with golfers,” said Jeff Chilcoat, founder and CEO of Sterling Sports Management. “Rachel Heck has legitimate stuff, but she is an outlier. For the most part, from what I’m hearing, most of the people are getting product deals. In very few cases are golfers getting cash.
“With very few exceptions, and we’re talking about the very best men and women in the college ranks, these are not cash deals. Now, someone like Rachel is the exception, but you won’t find a lot of Rachel Hecks out there.”
At the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, Scott Wolpa, the Ping LPGA Tour rep, was on the range on Wednesday wishing everyone a happy new year. One of his opening comments was: “We’re thrilled by all the new players we have this year.” And the next sentence was, “We think (getting) Rachel Heck is a big deal.”
He also made the point that Stanford was extremely engaged in the process. When Ping sent Heck its standard representation contract, a document that Ping attorneys have pored over for years, it came back with so much red ink it looked like a second grader had tried to write a term paper. In the end, none of the deal points changed, but Stanford was very specific and protective of the language involving their athlete.
This type of protection varies from school to school. Most have blanket rules, such as prohibiting the promotion of items such as tobacco, alcohol and firearms, but there are also more granular rules such as universities requesting written authorization and proof of insurance for the recording of NIL-related videos on campus grounds.
That highlights just one of many reasons why NIL is not gaining more traction in golf.
Another massive hurdle is that international college players on F-1 student visas are virtually unable to participate in NIL. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, foreign students can typically only earn money on-campus.
For another, many college players see NIL as too much of a headache and distraction for too little reward. The NCAA’s recently ratified, streamlined constitution has essentially passed off NIL regulation to each school’s compliance department. It’s a certainty that major universities are going to be actively involved in the contracts and deals their players sign.
To go along with this, the desire for product-only deals with little monetary value that require personal social media promotion is lower than you may think. The USGA surveyed roughly 5,000 players this past year during several of their championships. This included both college and junior players. Less than 20 percent expressed interest in pursuing an NIL deal in the future.
Another massive hurdle is that international college players on F-1 student visas are virtually unable to participate in NIL. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, foreign students can typically only earn money on-campus. Exceptions include certain academic training or those who have experienced “severe economic hardship.” If a company is located anywhere off-campus, an international student likely can’t accept that money.
Seven of the top 10 female amateurs in the world are non-Americans, with Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad (LSU) and Beatrice Wallin (Florida State), Austria’s Emma Spitz (UCLA) and Scotland’s Hannah Darling (South Carolina) playing college golf. Six of the top 10 men’s amateurs are non-Americans with Sweden’s Ludvig Åberg (Texas Tech), England’s Alex Fitzpatrick (Wake Forest) and Spaniards David Puig (Arizona State) and Eugenio Chacarra (Oklahoma State) playing college golf.
None of those top players are eligible for NIL. The USGA reiterated to GGP that nothing in the Rules of Golf is forbidding these players from earning money, as the Rules of Amateur Status were officially updated on Jan. 1 to make permanent last July’s waiver of NIL-related breaches. The issue rests solely with the F-1 visa dilemma and potential restrictions college compliance departments may enforce with international students.
But even if those issues didn’t exist, it’s uncertain what the NIL market would be willing to pay. The most important ad real estate on a golfer is their apparel, but that is off limits while they are in school because each university has specific clothing standards. You could see deals struck during events like the U.S. Amateur, but those will likely be limited to local car dealerships pitching in for travel expenses so a college star will sport their logo.
There are other minor deals out there that pay small stipends or offer products to players: Marissa Wenzler of Kentucky signed with Tour Line Golf and Putt View, Carson Lundell of BYU signed with Primo Golf, Canon Claycomb of Alabama signed with the local Rama Jama’s restaurant and a handful of others have used social media influence to garner NIL attention. For example, TikTok star Kaila Bonawitz of Hawaii Pacific has deals with Barstool, Rhoback and 814 Stamping. John Daly II has used his famous name to lock in sponsorships with Nike and TaylorMade.
There is, however, another important space to watch as things develop. Will team-wide and school-wide deals become more commonplace over time?
BYU’s women’s golf team is part of a deal with SmartyStreets that will pay every Cougars female student-athlete up to $6,000 annually. That’s a significant amount of cash for a college kid.
There are other non-golf team deals out there for non-revenue sports: Alabama gymnastics (CrowdPush), UCF women’s basketball (College Hunks Hauling Junk) and Michigan State women’s basketball (Michigan State University Federal Credit Union) have struck deals.
This could be important because it may be one of the only ways that meaningful cash gets into the pockets of the typical college golfer. Another space to watch will be the ability of junior players or other amateurs to take sponsored money for tournament expenses – it’s too early in the process to tell how common that type of exchange will be. In time, that could be a boost to provide more players access to competitive golf.
But for now, NIL in golf remains mostly a game for only the best of the very best.
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
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