The University of North Carolina has become the first college athletics program to organize group licensing deals for its current student athletes, in the latest development of the sea change transforming college athletics.
Under the new policy, athletes at UNC — including its powerhouse men's basketball team — will be able to earn money for marketing their name, image, and likeness, also referred to as NIL, in groups of three or more, alongside UNC trademarks and logos like the Tar Heels logo and argyle uniforms.
That means players can earn money when a UNC jersey bearing their name and number is sold, or for posing in uniforms for sponsorship deals. Students would be paid by third parties, not by UNC. The university did not release details about how revenue might be split between the school and its players.
"I thought this was the logical next step. Let's take what we're doing institutionally, let's apply it to the students, let those students go to market, and also share in the revenue," said Bubba Cunningham, UNC's athletic director, in a video interview released by the school's athletic department.
UNC's move comes as the NCAA, facing a tidal wave of pressure from players, courts and lawmakers, recently announced it would finally allow its 460,000-some student-athletes to market their name-image-likeness rights. The new policy went into effect July 1.
Many players have already signed endorsement deals
Individual players can now sign endorsement deals with third parties like local businesses. Many already have: University of Miami quarterback D'Eriq King inked an endorsement deal with a moving company; Haley and Hanna Cavinder, the twin sisters and TikTok stars who play for Fresno State's women's basketball team, signed a deal with Boost Mobile and a sports supplement company; Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox, along with his pet husky Blue, signed a deal with PetSmart.
"We're still living the everyday life of a college football player, having to call home for $20 to get a pizza that night. It's the same struggle. It's just a little bit better now, only because of the new law," said Antwan Owens, a defensive lineman at Jackson State University, who has signed an endorsement deal with a Black-owned hair product company.
Group licensing deals, in theory, can result in moneymaking opportunities for lesser-known players who may not be capable of attracting their own individual deals. They are also more efficient for third parties looking to license the names and likenesses of many players at once, for products like trading cards or video games.
Such group deals have been commonplace in professional sports for decades. Typically, players' unions license the names and likenesses of players in groups, often working in tandem with the leagues and teams to market them in uniforms or alongside team logos. Players retain the right to market themselves individually.
NIL licensing in college sports is still so new that estimates vary widely on how much athletes are likely to earn. One estimate put the income from group licensing deals at $1,000 to $10,000 per player. High-profile stars stand to pull in hundreds of thousands from individual deals like social media endorsements.
Opponents worry that licensing could lead to recruiting violations
But such programs have previously drawn concerns from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a nonprofit group that has long been a prominent voice in the debate over player compensation.
The group's current stance on NIL policy, which was updated last year, recommends barring conferences and schools from arranging for compensation to college athletes, including via group licensing deals.
"The concern is that group licenses will become a new tool for recruiting college athletes and will morph into a form of pay for play," the group states in an FAQ about NIL licensing. "Rules must be put in place to avoid pay for play, impermissible benefits, and improper recruiting or retention arrangements."
Though no such rules yet exist, the NCAA says it will continue to enforce prohibitions on "pay-for-play" and rules around improper recruiting. But in the absence of federal legislation, the NCAA's policy defers to state law, as more than two dozen states have passed their own NIL laws. Federal legislation to create a nationwide policy has so far stalled.