A brand new ballgame
Recent rule update allowing college student-athletes to build their personal brands and monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) has changed the game.
Raven Domingo, ’26, has spent enough of her life in a swimsuit to understand what makes a good one.
Born in Keaau, Hawaii, and raised on the Big Island, the sophomore on La Salle’s women’s swimming and diving team spent much of her youth in the water, competitively and recreationally. When life slowed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Domingo took stock of her closet and was confronted with piles of drab swimwear—strictly functional and rarely comfortable.
With free time in her senior year of high school, she melded her passion for digital art with her swimming knowhow to create Keahikini, a swimwear company showcasing Hawaiian design motifs and supporting Hawaiian artists. She proudly trumpets the brand as “slow fashion,” handmade and women-owned, a small business that supports and amplifies other small businesses owned by Hawaiians.
As her sport has taken her to the mainland and expanded her community of swimmers, the business has accompanied her. Domingo designs, sews, and ships all the orders personally, in addition to managing the company’s social media presence.
Recent rule changes allowing college student-athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) have encouraged students like Domingo to become entrepreneurs and small business owners—those who use their profile and platform to pursue ventures away from their sports, without concern over what effect their non-sports interests may have on their eligibility to compete.
New NIL rules went into effect in Summer 2021, after years of legal wrangling between the NCAA and athletes’ representatives, with battles waged in statehouses across the country. In the Alston vs. NCAA decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA cannot block student-athletes from receiving fair compensation for use of their name, image, and likeness. Twenty-five states have passed laws pertaining to NIL compensation, and many institutions and athletic conferences have instituted policies.
Name, image, and likeness legislation and compensation has changed collegiate athletics forever. Here are some of the data from the first year of name, image, and likeness deals in collegiate athletics:
Average value of all NIL transactions: $1,815
Median value of all NIL transactions: $53
Average value of power 5 NIL deals: $2,144
Average value of non-power 5 NIL deals: $558
Source: INFLCR, the leading content and compliance software platform for athletes on NIL opportunities
One important misconception around NIL is how the money is used; NCAA guidance and state laws prevent athletes from being compensated for their services as athletes. The Pennsylvania law, for instance, expressly prohibits the ability of institutions to “arrange third-party compensation … as an inducement to recruit a prospective college student athlete.” In many cases, NIL rules simply mean institutions cannot stop athletes from or penalize them for pursuing business opportunities that any other student is free to pursue.
The new rules are what Anthony Pizzo, Ph.D., ’05, describes as “a total, absolute gamechanger.” Pizzo serves as an assistant professor of management and leadership in La Salle’s School of Business. Where the NCAA once could deny eligibility to athletes who were paid to endorse products or make appearances, the new rules allow them to capitalize on their stardom.
“It’s opened up the floodgates,” Pizzo said, “and there’s no turning back.” Pizzo teaches a course—Personal Branding in the Age of Name, Image, and Likeness—aimed at La Salle student-athletes. While open to all students, the course educates students on the nuance and opportunities involved with NIL. In many instances, students create their potential for profit before even coming to campus. What makes them great athletes also makes them marketable online figures, he said, some with social media followings into the millions.
The early NIL gold rush has sent businesses searching for athletes with whom to partner. Pizzo helps students learn how to vet their offers, understand their fair-market value for their time and reach, implement business strategies, and hone their online presence.
“In the past, it was more about selling yourself to sponsors and how you’d be a good fit for the sponsor’s perspective. But now, students are coming into class and they have 50,000 or 100,000 social media followers already. Really, it’s teaching students how to build a following so that they come across as more appealing.”
—Anthony Pizzo, Ph.D., ’05
“In the past, it was more about selling yourself to sponsors and how you’d be a good fit for the sponsor’s perspective,” Pizzo said. “But now, students are coming into class and they have 50,000 or 100,000 social media followers already. Really, it’s teaching students how to build a following so that they come across as more appealing.”
Domingo delved more deeply into this space last summer at the NIL Summit, held in Atlanta. There, she attended talks on how other student-athletes are using their new NIL freedom, learned the evolving industry’s best practices and networked with student-athletes from across the country. It opened her eyes to potential opportunities, especially within the Philadelphia community and the swimming universe, for a business that had previously operated largely online.
When Domingo arrived at La Salle in Fall 2021, she was apprehensive about the risks of continuing her business. Beyond the obvious time-management challenge as a student, athlete, and business owner, she sought guidance to make sure Keahikini fell within NCAA rules. But the pandemic inspiration for Keahikini was revelatory. Domingo knows she won’t compete forever. She got a glimpse of what a post-swimming life would look like when pandemic closures kept her out of the water in 2020, and she sought refuge in the artistic hobbies of her youth that blossomed into this venture.
Those passions will carry long into Domingo’s post-graduate career. And the NIL rules have freed her from having to choose which part of her identity to express.
“I think having a space where we can still have something that separates us from our identity as an athlete is important,” she said. “Having something that I know that is a huge part of me outside of swimming and not having to give that up just to continue my career as a student-athlete was super important to me.”
—Matthew De George