NIL: Preventing The Golden Generation From Glory?
Image via BVM Sports
By ruling against the NCAA in Nat’l. Collegiate Athletic Assoc. v. Alston et al., The Supreme Court effectively opened the flood gates to a litany of name, image, and likeness (“NIL”) deals for college athletes. In spite of the public’s perception that such this ruling, promoting college athletes’ ability to profit from their popularity exuding from their on-field excellence, provides only positives, the public may be wrong. Since the Jurgen Klinsmann era of United States soccer, fans and coaches alike have exceedingly pushed young Americans to pursue the club soccer route rather than the NCAA route. The purpose behind the movement is simple; our players will improve more at the club level, competing against high-level international competition, than they will by competing at the NCAA level where there is inarguably inferior coaching and competition. Evidently, looking at the recent successes of US internationals, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKinnie, Sergiño Dest, and others, the push for pursuing the club soccer route is the proper direction to push these players in. However, the new NIL deals threaten this recent success by providing young American soccer players with incentives to reverse course and return to the NCAA.
To play against the best competition, players aim to sign for a club in one of Europe’s top tier leagues: England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, or Germany’s Bundesliga. Therefore, unless they become one of the faces of American soccer, like Christian Pulisic, their ability to obtain a sponsorship deal from an American company, while playing soccer abroad in a foreign country, is relatively limited. Furthermore, the lack of popularity soccer has in America does not help out either. Therefore, if it is more financially rewarding for a soccer player to obtain an NIL deal in college sports than it is to sign a low level contract for a club team, US soccer will find itself at risk of its golden generation stagnating. The key elements in predicting the outcome and trajectory of this consist of comparing the average lucrativeness of an NIL deal versus a low level club soccer contract, as well as the likelihood of receiving such a deal as a soccer player in America.
In the kingdom of college sports, college football reigns supreme both in popularity, and subsequently in amount of NIL deals. Currently, an astounding 60.1% of all NIL deals belong to college football players, with women’s volleyball in second place at just 9.8%. This stems from companies who provide NIL deals primarily seeking out athletes with the greatest reach and popularity, typically measured via social media followers. Reportedly 47.8% of the total compensation for NIL deals “is awarded for posting content on social media . . . .” Though athletes at the pinnacle of college sports, such as Heisman Trophy contenders, have landed bombastically financed deals, the average deal for a typical division 1 athlete is $471. Yet, it is important to consider that payout is per post, whereas the average deal won’t cap until a payout of over $200,000 has been delivered. For comparison purposes, current FC Dallas striker, and American international, Ricardo Pepi’s base salary is $200,000. With Pepi lined up as the starting American striker for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to imagine Pepi, with such popularity, wouldn’t have landed an NIL deal usually reserved for a Heisman Trophy winner; effectively out-earning his current salary by perhaps five-fold.
At its core, the lack of popularity the sport has in America is the lone argument that NIL deals do not pose a massive threat to the growth of US soccer. A recent study, premised upon viewership, concluded that soccer is the 5th most popular sport in America; trailing football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. By that token, “[w]hile the gates are open, there has not been a flood of interest for soccer players” for NIL deal purposes. However, soccer’s popularity is nevertheless growing rapidly in America; potentially soaring to new heights when the United States host’s the FIFA World Cup in 2026. What happens then?
Many agree that NIL deals are long overdue, as college athletes should have the right to profit from their diligence in sports. But, like nearly all good things, these deals do not come without a catch — stunting the improvement of US soccer. As soccer continues to grow in popularity, athletes may very well soon find themselves able to pick and choose between the lucrative college route, or the skill improvement club route. That decision is rightfully theirs to make. Yet, that does not mean that fans alike will not feel their hearts in their chests when the next Christian Pulisic prepares to make such a decision.
 Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Assoc. v. Alston et al., 594 U.S. __ (2021).  Tisha Thompson, Is college soccer too much of a risk for rising U.S. talent?, ESPN (Mar. 22, 2018), https://www.espn.com/sports/soccer/story/_/id/22869596/2018-world-cup-college-soccer-too-much-risk-rising-us-talent.  Id.  Id.  See Kristi Dosh, Santa Clara Women’s Soccer Team All Get NIL Deals with ChiliSleep, Business College Sports (Oct. 22, 2021), https://businessofcollegesports.com/name-image-likeness/santa-clara-womens-soccer-team-all-get-nil-deals-with-chilisleep/ (noting how an entire college soccer team all got. NIL deals set to pay them well).  Allan Jiang, World Football Power Ranking: The Top 30 Leagues in Europe, Bleacher Report (Aug. 2, 2011), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/786046-power-ranking-the-top-30-leagues-in-europe.  See Under Armour, Trent Alexander-Arnold – The Only Way Is Through, YouTube (June 25, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvGQLZZPTNQ&ab_channel=UnderArmour (Demonstrating the lack of deals for American athletes through Under Armour, an American clothing line, opting to place English international Trent Alexander-Arnold in its commercials instead of any US soccer player).  Spenser T. Harrison, Top Ten Reasons Soccer Isn’t Popular in the United States, Bleacher Report (May 5, 2008), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/21488-top-ten-reasons-soccer-isnt-popular-in-the-united-states.  Bill Connelly, USMNT golden generation? Why Pulisic, Reyna & Co. are on course to make a run at 2022 World Cup, ESPN (Dec. 8, 2020), https://www.espn.com/soccer/united-states-usa/story/4256235/usmnt-golden-generation-why-pulisicreyna-and-co-are-on-course-to-make-a-run-at-2022-world-cup.  Maria Carrasco, Some College Athletes Cash In While Others Lose Out, Inside Higher Ed (Oct. 12, 2021), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/10/12/while-some-ncaa-athletes-cash-nil-others-lose-out#:~:text=Opendorse%2C%20a%20sports%20technology%20company,second%20place%20at%209.8%20percent; Sourav, Top 10 Most Popular College Sports In The World, Sports Show (Aug. 18, 2021), https://sportsshow.net/most-popular-college-sports/.  Carrasco, supra note 10.  Id.  Id.  Spenser Davis, July dats shows value of average NIL deal, Saturdays Down South (July 2020), https://www.saturdaydownsouth.com/sec-football/july-data-shows-value-of-average-nil-deal/.  Id.  Updated 2021 FC Dallas player salaries, FC Dallas (2021), https://www.bigdsoccer.com/2021/10/20/22736719/updated-2021-fall-fc-dallas-player-salaries.  Harrison, supra note 8.  Sourav, Top 10 Most Popular Sports In America In 2021 | Viewership And TV Ratings, Sports Show (Oct. 19, 2021), https://sportsshow.net/most-popular-sports-in-america/.  Harrison, supra note 8.  See FIFA World Cup 2026, FIFA (Oct. 14, 2021), https://www.fifa.com/tournaments/mens/worldcup/canadamexicousa2026 (alluding to the American host cities for the 2026 World Cup).