The year in NIL: Olivia Dunne, Bronny James, and Shedeur Sanders boast top valuations for 2023 as college athletes’ annual earnings top $1BILLION and NCAA weighs letting schools pay players directly

Keith Van Horn was just a freshman at the University of Utah when he learned his father had died of a sudden heart attack in 1994. Still years away from NBA superstardom with the New Jersey Nets, the teenager received the grim news over an early morning breakfast paid for by Utes head basketball coach Rick Majerus, who would live to regret the 3am meal at a Salt Lake City deli.

‘I guess I should’ve… said, ”Hey, you owe me $9.90 for the ham and eggs,”’ Majerus told Sports Illustrated a decade later, when both the coach and school faced NCAA penalties over what became known in Utah as ‘Foodgate.’

Majerus was, in the eyes of college sports’ governing body, guilty of buying food for a grieving student athlete. At the time, the molehill of a scandal crystalized the NCAA as a reckless bureaucracy fixated on enforcing archaic rules over player compensation to the detriment of the students it was supposed to serve. Critics have long pointed to the NCAA’s efforts to deny wages and employee status to its athletes, and the scandal only served to cement the organization’s worsening reputation.

But things are suddenly very different for student athletes. 

Now, three decades later, members of Utah men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as the school’s gymnastics squad, have been offered free truck leases, and there’s nothing in the NCAA bylaws to stop them from accepting.   

Yes, coaches are still somewhat restricted from buying meals for players, but since the NCAA began allowing athletes to sell their name, image, and license in 2021, the entire industry has been upended by a new era of amateur athletics. To catch everyone up to speed, Mail Sport is looking back at the year in NIL and looking forward at what’s to come for NCAA athletes eager to earn a buck:

Olivia Dunne is known more for her work on Instagram (pictured) than her successful gymnastics career at LSU 

Former Utah coach Rick Majerus (center) was punished by the NCAA for buying Keith Van Horn (lower left) breakfast in 1994

Former Utah coach Rick Majerus (center) was punished by the NCAA for buying Keith Van Horn (lower left) breakfast in 1994

LeBron James and his daughter Zhuri watch Bronny play for USC

Bronny James dribbles during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Long Beach State

LeBron James and his daughter Zhuri (left) watch his eldest son, Bronny (right), play for the USC Trojans 

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders (center left) is seen with sons (from left) Shilo, Buffs quarterback Shedeur and Deion Jr.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders (center left) is seen with sons (from left) Shilo, Buffs quarterback Shedeur and Deion Jr.  

STILL THE QUEEN OF NIL: Olivia Dunne

Third overall in On3.com’s NIL rankings with a $3.3 million valuation, the LSU gymnast has nonetheless come to define the modern era of college athletics thanks to her 12.1 million social media followers. (NIL valuations are not necessarily reflective of total earnings, but rather a projected annual estimate. See below for more information) 

No, gymnastics can’t rival college hoops or football in terms of popularity, but with her good looks (she’s already done several pictorials for Sports Illustrated) and a black-belt mastery of social media, Dunne’s NIL valuation hit $3.3 million this year thanks to sponsorships with Motorola, American Eagle, Vuori Clothing and Bartleby.

As Dunne revealed on the Full Send podcast, she once earned $500,000 with a single Instagram post, but her true preference is to form long-term relationships with brands, who hope to continue working with her in the future.

‘What I love with certain brands is getting long-term brand deals,’ Dunne said in June. ‘Those are probably the best because you build a relationship with the brand and they want you year after year.’

Olivia Dunne's annual NIL valuation came in at more than $3 million, thanks to deals with brands such as Plant Fuel

Dunne is the highest-ranked woman in the NIL standings

Olivia Dunne’s annual NIL valuation came in at more than $3 million, thanks to deals with brands such as Plant Fuel 

In addition to her busy life as a college student, gymnast, and Instagram influencer, Dunne also has her own charity, The Livvy Fund, which aims to helps female LSU athletes by leveraging the connections she’s made in recent years.

‘It is the hub for brands and fans to contribute to and support our Lady Tigers,’ reads a statement on the foundation website.

And her love life has only served to raise her profile even further.

The girlfriend of Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, Paul Skenes, Dunne has been seen at several minor league games since he was drafted first overall out of LSU earlier this year. He ultimately received a record $9.2 million signing bonus.

The pair were rumored to be together for months, but did not publicly confirm their relationship until August, when Skenes admitted he intentionally keeps social media off his phone to avoid reading about himself and Dunne.

‘I wasn’t on it during the season because it’s toxic,’ Skenes told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. ‘When you see something positive about you or something negative, it doesn’t matter. There’s no substance to it. It can’t help.’

Judging by her current popularity, he’ll need to avoid social media for several more years at least.  

Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders chats with his son and quarterback, Shedeur, during a game in October

Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders chats with his son and quarterback, Shedeur, during a game in October

MY THREE SONS:  Bronny James, Shedeur Sanders, and Archie Manning

They don’t need the money, thanks to their wealthy families, but Bronny, Archie and Shedeur all rank among the highest earners in college sports in 2023.

The son of former Ole Miss receiver Cooper Manning, grandson of retired Saints QB Archie, and nephews of Super Bowl winners Peyton and Eli, Arch has thrown only five passes since joining Texas as the country’s top recruit this season.

Now, though, with backup Maalik Murphy entering the transfer portal and starting QB Quinn Ewers expected to declare for the NFL Draft after the upcoming College Football Playoff, Arch appears to be the Longhorns’ likely starter next season.

That should be great news for trading card company Panini America and Arch’s other sponsors, who have helped him reach an annual NIL value of $2.8 million, according to On3.com. 

Unlike Dunne, who has had to work tirelessly on social media to build her following, Manning is a relative novice on the various platforms, having posted only a few times. In fact, he has nearly 12 million fewer followers than Dunne, but he clearly benefits from the popularity of college football and, specifically, the Longhorns.  

Arch Manning's one-of-a-kind autographed card set a Panini America sales record before the season started

Arch Manning will step in for Texas starting QB Quinn Ewers should the latter get injured in CFP

Arch Manning’s one-of-a-kind autographed card set a Panini America sales record before the season started 

Arch is the son of (from left to right) Cooper, nephew of Eli and Peyton, and grandson of Archie

Arch is the son of (from left to right) Cooper, nephew of Eli and Peyton, and grandson of Archie 

The 19-year-old Bronny James appeared in a spot for next Fast And The Furious movie due out in 2024

The 19-year-old Bronny James appeared in a spot for next Fast And The Furious movie due out in 2024

Shedeur Sanders (right) has already appeared in Google ads with his brother and Colorado teammate, Shilo (left)

Shedeur Sanders (right) has already appeared in Google ads with his brother and Colorado teammate, Shilo (left) 

Deion Sanders’ son, Shedeur, is in an even better situation, although the Buffaloes fell to a 4-8 finish in Coach Prime’s first season in Boulder.

Currently second in On3.com’s NIL rankings with a $4 million valuation, the junior quarterback has already appeared in Google ads with his brother and teammate, Shilo, and also has reported deals with Topps trading cards and Urban Outfitters.

He’s also planning on returning to Boulder next season, when several of the top transfer players in the country are prepared to begin playing for the Buffaloes. 

But nobody has quite embodied the NIL era like Bronny James, the USC guard who has appeared in only two games for the Trojans as he continues to recover from an off-season cardiac arrest. 

Neither James’ limited action nor teammate Isaiah Collier’s status as the Trojans’ top recruit could diminish interest in LeBron’s oldest son, who got a gargantuan $5.9 million NIL valuation from On3.com. 

Not only does Bronny boast 13.5 million followers across Instagram, TickTok and X, but the 6-foot-3 combo guard is already being represented by Klutch – the same agency his father is signed with. 

This year Bronny has continued endorsing Beast By Dre, a brand promoted by LeBron as well, and the 19-year-old even appeared in a spot for next Fast And The Furious movie due out in 2024.

Unfortunately, like Shedeur, Bronny is playing on a struggling team at the moment. Despite high expectations entering the season, USC is just 5-5 with conference play starting later this month. 

HOW DOES ON3.COM CALCULATE NIL VALUATIONS? 

The website’s NIL valuation is a proprietary algorithm that aims to measure what a specific player could earn over 12 months, given optimized opportunities relative to the market. The two main components are Brand Value Index, a measurement of the national licensing and sponsorship market, and Roster Value Index, which incorporates figures from more than 200 school NIL collectives.

The algorithm doe use specific dollar figures for NIL deals, but does not act as a comprehensive NIL deal tracker.

A player’s NIL value can change rapidly, depending on performance, exposure, and other external factors, such as fluctuations in the overall sponsorship market.

WOMEN’S COLLEGE HOOPS DRAWS VIEWERS, NIL DEALS

 LSU forward Angel Reese ($1.7 million), Iowa guard Caitlin Clark ($1.1 million) and UConn’s Paige Bueckers ($651K) are capitalizing on their own success and the growing popularity of women’s hoops.

In October, Clark became the first collegiate athlete and the only woman to sign an endorsement deal with State Farm Insurance. Specific dollar figures have not been revealed. Previously the insurance giant enlisted NFL stars like Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Travis Kelce, as well as the NBA’s Chris Paul to endorse its line of services.

Clark shot to national prominence during the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament by propelling the Hawkeyes to the title game, where they ultimately fell to Reese and the LSU Tigers. Both Clark and Reese ignited controversy during the tournament by borrowing wrestler John Cena’s ‘you can’t see me’ celebration, which many saw as unsportsmanlike.

The deal is the latest sign of the rising popularity of women’s basketball, which is enjoying record audiences at both the collegiate and professional levels.

The WNBA once again had strong metrics as the league had its most-watched regular season in 21 years and its highest average attendance since 2018.

Viewership was up 21 percent over last year across its national television partners and the league’s average attendance of 6,615 fans was the WNBA’s highest since the 2018 season. An expanded schedule to 40 games this season helped the league gain its highest total attendance in 13 years (1,587,488).

But that was nothing compared to Clark’s battle with Reese in early April.

LSU’s 102-85 victory over Iowa in the title game was the most-viewed NCAA women’s basketball game on record, with 9.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN2 according to fast national numbers by Nielsen.

The total audience is a 103-percent jump over 2022, when South Carolina defeated UConn and averaged 4.85 million on ESPN and ESPN2. The 2023 audience at one point peaked at 12.6 million.

LSU’s first national title in women’s basketball was the first on network television since UConn’s win over Tennessee in 1995. That game averaged 7.4 million on CBS.

Caitlin Clark is pictured alongside Kevin Miles, who is known as Jake from State Farm in the car insurance advertisements

Caitlin Clark is pictured alongside Kevin Miles, who is known as Jake from State Farm in the car insurance advertisements 

LSU's Angel Reese gestures towards her ring finger as Iowa's Caitlin Clark walks by

LSU’s Angel Reese gestures towards her ring finger as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark walks by 

NIL MARKETPLACE TO SURPASS $1.17 BILLION

According to a projection from Opendorse, the NIL marketplace is expected to jump nearly 20 percent from last year’s $1 billion in 2023.

Opendorse credits the growing number of collectives – groups of boosters and donors who pool resources to help recruiting efforts at their respective schools. Nationwide, Opensorse has counted more than 200 collectives.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean collectives will play a larger role growing further (see below).

SO WHAT’S NEXT FOR NIL?

In a dramatic departure for the NCAA, organization president Charlie Baker penned a letter to its member schools on December 5 asking for the creation of a new division that would permit universities to pay student athletes directly, including NIL deals. Thus far, schools have been prohibited from paying student athletes, even for use of their name, image and likeness. 

NCAA President Charlie Baker called the institution of NIL without a framework a 'big mistake'

NCAA President Charlie Baker called the institution of NIL without a framework a ‘big mistake’

The letter, sent to more than 350 Division I schools, argued that by creating a new higher tier of NCAA athletics, the disparity between college sports’ haves and have nots could be mitigated.

‘The challenges are competitive as well as financial and are complicated further by the intersection of name, image and likeness opportunities for student-athletes and the arrival of the Transfer Portal,’ Baker wrote.

Currently, athletic budgets in Division I range from as much as $250 million annually to just $5 million annually, with 259 of the 350 schools spending less than $50 million a year.

‘The contextual environment is equally challenging, as the courts and other public entities continue to debate reform measures that in many cases would seriously damage parts or all of college athletics,’ he wrote.

Schools in this new, higher division would be required to offer half their student athletes $30,000 a year through a trust fund.

Such a move could bring a quick end to the growing number of collectives, who technically work independently of NCAA schools.

However, under Baker’s proposal, those collectives could be absorbed by the universities, albeit with several legal hurdles along the way.

Specifically, NCAA schools are required to spend equally on male and female students as part of Title IX, so any NIL opportunities would have to be equitable.



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