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Without Scholarships, Ivy League Athletes See NIL Deals As Leveling the Playing Field

The ability to earn money through sponsorships and other compensation could be a game-changer for conference players, both current and future.

It took Julia Bedell roughly three minutes, 143,000 subscribers and a small box of skincare products to make $500.

Fifty seconds into a YouTube video titled “DORM SUPPLY HAUL. (part 2),” the 18-year-old announced to her audience, which she says comes to her channel for content that is “uplifting and motivating and almost somewhat comforting,” that she has partnered with Curology. She listed the benefits of using the facial cleansers and moisturizers before noting her personalized link to the company’s website in the description of the video.

The advertisement, or integration in brand-ambassador-speak, was requested by the skincare brand that compensated Bedell with free products and through PayPal. The money, she says, will partially go toward the costs of attending Brown University, where Bedell is a freshman on the women’s gymnastics team but footing the bill for her tuition.

Like other collegiate conferences across the country, the Ivy League altered its rules surrounding athletes profiting off their name, image and likeness on July 1, when the NCAA changed its stance to allow individuals to accept sponsorships. But unlike other conferences, the Ivies don’t offer athletic or academic scholarships. Students’ financial aid packages are entirely need-based and determined by multiple factors, including reported family income and assets.

The price tag for attending one of the Ancient Eight varies slightly from school to school, but annual tuition typically falls between $50,000 and $60,000, with an additional $20,000 charged for housing, dining, books and other fees. Penn men’s basketball player Lucas Monroe says that he and most of his teammates were able to attend the college “because of the financial aid,” which would make a lucrative sponsorship even more valuable to them.

“If I was able to get a nice NIL deal where I was able to put some money in my pocket, it probably wouldn’t go entirely toward shoes and clothes and nice stuff. I would definitely use it for books, rent … meal plans, all that stuff,” he says. “I think a lot of my teammates would say the same thing. They would definitely use it for more functional purposes and more necessities.”

Though the Ivy League was more hesitant than other conferences to restart athletic competition after becoming the first to cancel all sports in March 2020, executive director Robin Harris says arriving at the decision to change old NIL rules was “actually fairly easy.”

The league set a few general guidelines that may be altered after reevaluation in the spring, but for now, Harris says athletes at the eight schools have the freedom to navigate their new ventures.

“Our policy is that there should be no recruiting inducements. This is not, ‘You only receive this opportunity if you come to school X.’ That would not be allowed,” she says, adding that the universities have no involvement in the endorsements beyond athletes’ reporting their deals to their respective schools’ compliance offices.

“Like any other student, if our student-athletes have the wherewithal and the ability to develop an opportunity, they should be able to do so. But the institution, our coaches, our athletic staff and the university itself are not going to be involved in finding those opportunities or arranging them.”

Ivy League students rarely achieve the same level of name recognition as athletes who compete in larger conferences that get frequent airtime on national networks, but they may have a unique marketing appeal due to the reputations of the universities they attend. Companies that want to align themselves with the prestige, exclusivity and history associated with the Ivies now have a way to do so, and Florida sports attorney Darren Heitner says he has seen brands partner with athletes for a myriad of reasons beyond their “on-the-field or on-the-court performance.

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“I have been involved with certain brands that have associated with individuals who have [1,000 to 2,000] followers but just see that the athlete speaks to the specific target audience for that specific brand,” he explains. “I’ve even spoken with brands that are considering adding incentives for certain athletes based on their academic accomplishments. I think the Ivy League is known for its academic standards, and there’s certainly some brands that may be a good fit.”

A handful of Ivy athletes who boast social media follower counts in the six figures have already reaped the financial benefits of their new opportunities. Alexis Hiltunen, a Princeton women’s soccer player with 151,000 followers on Instagram, charges $100 for a 24-hour story and $500 for a photo posted to her feed while Cornell wrestler Yianni Diakomihalis has a line of clothing, singlets and shoes to share with his 101,000 followers through a partnership with Spartan.

Cornell wrestler Yianni Diakomihalis

Others with fewer than 10,000 followers have found success by reaching out to brands they like or creating their own opportunities.

Monroe hosted a youth basketball camp this summer in Hatboro, Pa., and advertised a vintage clothing brand on Instagram in exchange for free T-shirts. His teammate Max Lorca-Lloyd launched a clothing collection with PWRFWD, an athlete-to-consumer marketplace, in August, and Brown baseball player Ryan Marra negotiated deals with equipment companies like LeftySwag Bats and Stadium Custom Kicks.

Compensation in those deals came in the form of free products, commission earned off each sale from specific links and discount codes rather than direct payments simply for posting, but many of the athletes are hopeful the NIL revolution can bring about more widespread changes in the conference, like the creation of athletic scholarships and a new appeal for recruits who may have previously overlooked the Ivies in favor of Power 5 schools.

Diakomihalis, a two-time NCAA champion who passed up multiple scholarship offers to wrestle at Cornell, predicted a high-profile athlete could make enough money through sponsorships to cover the cost of school and have some leftover.

“This is one way that you can close the gap. The lack of scholarships really hurts the Ivy League, and I feel like it doesn’t get brought up,” he says. “But I think with this, you’re giving kids the opportunity to make money, and when you’re in the Ivy League you’re making such good connections that now you can benefit from those in a different way.”

Deals from the deep pockets of those connections—alumni, donors and boosters—could “trickle down to the recruiting trail in the near future,” as Heitner puts it, now that there is a new way to funnel resources directly to the athletes, but he doesn’t expect that to dramatically shake up the hierarchy of the conferences. Instead, he hypothesizes that “within the Ivy League there may be some competitive battles between the schools as to what each school is able to command on behalf of its athletes.”

If the NIL deals add more heat to the rivalries between the universities, Yale football coach Tony Reno, director of recruiting Jake Pelletier and the rest of the coaching staff are ready.

Reno expressed his support of the NCAA’s decision to his team early on, and Pelletier says the new opportunities could “even the playing field” when searching for the top recruits across the country. The Bulldogs are gearing up for the program's first football game since 2019 this weekend when they will host Holy Cross.

“At Yale, we encourage every NIL deal. We encourage them to be creative and use their strengths as a Yale football player,” Pelletier says. “Yale kind of speaks for itself. What they can do with their endorsements is really exciting for obviously the Ivy League and for the country.”