Hawkeye non-revenue sport athletes struggle during first weeks of NIL

While new NIL rules may make millions for the biggest stars in college sports, other athletes are getting creative to take advantage of the new laws in effect.


Hannah Kinson

Iowa forward Leah Zellner brings the ball into play during the fourth quarter of the Big Ten field hockey tournament semifinals against No. 1 Michigan on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at Grant Field. With five minutes left of the game, Iowa pulled their goalkeeper to replace the position with another player on offense. The Hawkeyes were defeated by the Wolverines, 0-2. Michigan will go on to play against No. 7 Ohio State in the championships on Saturday.

Ben Palya, Sports Reporter

Many Hawkeyes have profited off their name, image, and likeness by selling merchandise, signing autographs, and signing endorsement deals since the NCAA started allowing such behavior at the start of July. At least, those who already had a following.

Iowa wrestler and three-time national champion Spencer Lee partnered with Ironside Style Apparel in Cedar Rapids to sell exclusive merchandise, and Hawkeye football wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. held an event at Graze restaurant in Iowa City to sign autographs.

While Lee and Tracy already have name recognition in the Iowa City community, it has harder for Hawkeye student-athletes in non-revenue sports to garner similar identification.

Field hockey is a popular sport in Europe, Australia, and the east coast of the United States, so only three players on the Hawkeye roster hail from the Midwest. The University of Iowa houses the only Division I field hockey team in the state.

“It is a lot harder for us because field hockey isn’t big in the United States, especially out here in Iowa,” field hockey senior Leah Zellner said. “A lot of us don’t have a bunch of followers like a football or basketball player, but there are some people I know who are working [toward an endorsement].”

Lee has 113,000 followers on Instagram and averages over 20,000 likes each post, while Zellner has approximately 1,600 Instagram followers.

But Hawkeye athletes in softball, field hockey, soccer, and cross country can still take advantage of name, image, and likeness rights — whether it’s appearing in advertisements for smaller companies or working as brand influencers.

Many Hawkeyes have become Barstool Athletes — a program started by Barstool Sports, a sports and pop culture digital media company. Different universities have different Barstool accounts, including Barstool Hawkeyes.

RELATED: Name, Image, Likeness: a new era for college athletes 

Student-athletes across all sports at Iowa are now Barstool Athletes, including Lee, softball sophomore Sammy Diaz, men’s basketball senior Connor McCaffery, and women’s soccer senior Skylar Alward.

As the new NIL rules just went into effect July 1, Hawkeye student-athletes are still contemplating their options in the first month of the new opportunities.

Iowa athletics started a comprehensive name, image, and likeness program — named FLIGHT — to help Hawkeye student-athletes understand the inner workings of NIL. Iowa athletes also attended compliances meetings before NIL went into effect to ensure any deals will fit in the university’s policy.

“I haven’t [engaged in NIL deals] yet, because it’s still pretty new,” Zellner said.  “And I think a lot of us have still been thinking about it and learning about it so we’re still compliant… We’re both learning as we go, but the university is here to help us, and we’ve been on calls already going through the rules.”

Social media has become popular with influencers making money off brand deals and advertising, and Iowa athletes playing both revenue and non-revenue sports can use it to their advantage.

Some Hawkeye athletes, like women’s soccer captain Sara Wheaton, are not on social media often. Wheaten said she does not have a desire to use the new NIL rules to gain a following and earn money through advertising revenue.

“I have TikTok and that’s about it, so I personally won’t do anything of the sort,” Wheaton said. “But I know that there are girls on the team that are interested in using social media to reach out and build their brands.”