The Download on NIL and College Golf
Top NCAA golfers are finally able to cash in, but the complications and conflicts run deep
By Jordan Perez
At the 112th U.S. Amateur last month, hundreds of athletes graced Oakmont’s diabolical greens with the shared goal of winning the most prestigious event in amateur golf. But plenty had another kind of green in mind: earning potential.
Three Oklahoma State golfers were among those who used the Amateur to cash in on the NCAA’s recently enacted Name Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation. Aman Gupta (above), Bo Jin and Brian Stark each struck a week-long deal with Wilson Cadillac, a dealership in Stillwater, Okla., to sport black and white hats with the Cadillac logo featured atop its panels.
But why … cars?
“It’s a premium brand that matches well with what I want to represent myself with,” Gupta says. He had explored various sponsorships heading into the week, including apparel brands, but aligning himself with a top-producing dealership was the most appealing option to the senior. As for Wilson Cadillac? Its three walking billboards all advanced to match play, and the Cadillac hat remained visible as Stark reached the quarterfinals. Did any cars get sold because of the hats? Hard to say, but thanks to the coverage of the Amateur back home, the folks at Wilson Cadillac at the very least garnered the goodwill of having supported athletes in a boutique sport.
“We saw some logos at the U.S. Amateur that were not logos you ever would have seen before,” says Craig Winter, the USGA’s senior director of Rules of Golf and Amateur Status.
This is the brave new world of NIL, as the NCAA at long last is allowing college athletes to market themselves. The USGA and the R&A saw this coming, even before the Lucy Li Apple Watch controversy in 2019.
“Our drive was for access, it wasn’t to try to allow for young golfers that are world leaders to suddenly cash in,” Winter says, noting these discussions had begun as early as 2016. “That’s not what this is about. It wasn’t what it was about then. And so ultimately, for us lifting NIL rules, we do believe that there’s going to be so much more access to capital to play the game.”
Golf, with its vast equipment industry and high-end audience, is a particularly attractive vehicle for advertisers. But navigating this rapidly evolving landscape has created a number of new opportunities—and headaches—for collegiate golfers.
NIL: Where it began
Case in point: the dozens of collegians who have suddenly added “Barstool Athlete” to their Instagram bios. The gold rush began in July when Barstool announced it would help athletes commodify their likenesses and explore a world of opportunity. (Companies such as Rhoback and Winston Collection also jumped in on the action and recruited a herd of endorsees, often through DMs on social media.) Aspiring Barstool Athletes went through a perfunctory application process. Upon acceptance, the kids receive a box of free apparel and the right to add the “Barstool Athlete” badge to their social media profiles. Promotion on the Barstool platforms and from its talent supplied extra juice.
Logan McAllister, a senior at Oklahoma, reached out to Barstool when he noticed it hadn’t taken on any golfers in the early days of the NIL free-for-all. The sixth-ranked player on the PGA Tour University list, McAllister (below) saw a lot of long-term upside in the endorsement. (The rah-rah Barstool golf coverage, which blurs the line between fandom and journalism, has single-handedly turned Kevin Kisner into a cult hero and helped improve —or rehab—the reputations of various other PGA Tour players.)
McAllister’s social media following nearly doubled after Barstool announced the partnership, but he remains conservative in signing on with other collaborators. “At the end of the day, professional golf is one summer away for a lot of us (in the PGA Tour University rankings),” McAllister says. “And if it distracts from playing good golf, it’s almost more valuable to just kind of lay low.” He believes high-level performance will inevitably translate to endorsement income after he turns professional.
Even those who have fully delved into the content creation scene have expressed caution, worried about running afoul of the evolving rules. Universities have individually imposed limitations on what can be promoted, often operating based on legislation in their state. (At the time of the July 1 policy, just 24 states had passed NIL legislation.) To avoid NCAA eligibility issues, many schools prohibit the endorsement of gambling or performance-enhancing drugs. With a sigh, one golfer who prefers to remain anonymous mentions having to say no to a hemp company with a reach of nearly 1 million followers.
Still, plenty of athletes are already cashing in, even as they are just starting their college journey. John Daly II, aided by considerable name recognition, sports “University of Arkansas 25 @nikegolf @taylormadegolf @winstonathletes @thewinstoncollection” in his Instagram bio of 58k followers …. with just four posts, impressively. Daly Jr. could be deemed an anomaly, but dozens of other marketable talents are on campus this fall.
Take, for example, Kaila Bonawitz, aka, TikTok’s @kailagolfs. A Hawaii Pacific freshman, Bonawitz (below) has been creating videos since 2019, ahead of the TikTok lockdown surge and at last check had garnered over 79,000 followers and 2.7 million likes. She’s both a Barstool and Rhoback U athlete, and one of the largest personalities in the GolfTok space.
But even with a thorough understanding of the social media landscape, Bonawitz was cautious in launching her NIL brand, preferring first to get to campus. “I think it’s good for me to have face-to face-contact with the people who are in charge and have the most power and say over things like this, just to make sure that I’m not doing the wrong thing,” Bonawitz says.
Meanwhile, Cooper Lukenda—college golfer, hockey player and rising YouTube creator—dove right into monetizing the platform he had worked so hard to build in the year ahead of NIL. YouTube allows creators to profit from original content in tandem with Google’s AdSense; every view can translate into pennies, if not dollars.
“When this came out, it was obviously an extra boost, or extra motivation, when I wanted to maybe take a week off or not make a video,” says Lukenda (above), a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. That same day, he had uploaded a video just before afternoon golf practice. While few college golfers are picking up the vlog camera and documenting their daily lives for minutes on end, Lukenda says he has an upper hand given the effectiveness of a long-form advertisement and the personality that accompanies it. The staying power of videos such as “My Brand New Driver is a Cheat Code” could sweeten the deal for potential partners, whose products have visibility for a longer period of time versus a fleeting Instagram story.
Jason Leonard, the compliance director at Oklahoma, has overseen some of the biggest deals in the country (for football players, at least.) He’s fully aware of the evolving and often confusing landscape and praises those who are treading carefully. “I applaud those that are waiting to dip their toe in the water to make sure that they know all the variables before they jump in,” Leonard says. “I think that’s a very prudent approach. He believes athletes are “doing themselves a great service” by avoiding the possible entanglement of agreeing to an alluring dollar sign that could lead to dire consequences.
Oklahoma and other schools have been keeping their athletes in the loop with specific Twitter accounts (@OUCompliance), created to combat the bureaucracy that often comes with compliance. “A lot of times, people listen for a little while, but then they kind of tune out,” Leonard says. Tweets alert athletes instantaneously about policy updates blended with a little bit of meme culture.
Bonawitz has communicated with Hawaii Pacific in reporting her NIL activities but has taken charge of her influencer career with a curated strategy. She released her first collaboration on TikTok with @814stamping, a company that specializes in custom ball markers. She is closely monitoring other athletes as she plots her next moves. “I’m seeing who they’re partnering with and doing research on the companies that they’re partnered with and saying, ‘Oh, wow, that looks cool. Maybe I should reach out to them,’” she says.
Authenticity is the key to standing out in a sea of sponsored content. Canon Claycomb of Alabama (below) has a humorous tone, an attribute he hopes will allow him to connect with his audience. “I like to treat my social media as kind of an outlet that people are able to see in my life, because I feel like I live a pretty interesting life, being able to travel and play golf,” he says.
Claycomb says most companies ask for a post or a few Instagram stories per week—a manageable level of commitment he says has grown into “second nature.” The negotiation is a similar story. “I kind of know my way around an iPhone, and I feel like I can kind of do whatever I need to do from my phone,” Claycomb says. “So if I have an hour or two, and somebody wants to talk about their partnerships or their companies, it’s so easy for me to pick up the phone and text with them, or call them.”
NIL: Must be the money
But what exactly do these payouts look like? Flat fees for short-term partnerships in college golf are usually a few hundred dollars but can climb into the low four figures. Many companies offer a 10 to 15 percent commission on sales. Bottom line: Guaranteed cash is king for college kids.
For businesses, scouting these kids is a methodical process. Christian Heavens, a professional golfer and the owner of Tour Line Golf, was fascinated by the game of Kentucky’s Marissa Wenzler long before NIL came along. Then she won the Women’s Western Amateur this summer and made a fantastic run in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Heavens pitched to the rising star and Wenzler (below) agreed to promote Tour Line’s chalk line and other products to her more than 5,000 followers.
A guy who has rubbed shoulders with a number of tour pros throughout his playing career, Heavens says the future is in microinfluencers: personalities with smaller but highly engaged social media followings. “You don’t have to break the bank and spend $50,000 or whatever for one appearance (by an established superstar),” he says. The microinfluencers are far cheaper, and higher engagement means more sales.
While their counterparts in sports like football and basketball can get paid to conduct clinics, college golfers are barred from providing in-person instruction because of a USGA interpretation that for-profit golf instruction “while okay per the NCAA is not allowed under the Rules of Amateur Status.” The USGA says it has no plans to lift this restriction.
International student-athletes on F1 visas—or the majority of foreign college golfers—are disenfranchised entirely from NIL payouts. Noelle Beijer (below), a fifth-year golfer at Missouri who hails from the Netherlands, was excited about the prospect of NIL. Charming Twitter and Instagram feeds would seemingly provide a great opportunity for the golfer to cash in, and she was set to join Barstool Athletics … until she learned what was at stake. “We technically can only work on campus,” Beijer says, “and accepting money from a company would be considered off campus. This really upsets me. I thought it would give me an opportunity to show the world who I am as an amateur before turning pro.”
On the World Amateur Golf Ranking top-10 lists, the men’s side has just four players who are eligible for NIL while the women’s side has only two. (Not all are NCAA athletes.) Work reportedly is being done at the federal level to address the issue, but no one knows when or if a resolution will come. Athletes on Pell Grants are also at risk of losing their scholarships if their NIL earnings exceed its cap.
Adding to the confusion are policies specific to universities that college golfers must navigate. Florida State recently informed its athletes that “use of campus facilities or grounds for NIL activities requires written authorization from FSU. Commercial film or photography requires additional approval from the Office of University Communications. Authorized use may necessitate additional requirements, including certification of insurance, payment of applicable rental fees, etc.” That means students who want to use FSU’s home course for an NIL promotion could incur additional costs.
No wonder many schools are scrambling to beef up their compliance departments. Expect to see “NIL monitoring” as a desirable skill in athletics department job postings.
Not every college golfer is looking to pocket the cash, though. Amy Bockerstette, college golfer and disabilities advocate, uses proceeds from her Cameo videos toward her I Got This Foundation. Rachel Heck, a sophomore at Stanford, intends to use her Instagram art account, @raindelayz, to benefit various military charities.
In each and every scenario, those merging their athletic gifts with their entrepreneurial interests feel it’s about time they get their rightful cut. “We deserve credit,” Bonawitz says.
She’s not talking about the academic kind.