The Highest-Paid College Athletes in the NIL Era

One of the most significant changes in college sports happened on July 1, 2021, when the NCAA finally allowed athletes to profit from their own NIL (name, image, and likeness). As a result, college athletes and recruits can make money off of things like autograph signings, endorsements, personal appearances, and other activities—depending on state regulations. It’s been just over a year now since this transformation hit college sports, and many athletes around the country have already cashed in. Let’s take a look at some of the past year’s biggest NIL deals and highlight some of the highest paid college athletes.

The Big Dogs: College Athletes Cashing In On Their NIL

College athletes earned an estimated $917 million in the first year of NIL. If that says anything about what’s to come, it looks like NIL is totally transforming college sports as we know it and how student-athletes not only build their brand but also decide where to play. Through May 31, the average Division 1 athlete had received $3,711 through NIL, with some of the bigger-name players scoring huge six-figure deals. Athletes across all sports have jumped into the brand endorsements arena, but football and men’s basketball have been the big fish so far, accounting for nearly 67% of all NIL compensation. Below are some of the top NIL earners so far.

Bryce Young - Alabama

206K Instagram Followers

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young sits atop this list as one of the highest-paid current college athletes. It helps that he’s among the most popular names in college football. Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner had reportedly already earned close to $1 million in NIL deals coming into 2022. After already securing deals with the likes of Cash App, Subway, and Logan’s Roadhouse, Young recently landed another huge deal with BMW. The NFL prospect figures to be one of the top college NIL earners of all time, at least for now in the still young NIL era.

Olivia Dunne - LSU

2.1M Instagram Followers

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is currently the most-followed college athlete in the country, with over 2 million followers on Instagram and a whopping 6 million TikTok followers. Dunne, who has competed with some of the world’s top gymnasts, had reportedly already raked in over a million dollars in endorsements by October of 2021. The 19-year-old has multi-year NIL deals with American Eagle, Vuori, Planfuel, and Bartleby. She has earned thousands more in one-off deals with brands like GrubHub, EA Sports, and TooFaced Cosmetics.

Sunisa Lee - Auburn

1.7M Instagram Followers

Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee was unofficially named the most marketable collegiate gymnast in 2022. Lee shined bright at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, winning gold in the women’s all-around as well as a bronze medal for her performance on the uneven bars. Following her first Olympics stint, Lee landed a spot on Dancing with the Stars, where she advanced all the way to the semifinals. With over 1.5 million followers on both Instagram and TikTok and tons of press already, it’s safe to say Sunisa Lee will continue to shine in the world of NIL.

Quinn Ewers - Texas

127K Instagram Followers

5-star Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers was originally committed to Ohio State University before transferring to Texas after one season. Before transferring, Ewers locked in a massive 1.4 million dollar endorsement deal with GT Sports Marketing. The 3-year sponsorship deal definitely puts Ewers in the discussion of the highest-paid college athletes.

Zia Cooke - South Carolina

227K Instagram Followers

After football players, basketball players are currently the second highest paid group of college athletes. South Carolina women’s basketball player Zia Cooke is near the top of this group, having been named one of the highest-paid college basketball players in this year’s Final Four. With over 227k followers on Instagram, Cooke’s posts are valued at a potential $8,000 apiece, according to Bloomberg. The 21-year-old recently partnered with H&R Block in her biggest deal to date. The deal is part of H&R Block’s A Fair Shot, a program pledging to provide $1 million in “sponsorships and support” for female collegiate athletes through name, image, and likeness contracts.

Paige Bueckers - UConn

1M Instagram Followers

UConn guard Paige Bueckers has been a standout in women’s college basketball when healthy, averaging 14.6 points, 4 rebounds, and 3.9 assists last season. Off the court, Bueckers has landed notable endorsements with brands like Gatorade, StockX, and Cash App. Forbes estimates that she has the potential to make $1 million in endorsements and potentially thousands more through social media.

Shedeur Sanders - Jackson State

515K Instagram Followers

The son of hall of famer Deion Sanders, Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders became the first student-athlete from an HBCU to sign with Gatorade, joining an elite roster that include athletes such as Serena Williams, J.J. Watt, and Zion Williamson. The star QB has also landed notable endorsements with Beats by Dre and Tom Brady’s apparel company. As he enters his sophomore season, Sanders is sure to add to his already impressive NIL resume.

Looking Ahead 

The jury is still out on exactly how much student-athletes will be able to garner for their name, image, and likeness in the coming years—especially as states establish their own systems and regulations for student-athlete endorsements. It will be exciting to see how much athletes will be able to make in the next couple of years. With emerging stars like Arch Manning and Bronny James soon to hit the college sports scene, there’s no question that the valuation of NIL endorsements in aggregate will soon skyrocket.
Whether you’re a brand looking to form an athlete partnership or a college athlete interested in tapping into your NIL potential, Icon Source has everything you need to get started. Learn more here.

Drew Butler

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