College athletics can be neatly divided into two eras: Before NIL and After NIL. The passage of the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) policy in the summer of 2021 revolutionized the NCAA landscape, creating new opportunities for women student-athletes to build relationships with sponsors, grow their fan bases, and ultimately get paid. The establishment of NIL was quickly followed by the formation of collectives — organizations independent of universities that “help facilitate NIL deals for athletes.”
Collectives are drawing a lot of attention as they open up new NIL opportunities for athletes. But with their growing role in the NIL market, more girls are wondering how collectives work and if they are providing equitable opportunities to both men and women in the NCAA.
What Are Collectives?
NIL Collectives are school-specific organizations that “pool funds from a wide swath of donors to help create NIL opportunities for student-athletes through an array of activities.” They’re similar to a high school booster club that raises money to support the school’s sports teams and are are often formed by school alumni and athletics supporters. In theory, collectives promise to help athletes engage with and benefit from NIL opportunities by facilitating connections between athletes and businesses, helping them develop personal brands, and redistributing donor money to athletes.
There are two dominant models for these groups: “market-place” collectives and “donor” collectives.
Donor collectives use donations from supporters to essentially pay athletes in exchange for their marketing services such as social media posts or event appearances. The Crimson Collective associated with the University of Utah, for example, pays student-athletes at Utah to promote local charities.
Other collective models are also emerging, such as player-driven collectives powered by YOKE, a company that “creates software enabling teams and student athlete bodies to pool together and split the revenue from NIL deals.”
Ultimately, collectives provide a multitude of avenues for student-athletes to explore the wide world of NIL deals and financial opportunities. But, we’ve also noticed that the opportunities collectives provide aren’t always equitable. A majority of deals go to the athletes in the most high-profile sports—football and men’s basketball—and most collective money is given to men.
Are Women Athletes Benefiting From Collectives?
Some of the most high-profile NIL deals have been those involving women athletes. According to On3, a college sports focused news site, Livvy Dunne, Angel Reese, Flau'jae Johnson, Hailey Cavinder, Caitlin Clark, and Paige Bueckers are among the top 100 NIL earners. But, they’re the only six women on the list.
While the NIL era has ushered in an ocean of opportunities for college athletes, women tend to be confined to the shallows—at least in part thanks to the actions of collectives. A full 95% of collective money goes to men, Jason Belzer, the CEO of Student Athlete NIL, a company that manages a number of collectives, said in 2023.
The gender gap has many concerned that collectives are violating Title IX, which “stipulates schools must provide male student-athletes and women student-athletes with equal treatment and benefits.” The enormous disparity in financial opportunity that collectives offer men versus women is considered by many to be a potential violation.
Since collectives are closely related to university athletic programs, legal experts such as those from The Drake Group, a non-profit group of experts that educate lawmakers on issues in college athletics, consider their disproportionate distribution of funds to men athletes a violation of Title IX. Even if the question of whether collectives are associated with universities or not goes unanswered, their lack of investment in women prevents equitable access to opportunities for women athletes.
Women athletes currently competing in the NIL era see both the pros and cons. “The system is not developed enough where all women are being offered opportunities to monetize," says VIS Advocate and Columbia Swimmer Anthea Ching Wun Wong. She thinks the overall impact of the NIL era has been a positive one for women athletes “because it’s given us the approval to take on opportunities that we wouldn’t have been offered or been able to accept before,” but there’s still a huge gender gap to close.
VIS Advocate and Harvard Runner Victoria Bossong has had a similar experience. “One striking observation is the disparity in how men and women athletes are approached for sponsorship opportunities. On our track team, I have seen men athletes with comparable athletic abilities to their women counterparts receiving more proactive outreach from NIL representatives,” she says. “Women athletes often find themselves in a position where they must take the initiative to contact and persuade the same companies for sponsorships.”
NIL and NIL Collectives have positively impacted women’s college athletics by giving women a pathway to market themselves and their sports, build a public platform, and profit from their work and talent. Unfortunately, we cannot ignore that NIL Collectives are perpetuating existing systems of gender inequity in women’s sports. Men’s sports have historically received more funding, attention, and support, and the massive imbalance between NIL Collective’s investment in men’s and women’s sports reveals that NIL has a problem of inequality at its core.
“The system is not developed enough where all women are being offered opportunities to monetize…However, NIL has had an overall positive impact on women in sports because it’s given us the approval to take on opportunities that we wouldn’t have been offered or been able to accept before.”
Using NIL Deals to Drive Equality
We are still in the early years of the NIL era. Collectives, athletic programs, athletes, and lawmakers alike are continuously trying to explore, develop, and regulate the new landscape of college athletics. NIL deals have been at the center of discussions in Congress and amongst athletics officials who all have differing opinions about what NIL regulations should look like and how NIL Collectives should operate. Many questions are being raised, such as:
How can athletes be protected?
Should athletes be considered employees?
What regulations should NIL Collectives have to follow?
At VOICEINSPORT, we think that there needs to be a discussion about the role NIL plays in creating an equal playing field for men and women. At the moment, NIL and NIL Collectives are widening the gap between men and women college athletes with regards to the money, resources, and opportunities. The fact that nearly 100% of NIL Collective money is distributed to men is a clear signal that Title IX is being violated and women athletes are being excluded from the benefits NIL has to offer.
This doesn’t need to be the case.
There are things that can be done to change the course of NIL and transform it into a tool that prioritizes gender equality in sports. NIL Collectives have the money and power to invest in women athletes. And seeing that women athletes have proven that they are extremely marketable and influential time and time again, there is no reason for NIL Collectives to not invest in women and men equally. Sellout crowds, massive followings, and immense talent are reasons enough to invest.
A logical step would be for NIL Collectives to distribute funds proportionally amongst men and women athletes at a university. NIL Collectives also engage closely with fan bases and athletic programs. They have the platforms to elevate women athletes through promotion and media, and to facilitate fan engagement like they do for men’s teams by organizing meet and greets and team events. Change like this could instigate broader change in women’s sports and increase opportunities for women across athletics. So what are they waiting for?
As long as NIL Collectives continue to exclude women from NIL opportunities, legislative conversations about Title IX’s application to these deals should be the loudest discussions. If NIL regulations are on the table, lawmakers need to take action and hold NIL Collectives accountable. Lawmakers have the power to bring NIL Collectives and universities into compliance with Title IX. We think it is obvious that a legislative solution is overdue.
Actions to Take as Women Athletes
So what can we do?
We have power, influence, and our VOICE.
Call out our school’s collectives: Investigate how your school’s collectives are investing in women. If it’s not equitable, organize a group of women to make a public statement asking the collectives to do better.
Pressure our lawmakers: Write to your representatives and express your perspective on NIL and gender equity. Use this website to find your members of congress.
Advocate for ourselves and for each other: Form a VIS Chapter to foster a space for women athletes at your school to build community and take action to create more opportunities for ourselves.
Talk to our teammates and other women athletes about NIL.
Let’s start by sharing our knowledge about NIL, building a community of women athletes who support each other—like what our VIS Advocates are doing in their VIS Chapters across the country—and speaking out about the investment and opportunity we deserve.