Utah gymnasts are cashing in on NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules

But with NIL money comes some pitfalls, Utes coach says.

o(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristal Isa scores a 9.95 on the beam as Utah hosts UCLA, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

When Utah’s gymnastics team takes the floor, it represents some of the best talent in collegiate gymnastics.

They also represent some of the most well paid.

Ever since the NCAA changed its ruling in July of 2021 to allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), college athletes have been cashing in, especially gymnasts.

According to the On3NIL 100 list of female athletes valuations, 18 are gymnasts from eight different teams. LSU’s Livvy Dunne ranks No. 1 with a valuation of $3.2 million while Utah’s Grace McCallum is No. 14 ranking and valuation of $206,000.

Sage Thompson (No. 36, $84,000), Kara Eaker (No. 60, $42,000) and Abby Paulson (No. 87, $32,000) are other Utes on the list.

That there are so many gymnasts ranked high isn’t a surprise to those who follow the sport. After all, gymnasts such as Chiles and McCallum enjoyed a level of celebrity after competing for the U.S. in the 2020 Olympics.

Chiles, a member of the U.S. National Team for eight years, has deals with well-known brands including Reebok, Pottery Barn, Amazon and others.

Before the NIL ruling, elite gymnasts had to decide if they wanted to keep their amateur status and compete at the collegiate level, or go pro and enjoy the monetary benefits of sponsorships.

Now they don’t have to make that choice and coaches like Utah’s Tom Farden can worry a little less.

“You always dreaded that phone call of hearing they were looking at this agent or this agent,” Farden said. “Now they get their cake and eat it, too.”

NIL wasn’t a factor in McCallum’s decision since it came later, but she can see where it might affect gymnastics going forward.

“It can add to recruiting,” she said. “But it’s still about the caliber of coaching and the university itself that are a factor.”

The NIL ruling is new enough that it is hard to peg the exact impact it is having on college athletics since schools don’t always divulge their athletes’ deals.

But NIL platform Opendorse estimated $917 million was spent in the first year of NIL deals with the average NIL deal worth $1524-$1,815, according to the Opendorse research.

The average football player’s deal is worth $3,390 while the average deal for women’s gymnasts is $7,054.

Utah’s gymnasts are faring well in part due to the presence of the Who Rocks the House collective, which helps connect Utah fans to the gymnasts through community events.

It is seen as a win-win, with the gymnasts getting more money in their pockets and the community benefiting from the events.

Eaker, who has deals with Red Rock Pharmacy, Omaha Steak Company and others, said gymnasts are appealing to companies because many use social media to promote themselves from a young age.

“We know how to bring people in and use social media,” she said. “Sometimes there are things that you can’t send an email for because it won’t reach people in the same way.”

Of course, such marketability does have its pitfalls, too. For instance, when Dunne visited the Huntsman Center for the season-opening meet, a large group of boys disrupted the meet and forced the Utah officials to take some added security measures to get the LSU team out of the Huntsman Center safely.

Dunne is an extreme example, considering she has 10.1 million followers, more than double the amount Auburn’s Sunisa Lee has who ranks second with 3.5 million, but the incident still served as a caution.

Farden has taken some measures to help his team navigate the NIL world, such as cautioning them to not put anything on their social media platforms they wouldn’t want their grandmother to see. The team also attended a seminar on how tax codes work.

“They’ve had to make some very grown-up decisions about taxes and aligning with certain brands and agents at a young age,” he said. “They’ve had to wrap their heads around what adulting is.”

Eaker welcomed the help in navigating the ins and outs of NIL and said ultimately the benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks.

“Staying true to what you want in the world is the biggest part,” she said. “You want to give the fans what they want, as long as you follow your own line. You have to understand your name on a brand is going to stand for something you want to see.”

Unfortunately, not all athletes can participate in the NIL windfall. Since foreign athletes attend schools on visa for educational and not vocational purposes, they are unable to reap the benefits of the Nil.

Farden hopes that can change one day.

“That would open the floodgates in bringing stars to the NCAA,” he said.