How NIL Legislation Could Impact College Softball's Future
The Women’s College World Series has continued to grow its viewership and reach throughout the last decade, but nothing has topped the striking numbers seen from the 2021 WCWS. According to ESPN, game two in the Florida State vs. Oklahoma championship series boasted a 14% increase from 2019 with an average of over two million viewers.
With the ever-growing popularity of softball and many players now catching the hearts of millions of fans, championship season appears to be the perfect time for softball players to capitalize on their big moments.
“I’m sure 20-year-old me would have been pumped at the opportunity to further monetize my college career,” said BillieAnne Gay, a 2006 Florida State softball alumna and current Director of Advocacy & Legislative Services at the Florida School Boards Association. “It would have been significantly different for us based on the varied ways kids today can leverage things like social media influence.”
As of right now, at least six states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas—are expected to have new statutes by July 1 permitting college athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness and earn money from third-party endorsements.
For decades, the NCAA has not allowed athletes to make a profit from their name, image and likeness. However, with a sweeping number of states ratifying new rules, the NCAA is being urged to quickly announce new regulations related to previous NIL rules to avoid unfair recruiting advantages.
On June 21, the Supreme Court determined by unanimous ruling that the NCAA is no longer able to prohibit college athletes from receiving education-related payments. And back on June 9, NCAA President Mark Emmert testified before the U.S. Senate asking that national legislation be enacted before the fall semester, though that request may take longer.
NIL legislation could create a future where athletes can start to profit off of YouTube channels, endorsement deals, autographs and influencer or sponsorship agreements. Things that student-athletes once got suspended for will likely soon be a part of their futures.
“Coming up with the general consensus about what the outcome should be has been relatively easy. Getting people to agree on the details of it has been extraordinarily complex,” Emmert said. “But I'm very hopeful that we finally have the schools at a place right now where they're ready to pass a national standard. That, however, will not alleviate the need for federal legislation.”
Universities across the nation are debuting NIL programs aimed at helping student-athletes understand the future of college sports and the importance of social media in it.
According to Social Blade, a website for measuring social media growth, after unseeded James Madison softball’s June 5 win over No. 1 seed Oklahoma, JMU pitcher Odicci Alexander saw her Instagram account gain 7,084 new followers in one day. Throughout the rest of the tournament, her Instagram account continued to grow, with her gaining 51,831 new followers in six days. Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts also saw her following increase by a hefty amount on Instagram, with her gaining 44,504 new followers in seven days during the WCWS.
Once a worry about whether the NIL legislation would benefit female athletes as much as their male counterparts, stars like Alexander and Fouts have shown their NIL potential through their social media following.
After the 2021 WCWS, softball players like Alexander and Fouts now have more Instagram followers and higher post engagement rates than many Power Five football players, making them more marketable to collaborate with companies and brands in the future.
For college softball, allowing more athletes to share their journeys and capitalize on their big moments while doing it could help the continuation of the game's growth. Upcoming NIL legislation could mean more commercials and advertisements exposing college softball’s best players, which would provide those players with a lasting chance to reach a broader audience.
However, a worry that some have is the future role of teamwork, on and off the field, in the NIL age.
“When I think about the life skills and lessons I learned in my time as a student-athlete—things like loyalty and commitment, team over self, self-discipline and hard work—these are all skills that increase employability and likely earning over time,” Gay said. “I do fear that NIL could shift the focus or distract from those core values, but I trust that parents, coaches and administrators will continue to hold athletes to a high standard and instill the life skills and core values it takes to be a contributing citizen and find success in life after sports.”
After this year’s record-breaking WCWS, it is evident that upcoming NIL legislation could have a significant impact on the future of college softball and its players.