More than two-thirds of Utahns support college athletes having the opportunity to be compensated for commercial use of their name, image and/or likeness, according to a new poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Across all groups, 68% said they approve of athletes monetizing their names, images and/or likenesses, with 25% expressing opposition. Seven percent answered “don’t know.”

The poll of 801 registered voters in Utah was conducted Oct. 3-6 and has a 3.46% margin of error.

College and high school athletes can profit in a number of ways such as appearing in ad campaigns, starting their own sports camps or businesses, paid appearances, or selling merchandise and autographs, among others.

Previously, such activities conflicted with NCAA rules that prohibited college athletes, under the guise of amateurism, from profiting from brand endorsements or other moneymaking endeavors beyond what colleges provide for their attendance.

The first serious legal challenge to the NCAA’s amateurism rules dates back to 2009, O’Bannon v. NCAA. A California federal district court judge ruled in 2014 that the NCAA’s compensation rules were an unlawful restraint of trade.

That was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but two of the three judges on the panel also concluded that preserving amateurism was an important goal and that any compensation athletes might receive had to be related to education. Both parties appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court but it declined to take up the case.

Other court challenges followed and some state legislatures began to pass laws allowing student-athletes to receive compensation in exchange for use of their names, images and likenesses.

In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in NCAA v. Alston to uphold a lower court’s ruling that said the NCAA’s restrictions on “education-related benefits” for college athletes violated antitrust laws.

Shortly afterward, the NCAA voted to allow a student athlete to be compensated for use of their name, image, and likeness.

Utah has no state laws on NIL, thus universities rely on NCAA regulations.

The results of the poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, reflect substantial support or NIL overall but highest among respondents ages 18-24, with 94% in support; those who describe themselves as “very liberal” at 89%; Democrats at 84%, and those with some college but no degree at 71%. 

There was less support among Republicans, those ages 57-plus, and a 10% gap between men and women, with 70% of men and 60% of women saying they support NIL opportunities.

Among respondents who self-identified as “very conservative,” 60% supported it, according to the poll results.

Some limitations to athletes earning money remain. Players cannot be paid to play and players are not supposed to get any compensation tied for performance. Recruits cannot sign any NIL deal contingent on going to any particular school.

Athletes also cannot promote certain products and services such as alcoholic beverages, cannabis and gambling.

But there’s a wide array of other opportunities for student-athletes. University of Utah Athletics has partnered with the David Eccles School of Business and the nationally recognized Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute to help student-athletes make the most of their NIL ideas.

The partnership, Elevate U, “allows student athletes to become educated in this space — learn about branding, social media, LLCs (limited liability companies) business structures, how to do business development, social media” and tax obligations, said Gavin Van Wagoner, assistant athletics director for NIL and major gifts.

The platform was made available to student-athletes the same day it became permissible for them to leverage NIL opportunities, which was about 15 months ago. Following that, the university established the Elevate U Exchange, in partnership with the content and compliance software platform for elite athletics, INFLCR in June 2022. The exchange is an NIL marketplace for Utah’s student-athletes and interested businesses, collectives and individuals.

Thus far, some $1.6 million in NIL deals with University of Utah student-athletes have been formalized, according to University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan on the “Hear it from Harlan” podcast dropped Oct. 6.

“We’re starting to see some really good progress. You’ll start to see more commercials with our student athletes, beyond some one of the well-known students that are here but a broader base. We’re seeing more team deals, which I think are just awesome,” Harlan said.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface though. ... As I compare it across the Pac-12 and others particularly in the West, we’re actually near the top from what I understand. But we still can do more and we will do more,” he said.

Interestingly, some student-athletes say they are not interested in the NIL marketplace, preferring to concentrate their energies on earning their degrees, training and practicing for their respective sports, and competing, said Harlan.

But for those who engage, there are financial rewards or trade-outs for products, as well as the valuable lessons learned through Elevate U that will help student-athletes throughout their lives, Van Wagoner said.

Participating in promotions or taping commercials imposes time demands on student-athletes with already full schedules, Van Wagoner said, but Division I athletes are used to managing competing demands, he said.

“You don’t get to this D-I level unless you’re a very talented, driven, smart, high-performing, innovative, full-of-grit person. So usually, people like that can manage their time,” he said.

NIL deals are still in their infancy but thus far, Van Wagoner said he’s excited about the prospects for students and the personal growth opportunities available through Elevate U.

“I’m very bullish on NIL. I think it’s been awesome. I have not seen a downside. This just gives student-athletes another opportunity if they want to pursue it. I think it’s been great. I think it’s been great for them to be able to participate in this business space, whether it’s selling their jerseys or shirts or that sort of thing that they haven’t had access to before,” he said.

Top NIL earners

According to Action Network, which provides readers original reporting, insights, betting tools, data and odds, college football’s highest NIL earners this year are:

  • University of Alabama’s Bryce Young, with a total valuation of $3.2 million in NIL deals.
  • Ohio State University’s CJ Stroud, with a $2.5 million NIL valuation.
  • University of Southern California’s Caleb Williams at a $2.4 million NIL valuation.
  • Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigbas at a $1.7 million valuation.
  • University of Texas’ Bijan Robinson, also with a $1.7 million NIL valuation.

Meanwhile, among the top 10 football teams from the AP Top 25, the No. 1 school for player NIL valuation — based on average earnings across the team— is Texas A&M at $85,000. Rounding out the top five are the University of Michigan, Oklahoma University, University of Georgia and University of Alabama at fifth, despite having some of the biggest single NIL deals on its roster, according to Action Network.

The website ranks the University of Utah No. 9 for $29,000 average earnings across the teams.

Utah prep athletes

The Utah High School Activities Association handbook also addresses NIL among the state’s high school athletes. The policy says students may accept money for the use of his or her name, image and likeness.

However, wearing a school team uniform or any identifying school insignia while appearing in any advertisement, promotional activity or endorsement for any commercial product or service would be considered a violation of the amateur rule.

The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll did not address high schoolers using their names, images or likenesses for financial benefit.