Every time she feels the soft, snuggly fabric of her pajamas, Logan Caymol is reminded of the many ways that name, image and likeness (NIL) deals are wrapping college athletes in a warm embrace.
The softball pitcher scored a NIL deal with Cozy Earth, a luxury bedding and loungewear company, right after she transferred to LMU in the summer of 2021. What made the graduate transfer from Clemson an attractive endorser wasn’t so much the wicked riseball that helped her record the first no-hitter in Tigers history as the legion of social media followers that has grown to a combined 42,000 on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.
Cozy Earth outfitted Caymol with bed sheets, pajama sets and sweatshirts in exchange for promotion on social media. She would describe the products and provide a link to the company website. Clicks and purchases resulted in Caymol getting more freebies to review, stocking her wardrobe.
She has gone on to secure a handful of other NIL deals, including one with a financial banking app and another with a company that turns old T-shirts into quilts. Caymol estimates that she’s collected a few thousand dollars in cash and products.
That windfall has made Caymol one of the early NIL success stories at LMU, whose athletes have earned 80 deals. The majority have involved nutrition and supplement companies or health and beauty products, with about half of the deals including free products or product discounts and the balance providing cash or commissions.
It’s a start, though it’s hardly reminiscent of the bonanza that Caymol has seen friends enjoy at her former school, where $25,000 deals are routine and some football players can command six figures.
“Football players are nationwide brands and have like millions of followers, so it’s different here because LMU doesn’t have a football team,” says Caymol, who has enrolled in the Loyola Law School and has two more years of softball eligibility. “But we are definitely on a good track and I’m excited to see how the next two years play out.”
Like many mid-major colleges fighting for a portion of the riches that largely go to athletic powers, LMU is still gaining a foothold in the NIL space a little more than one year after college athletes were allowed to start profiting off their own brand. But emerging opportunities such as donor-funded collectives — and old-fashioned hustle among athletes snagging their own deals — could make the Lions a bigger player in the years to come.
The numbers reveal an already massive gap between athletic goliaths and their smaller counterparts. According to data collected by Opendorse, an online platform that connects companies with athletes seeking NIL deals, the projected compensation in Year 2 of the NIL era is $16,074 per athlete in Power Five conference schools as opposed to $5,572 per athlete in Group of Five conference schools and just $3,195 for all Division I athletes.
Predictably, the West Coast Conference lags behind the Big Ten and other football-playing conferences whose athletes are awash in NIL dollars. But the WCC also trails the Horizon League — another mid-major conference that does not play football — as well as the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, whose teams compete in NCAA Division II. Overall, according to NIL transactions facilitated or disclosed through Opendorse, the WCC ranked 19th out of 25 conferences in total compensation in the first year of NIL.
“Most mid-majors have been very slow to do this,” says Jason Belzer, chief executive officer of Student Athlete Empowerment, an NIL agency that has partnered with LMU to help facilitate deals for its athletes. “Part of that is a function of that they don’t have the same type of donor bases [as big-conference schools], but also some of them have not or chosen not to move as quickly as other schools have and so the reality is that any institution that has a relatively large endowment, a relatively robust donor program and business support should be very actively engaged in this.”
Belzer rated LMU’s early NIL success as typical of its WCC brethren, notwithstanding the heights Gonzaga has reached as a result of its powerhouse men’s basketball program. (Star Drew Timme’s flurry of deals had reportedly netted him well into six figures before the start of the last NCAA tournament.) Belzer’s assessment jibes with what LMU athletic director Craig Pintens has seen up close.
“I think in the first year, we’ve done OK,” Pintens says. “I would grade us as average.”
A veteran of administrative stints in marketing at athletic powerhouses Oregon, Louisiana State and Marquette prior to his arrival at LMU, Pintens had grown frustrated with schools’ inability to promote their athletes before NIL deals became permissible in July 2021. He always felt that jersey sales would have skyrocketed had schools been able to use their star athletes’ names and give them a share of the revenue.
Now Pintens delights in athletes profiting off their brands, even if a lack of nationwide NCAA legislation has left schools to navigate a maze of state NIL laws that can vary widely. Pintens has seen three categories of NIL deals emerge, including one involving elite athletes such as USC quarterback Caleb Williams who have become natural draws based solely on their mass appeal.
“Obviously,” Pintens says, “those type of situations are pretty rare, that’s less than 1% of student-athletes across the country.”
The second category of NIL deals centers on athletes — like Caymol — who have an identifiable brand that makes them attractive product hawkers, whether through a large social media following or a distinctive personality (sometimes both). The third category involves the hustlers, athletes like Amherst (Mass.) College receiver Jack Betts who go out and secure their own deals based on personal interests. Betts has piled up more than 30 deals even though he plays for a tiny college, earning him the nickname “The King of Division III NIL.”
Given that LMU has no football team and its men’s basketball team has not appeared in the NCAA tournament since the tear-jerking days of Bo Kimble and the run to the Elite Eight in 1990, its athletes are predominantly going to fall into the latter two categories no matter how much promotion they receive from athletic administrators.
Athletic departments in California are not allowed to arrange deals for their athletes, leaving them to provide a framework and support. LMU has engaged SAE, an agency that directly facilitates deals between athletes and fans, donors, alumni and businesses that could involve personal appearances, autograph signings or endorsements, among other opportunities.
Pintens has also heard from donors interested in establishing a collective for LMU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams — welcome news to Stan Johnson, the men’s basketball coach who knows a robust NIL program will be essential to both recruit and retain the kinds of players that could get the Lions back to the NCAA tournament.
“This is a way to — especially where we’re at, we’re trying to rebuild this program — maybe obviously get talent that you might not be able to get based on what they’re able to receive from an NIL perspective,” says Johnson, who is entering his third season at the school. “So it has the ability to change the game for different institutions such as ours, but it takes a level of commitment and belief from people to get involved and to become a part of these collectives to make that happen.”
What might the sort of collective Johnson wants entail?
“I don’t know what the number is, but we’ve got to be able to get to a position where you’re not in a deficit, and what I mean by that is, recruiting in the past, if you’ve done a good job and you’ve worked really hard for a kid — in most situations — you have an opportunity to win that recruitment,” Johnson says. “What I would say is, those days are over. You can work really hard on a kid and do a great job recruiting him, you can build all the relationships you want to build with that kid and his family, but at the end of the day if some school’s going to come in and put a package together for them — and I don’t know what that looks like — but that package is something that they can’t afford to turn down and can really help the kid and his family and make a difference for collegiate experience and career, you’re not going to get that kid.”
Belzer says schools that have vigorous NIL programs have routinely been able to generate from $25,000 to $50,000 for every men’s basketball player. And it’s not just the bluebloods that are landing attractive packages for players. Johnson says he’s heard of schools at the mid-major level that are lining up some enticing things that could be available to prospects as soon as the next recruiting cycle.
“Those people are going to be very hard to beat,” says Johnson, who also knows NIL success will be needed to keep players he already has from looking elsewhere through the transfer portal.
So what’s a private Jesuit school based in Los Angeles to do? Maybe the answer is to focus on being a private Jesuit school based in Los Angeles. LMU’s distinctive location as a mid-major with a hilltop campus located in a major metropolitan area presents some unique opportunities. There’s the financial firepower that comes with residing in the nation’s second-largest city as well as the unparalleled glitz of Hollywood.
The flip side is that there are an untold number of competitors in such a crowded marketplace. Johnson also pointed out that schools residing in smaller towns tend to benefit from communities that galvanize themselves around the local athletic teams, treating them like professional entities.
Caymol considered LMU’s location a plus as she contemplated a cross-country move after obtaining her criminal justice degree from Clemson in rural South Carolina.
“I knew that being in L.A. and being around a big group of networkers,” Caymol says, “I was still going to be able to work on my NIL and just continue to grow it as I had planned to do at Clemson.”
Not every college athlete wants to participate in NIL opportunities given a hectic schedule that includes classes, practices, games and travel. Further complicating matters, international athletes face limitations. Keli Leaupepe, a senior forward from Melbourne, Australia, on the LMU men’s basketball team, says he was told any deals could compromise his student visa.
“I’m on a team with a couple of European guys,” Leaupepe says, “and it’s a bit annoying that we can’t do much about it.”
Caymol encouraged athletes eager — and eligible — to make NIL money to go onto the Postgame or Opendorse apps. Once athletes enter their school, sport(s) played and social media handles, they can get connected with companies interested in working with them in a variety of capacities.
Pintens says anyone wanting to engage with LMU athletes about possible NIL deals could contact his office for more information and direction. It’s probably not an overstatement to say the future of his athletic department could depend on it.
“Like anything else, you have to move people from being interested to committed, right?” Johnson says. “And I don’t think that’s just an LMU thing, that’s everywhere, but I do believe with our leadership and some of the things we have going and as this continues to be a more concrete understanding from people — like, this is going nowhere and this is something we’re all going to have to do and figure out — I think we’re going to see things get done here this year, so it’s going to happen.
“We have a great opportunity here at LMU and this should be looked at as such — this is an opportunity to change the program.”
Ben Bolch has been a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times since 1999. He covers the UCLA basketball beat and is the author of “100 Things UCLA Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” Follow him @latbbolch.
Brian Stauffer is an illustrator whose work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Esquire, The Nation and TIME. His illustrations appeared in “Whiplashed” in LMU Magazine (Summer 2015). Follow him @StaufferStudio.