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College Athletes for Sale: Commerce Tech and the Future of Sports

What do the sports and commerce tech industries have in common? Ten years ago, that question would have sounded like the start of a bad joke. Now, however, it feels impossible to envision the future of sports without change driven by emerging commerce tech.

Today, we see wearables and other data analytics technology helping players to improve their performance, broadcasters to better engage spectators, and fans to engage in online betting with more accurate real-time odds and predictions. We see virtual and augmented reality technology allowing users to try on jerseys and simulate equipment use before making purchases, to participate in immersive viewings of the greatest sports moments, and to access faster and better real-time statistics. We even see platforms to online shop for college athletes, or, at least, for access to their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

On July 1, 2021, the NCAA began allowing college athletes the opportunity to profit from their NIL. Opendorse, the leading SaaS-enabled athlete marketplace and NIL technology company, lists more than 100,000 athletes and allows them to profit from requests for anything from birthday shoutouts on social media and short personalized videos to endorsements, autographs, and event appearances.

My own college, Princeton University, recently announced their partnership with Opendorse on May 24, 2023. It is now possible for me to click a link to the official Princeton Tigers NIL marketplace and purchase a $36 social media post from my friend, dorm neighbor, and favorite Princeton softball player. Opendorse—and platforms like it—makes it simple for student-athletes to list themselves without worrying about complying with NIL policy and makes it easy for brands and fans to gain access to these athletes.

Prior to 2021 when the NCAA adopted a new NIL policy, college athletes were the only people not allowed to make money off of their own name, image, and likeness, and, while policy made this possible, commerce tech made it simple and easy. Beyond benefitting college athletes, such commerce tech may additionally help level the playing field between big, Power Five conferences that hand out large athletic scholarships and schools, such as those in the Ivy League or belonging to lower divisions, that do not.

While I am certainly not suggesting that the knowledge of being able to gain $36 for a social media post would equal the importance of an athletic scholarship for committing athletes, I do think the introduction of easy-to-use commerce tech enabling more NIL deals has the potential to create significant income for student-athletes through endorsements and social media partnerships. This income could lessen the importance of the financial benefits of athletic scholarships and allow for previously non-competitive schools to attract top-tier talent.

The Opendorse NIL marketplace represents but one example of commerce tech’s ability to transform the sports industry and push towards improvement and more competitive playing fields. Commerce tech is driving change across industries and I, personally, look forward to what’s next for sports.

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