It is a new era, and a fairer one, in college sports. When the Supreme Court threw a 9-0 shutout at the NCAA and its economic model last June, basically affirming that the organization’s amateurism model ran blatantly afoul of antitrust regulations, it opened college athletes to a world where they could be compensated legally by outside sources for what essentially is a full-time job in a multi-million dollar business.
A lot of athletes have taken advantage, and let’s not forget that the California legislature, and specifically State Senator Nancy Skinner, started the trend toward name/image/likeness compensation as early as the summer of 2019. A couple of months ago, a young , talented UCLA soccer star took it to another level.
Reilyn Turner will be a junior for UCLA’s women’s team this fall. She was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2020 with 11 goals, and had 10 goals (including a hat trick) as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Pacific-Region and All-Pac-12 plaudits. And in mid-December, a month after the end of the Bruins’ season, she became the first college athlete to sign a name/image/likeness contract with Nike.
It’s still a period of adjustment, I suspect, and the public might not yet be used to the idea that college athletes can hire agents and can land potential six-figure deals as endorsers or influencers.
Turner and her representative, Spencer Wadsworth of the Wasserman agency, declined to disclose the size of her multi-year contract with Nike. But it’s obvious that a company that has been at the forefront of corporate relationships with professional athletes saw something special in Turner, a former star at Laguna Beach High who has been a member of US national U-17 and U-19 teams.
“The morning after I signed with Wasserman, Spencer came to my mom (Felicia Madrigal) and I saying that Nike was interested, and I thought to myself, ‘This is a dream come true,’” Turner said. “At first I tried not to get my hopes up, but as time went on and like things started to progress, I was more inclined to believe that this was more of a reality.”
Performance is an important part of her appeal, as Wadsworth pointed out in our conversation. But Turner is determined to use the relationship with Nike to do things for youths in her community, the specifics of which are still evolving.
“I’ve tried to use the small but growing platform I have to hopefully inspire the younger generation of athletes to chase their dreams,” she said. “For me, being an African-American and Mexican-American woman, I’m really excited to do my best to be a role model for those girls – and even boys – who maybe don’t see themselves pursuing their sport in the long term. Hopefully, I can be someone who inspires young athletes to follow their dreams and even make new goals for themselves, if possible.”
Part of the deal here, as noted in Nike’s press release, is that athlete and company will work together with partners in the Los Angeles community. The exact nature is to be determined, but Turner said she would be working with non-profits, conducting camps and clinics, appearing at fundraisers or making other appearances.
The NIL environment itself is still evolving. After the rules changed last summer and athletes started to sign contracts and develop relationships with businesses and companies, Turner and her mother decided to set up a meeting with the Wasserman agency just to see what was out there.
That was a chance worth taking.
“The (vast) percentages of NIL deals are going to men, and obviously we want that to change,” Wadsworth said. “Reilyn’s regarded as one for the future. First and foremost she performed, she did well in college, she was the top rookie last year, and she’s been on the radar. And then there was an opportunity to do something cool like this.”
There are a lot of possibilities. Wasserman also represents Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers, who became the first college athlete to sign with Gatorade and also has a deal with Stock-X, a global e-commerce platform for sneakers, toys, electronics and apparel. Mercedes Benz has engaged college athletes for promotional events. Degree deodorant has listed a number of athletes to tell their stories of overcoming adversity. Dr. Pepper and Kool-Aid have signed athletes, and so has WWE – including deals with Fresno State basketball twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder.
And incoming USC quarterback Caleb Williams has deals with, among others, Beats by Dre, Fanatics, and most recently a real estate private equity fund in Beverly Hills.
So Pandora’s Box is wide open, and its effect on recruiting in various sports is already being debated. But it’s not just quarterbacks who are cashing in. And in an environment where athletic directors and head coaches still have multi-million dollar contracts and the ability to jump ship for better offers, the scales are now just a little bit more balanced than they once were for athletes in all sports.
Turner’s mother, who was a UNLV soccer player in the first two seasons of the Rebels’ program, 1998 and ’99, sounded only a little envious.
“You know what? Even if it was (available), I doubt I’d land a deal such as Nike,” Madrigal said with a laugh.
But, she added, that money goes into the pockets of those who can use it.
“It’s nice to think that she can come out of college with a nicely padded savings (account) or with money to invest,” she said. “If you’re a student-athlete that’s blessed to have a full-ride scholarship, that’s one thing. But … a lot of athletes end up responsible for a portion of their own schooling.
“So I just think this kind of blows the door wide open as far as opportunities go, and with everything being so new you kind of are left with a door open of creativity, what you could possibly put together (to) market yourself as an athlete, especially with these kids and their social media followings.”
The best part might be that it’s out in the open. No more cash in an envelope carried by a runner for an agent or shoe company representative, or a briefcase of an assistant coach, or an air freight package that opens at an inopportune time. (Although there’s one thing you can say about the good old days of recruiting: The stories were legendary.)
Dealing with a legitimate agency means all of the processes are observed to a T.
“The last thing you want to be is the agency that does things wrong,” Wadsworth said. “I mean, Casey Wasserman just wouldn’t stand for it.”
UCLA athletes have access to the “Westwood Ascent” program, which explains what’s permissible (and not permissible), provides workshops on best practices, offers guidelines to prospective agents, attorneys or consultants, and provides the COMPASS NIL app to athletes as a resource and a clearinghouse to notify the athletic department of impending deals. (There might be cases where an athlete’s deal might conflict with the university’s own contract, but not in this case. UCLA already wears Nike branded gear.)
But with the deals comes pressure because, as Wadsworth pointed out, it’s ultimately based on performance. That’s fine with Turner.
“I signed a long-term contract with Nike, so once my college years are over, I will join the NWSL and continue my soccer career,” she said. “My goal is to hopefully be on the full women’s national team one day. I haven’t really thought much more about that, but I’m not rushing anything. Right now I’m focusing on getting better, focusing on my school, focusing on giving back.
“I haven’t really thought super long-term, just (about) my goals I’ve already had soccer-wise. I’m going to continue to try and get better every day.”
If she’s good enough, the next contract should be bigger.
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