Hawkeye’s Unpaid Sports Athletes Struggle During NIL’s First Weeks

While the new NIL rules can bring millions to the biggest stars in college sports, other athletes are getting creative to take advantage of the new laws.

Hannah Kinson

Iowa forward Leah Zellner puts the ball in play during the fourth quarter of the Big Ten field hockey tournament semifinals against No. 1 Michigan on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at Grant Field. With five minutes left in the game, Iowa pulled their goaltender to replace the position with another player on offense. The Hawkeyes were beaten by the Wolverines, 0-2. Michigan will continue to play No. 7 Ohio State in the championships on Saturday.


Many Hawkeyes have taken advantage of their name, image and likeness by selling merchandise, signing autographs and signing endorsement deals since the NCAA began allowing such behavior in early July. At least, those who already had a sequel.

Iowa wrestler and three-time national champion Spencer Lee teamed up with Ironside Style Apparel in Cedar Rapids to sell exclusive merchandise, and Hawkeye football catcher Tyrone Tracy Jr. hosted an event at Graze Restaurant in Iowa City to sign autographs.

While Lee and Tracy already have name recognition in the Iowa City community, it’s harder for Hawkeye student-athletes in nonprofit sports to gain similar identification.

Field hockey is a popular sport in Europe, Australia and the East Coast of the United States, so only three players on Hawkeye’s roster are from the Midwest. The University of Iowa is home to the only Division I field hockey team in the state.

“It’s a lot harder for us because field hockey isn’t very common in the United States, especially here in Iowa,” said field hockey senior Leah Zellner. “A lot of us don’t have a lot of followers like a footballer or a basketball player, but there are people I know who work [toward an endorsement].”

Lee has 113,000 followers on Instagram and an average of over 20,000 likes per post, while Zellner has around 1,600 Instagram followers.

But Hawkeye softball, field hockey, soccer and cross-country athletes can still enjoy name, image and likeness rights, whether they appear in ads for small businesses or work as brand influencers.

Many Hawkeyes have become Barstool Athletes – a program launched by Barstool Sports, a sports and pop culture digital media company. Different universities have different Barstool accounts, including Barstool Hawkeyes.

RELATED: Name, Image, Likeness: A New Era for College Athletes

Student-athletes in all of Iowa’s sports are now bar stool athletes, including Lee, sophomore softball Sammy Diaz, senior men’s basketball Connor McCaffery and senior women’s football player Skylar Alward.

While the new NIL rules just took effect on July 1, Hawkeye student-athletes are still considering their options in the first month of the new opportunities.

Iowa Athletics launched a comprehensive name, image and likeness program – named FLIGHT – to help Hawkeye student-athletes understand the inner workings of NIL. Iowa athletes also attended compliance meetings before NIL went into effect to ensure any agreement will be in line with university policy.

“I do not have [engaged in NIL deals] yet, because it’s still pretty new,” Zellner said. “And I think a lot of us have still thought and learned about that, so we’re still compliant… We’re both learning as we go, but the university is there to help us, and we’ve been on calls already goes through the rules.

Social media has become popular with influencers who make money from brand deals and advertising, and Iowa athletes in both revenue and non-profit sports can use it to their advantage.

Some Hawkeye athletes, like women’s soccer captain Sara Wheaton, aren’t on social media often. Wheaten said she doesn’t want to use the new NIL rules to gain an audience and make money from ad revenue.

“I have TikTok and that’s about it so I personally wouldn’t do anything like that,” Wheaton said. “But I know there are girls on the team who want to use social media to reach out and grow their brands.”

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