The NIL era of high school sports has arrived

·12 min read

On the morning of April 9, a fledgling Minnesota soccer club threw a party to unveil its inaugural uniforms.

By the end of the event, executives from one of the club’s leading sponsors became convinced they’d found their next pitchwoman.

Bayliss Flynn, a goalkeeper for the Minnesota Aurora, wowed TruStone Financial brass with her poise and charisma sashaying across stage in her jersey, schmoozing with fans and conducting TV interviews. Then the credit union contingent discovered that Flynn was still a few months shy of turning 17, and they grew even more excited.

After Minnesota changed its rules in June to allow high school athletes to pursue endorsement deals without jeopardizing their eligibility, Flynn became the state’s first known high school athlete to land an NIL deal. TruStone Financial intends to pay Flynn thousands of dollars to promote an Aurora-branded credit and debit card and to highlight the importance of responsible spending to fellow Minnesota teens.

To Flynn, the offer came as a total surprise. The University of Montana commit doesn’t boast a massive social media following, nor is she a ballyhooed recruit. She ranks among the best soccer prospects in Minnesota but just outside PrepSoccer.com’s top 200 recruits nationally in the Class of 2023.

“I never thought something like this would happen to me,” Flynn told Yahoo Sports. “I thought this sort of thing would go to a boy for sure, probably a football or a hockey player. But I’m happy that it was a female soccer player. I think it’s important for girls to see what’s possible.”

Flynn’s story is a reminder that it isn’t just college athletes capitalizing on newfound NIL rights.

Endorsement opportunities are trickling down to the high school level as more athletes start brand-building at a younger age, more states relax their NIL rules and more major corporations embrace the risk of placing a six- or seven-figure bet on a teenager.

Bronny James, LeBron’s eldest son, earlier this year signed with PSD Underwear and released a signature collection. Mikey Williams, a decorated basketball recruit with nearly 4 million Instagram followers, inked a multi-year endorsement deal with Puma. Hansel Emmanuel, the basketball prospect who has famously overcome the loss of his left arm, signed a deal with Gatorade and has been featured in the sports drink giant’s commercials.

Other partnerships aren’t so high-profile. A family-owned Vietnamese restaurant in Minnesota has given a local Asian-American point guard an endorsement opportunity. And among the deals in an LSU-bound receiver’s NIL portfolio is one with a neophyte apparel brand operated by two of his high school teammates.

There is no uniform set of rules defining NIL policy at the high school level. Each state’s high school athletics governing body instead creates its own patchwork guidelines. Seventeen states, plus Washington D.C., now allow high school athletes to profit from their star power and still retain their eligibility. Other states are considering similar proposals.

“We are now in the new normal — an open and free market,” said attorney Mike Caspino, who has worked on NIL deals for dozens of high school athletes during the past year. “This is only going to get bigger.”

(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Moving to NIL-friendly states

Jada Williams is the rarest type of social media sensation — one who built her following largely by accident.

It started when she was a spindly 11-year-old point guard known as the “Lil Bullet.” Williams and her trainer began posting video clips displaying her voracious work ethic and arsenal of flashy ball handling moves.

“That s–t would go viral every single time,” Marcus Crenshaw, founder of The Fam Sports Agency and adviser to Williams and her family, said laughing.

As Williams grew older and emerged as a top 20 prospect in the Class of 2023, she engaged more with her audience and mixed in posts showcasing her bold personality and style. Before long, hundreds of thousands of Instagram and TikTok users were following her journey, including the likes of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

By summer 2021, deep-pocketed corporations were lining up to pay Williams to endorse their products. There was only one thing keeping her from cashing in on her blend of talent, charisma and marketability: The rules in her home state of Missouri prevented her from accepting any money without forfeiting the right to play high school sports.

Unwilling to sacrifice those NIL opportunities or to jeopardize her high school eligibility, Williams and her mother began to explore leaving Missouri behind. Within weeks, they boxed up all their belongings and relocated halfway across the country.

“California was one of the only states that was allowing NIL at the time,” Crenshaw said, “so they were just like, ‘Let's move to California!’ ”

For Williams, the move to the San Diego area has been a financial windfall. Last October, she signed a multi-year agreement with Spalding and appeared in a commercial alongside Damian Lillard. A partnership with ​​Move Insoles soon followed, as did deals with Dick’s Sporting Goods and the apparel company Gymshark. In all, Williams makes more than $200,000 per year from NIL agreements, according to Crenshaw, with another major deal set to be announced soon.

Williams’ success begs the question: Will there be a talent drain for states that are slow to install new rules permitting high school athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness? Will the most ballyhooed prospects in those states relocate for NIL reasons the way that Williams did?

Doug Ute, executive director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, says no. In May, OHSAA member schools voted 538-254 to reject a proposal that would have granted NIL rights to the state’s athletes, arguing that they didn’t want to rush into such a massive change. Since then, Ute is unaware of any marquee high school athletes who left Ohio to chase NIL deals elsewhere.

“We haven’t seen that yet,” he said.

Attorneys who help clients negotiate NIL deals warn not to expect that to last. Caspino says he receives “a dozen calls a day” from parents of high school athletes, some of whom are exploring the feasibility of filing a lawsuit to challenge for NIL rights in their home states or relocating to another state where deals are permitted. Moms and dads are having those same conversations with Mit Winter, another sports attorney and NIL analyst.

“It’s definitely an issue that’s being discussed,” Winter told Yahoo Sports. “If there’s a kid who has a lot of marketability and it's certain a state is not going to change its rules, he or she might want to move.”

NIL sets up potential recruiting battle

For months, high school NIL deals followed a predictable pattern: A company would simply pay an individual athlete to endorse its product.

Then came a first-of-its-kind team-wide deal with the potential to spark an arms race among high school football powers.

On August 22, the sports performance and technology company KONGiQ announced it had offered an NIL opportunity to each member of California’s top-ranked high school football team. Any St. John Bosco football player who chose to participate would receive compensation in exchange for glowingly posting about their personal experiences using the KONGiQ system on social media and on the company’s app.

KONGiQ will pay participating St. John Bosco players $400 apiece this season, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Joe Giansante, the company’s chief marketing officer, declined to confirm that to Yahoo Sports, but he described the payouts as “very modest.”

“Nobody's going to be getting rich from this,” Giansante added. “But for a lot of families, any amount of dollars can help right now.”

The endorsement opportunity offered to St. John Bosco players provides a blueprint for how high school football powers can gain a recruiting edge over their rivals in the NIL era. While top prospects might not transfer to a new school for the chance to earn an extra few hundred dollars, the temptation might increase if the payout were larger.

Caspino has a unique perspective as former general counsel to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and father of a standout tight end who played for one of St. John Bosco’s Trinity League rivals. The attorney says that by the start of the 2023 football season, he expects to see team-wide NIL opportunities available across the formidable Trinity League, as well as at other top programs in Southern California and beyond.

“What becomes the norm in college football often starts to seep down to the high school level,” Caspino said. “The Trinity League programs have always been in an arms race. Who has the best facilities? Who has the best coaching staff? Now this is another element of that.”

Under California Interscholastic Federation rules, high school athletes can endorse products as long as they don’t do so while wearing a team uniform or school insignia. CIF officials have also said that schools cannot participate in arranging NIL deals on behalf of student-athletes.

St. John Bosco’s head football coach and athletic director both were quoted in the press release unveiling the KONGiQ deal, but the school subsequently issued a “clarification statement” downplaying its involvement. The statement said that KONGiQ “entered into agreements with individual players” and that St. John Bosco wasn’t part of the deal and won’t receive any money.

Giansante told Yahoo Sports that KONGiQ began discussing the possibility of an NIL deal with St. John Bosco players after the school installed the company’s equipment in its weight room last year. Giansante said that “the agreements are between KONGiQ and the athletes” and that the company is “not asking the high school to do anything.” And yet Giansante also admitted that part of the appeal of a team-wide deal for KONGiQ was partnering with one of the nation’s strongest and most visible high school football programs.

“They won a national title in 2019,” Giansante said. “They play a national schedule every year. Their players are committed to major colleges and have large social media followings. For us, that’s the value of offering this to a team like Bosco.”

Bayliss Flynn signed what is believed to be the first NIL deal for a high schooler in the state of Minnesota. (Courtesy of Minnesota Aurora FC)
Bayliss Flynn signed what is believed to be the first NIL deal for a high schooler in the state of Minnesota. (Courtesy of Minnesota Aurora FC)

Building your own brand

If NIL experts were in charge of high school sports, top athletes would do more to prepare for their seasons than lift weights, develop skills and study game film. They would also learn to strategically build their brand in hopes of capitalizing on potential endorsement possibilities.

Getting good grades is essential. So is staying out of trouble. It’s also imperative that college and pro prospects begin to grow a following by maintaining a consistent presence on social media, squeezing the most juice out of their recruitment and providing access to their life away from their sport.

An evaluation by On3Sports estimates that the most prominent high school athletes are worth millions as pitchmen. Bronny James’ market valuation is $7.2 million, more than twice any other high school or college football or basketball player in the On3Sports database. Williams is valued at $3.5 million. Arch Manning, the No. 1 football recruit in the 2023 class, checks in at $3.4 million.

“We're going to see more high school athletes sign big NIL deals,” Winter said. “Some of these high school athletes have huge social media followings, whether on TikTok, Instagram or Twitter. That's attractive to businesses that want to get their name out there and even to big brands that want to partner with someone that makes sense for them.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations has not attempted to halt the flow of endorsement money to high school athletes, but CEO Karissa Niehoff has taken one hard-line stance. Wary of athletes benefiting from their affiliation with member schools, Niehoff has argued they should be forbidden from wearing a high school jersey or logo while promoting a business or endorsing a product.

“The high school locker room is arguably the last bastion of amateurism within an education-based setting,” Niehoff wrote in a June essay, “and we want to protect that.”

If any doubt remains that the NIL era of high school sports has arrived, Flynn’s deal with TruStone Financial should end that. Flynn isn’t some phenom with a famous last name, nor is she a social media influencer cultivating an image to gain followers. She’s just a hard-working high school athlete who stumbled into a big opportunity and took advantage.

Once a promising youth midfielder, Flynn eventually switched to goalkeeper full-time because she enjoyed the rush of preventing a goal more than scoring one. The undersized goalkeeper then made a name for herself in Minnesota soccer circles with her shot-stopping theatrics and her unusual knack for brazenly dribbling around opposing forwards to launch a counterattack.

Flynn caught the attention of the Minnesota Aurora last winter when she led Edina High to a 20-1 record and a state semifinal appearance. Not only did Flynn allow the fewest goals of any goalkeeper in the state, she also set a state record with four goalkeeper assists.

All of that paved the way for Flynn to get on the radar of TruStone Financial executives and to ink her state’s first known high school endorsement deal. The offer may have come as a surprise to Flynn, but the teen described the decision to accept it as a “no brainer.”

“She trains seven days a week, three to six hours a day minimum,” her mother, Mary Lahammer, told Yahoo Sports. “This really is her job and now there is a way for her to be compensated for that.”