The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brands are taking notice of female college athletes. Now let’s move beyond their sex appeal.

Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun has been at the forefront of NIL deals. (Natalie Hagglund/AP)

In the photo, basketball-playing twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder are each holding a dollar bill in one hand and a sports nutrition product, its label angled perfectly toward the camera, in the other. The sisters are standing shoulder to sun-tanned shoulder somewhere in Times Square, wearing the athleisure regalia of spandex and sports bras as they make duck faces.

In her ad, Division I volleyball player Alex Glover wears a bikini and leans in close to the lens. She’s holding a blue raspberry lollipop — her mouth slightly open, her left hand resting below her pierced navel — and in the caption Glover informs her followers how they can win a box of candy.

A different volleyball player — Adelaide Halverson — needed fewer words to get her message across. Four days after she was announced as the first sponsored Barstool Sports athlete, Halverson posted a photo of herself in a colorful bikini. Her caption was simply a green heart emoji.

Under the NCAA’s revamped name, image and likeness rules, these women can now take on paid endorsements. It’s just too bad so many brands want their new ambassadors to make pouty lips and wear a two-piece to secure the bag.

NIL deals have been trumpeted as a game changer in college sports, especially benefiting female athletes who traditionally have settled for the NCAA’s leftovers and received a fraction of the billion-dollar pie of sports endorsements.

A UCF kicker once quit football to build his brand. Now, the quarterback doesn’t have to.

Now that the free market has been unleashed, it would be great if companies recognized female athletes for their accomplishments, not just their physical assets. Early on, however, the new NIL marketplace has followed the same old script.

Companies love the brand of football, covet those players and want them on their rosters. They will sign one the moment he straps on his shoulder pads — even if he has yet to take a snap in a college game, like millionaire Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

According to Opendorse, which specializes in facilitating connections between companies and athlete endorsers, nearly 80 percent of the early NIL money has gone to football players. Within hours of the rule change, Miami quarterback D’Eriq King reportedly received four sponsorships. Even walk-ons on the BYU football team were offered deals to cover their tuition, proving that American companies will chase you down with money if you’re male and play football.

But when it comes to women, corporate America has mostly dialed up the proprietors of the social media influencer starter kit.

Takes perfectly lit photos while stretched across her bed in the dark — check.

Shows flawless skin in mirror selfies — check.

Provides the wholesome content (“jesus & plants,” y’all) that the Internet devours — check and check.

Maybe more than their love of football, brands gush over viral sensations. Since social media engagement is valued as gold, Instagram star and Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun can launch her own clothing brand and sell out of $58 sweatshirts in a matter of days. This is also how the 20-year-old Cavinder twins from Fresno State became the first college athletes to strike a deal with Boost Mobile.

This was a moment of celebration for Aliyah Boston, a standout on the South Carolina women’s basketball team. The Cavinders and Boston follow each other on Instagram, and when she saw the news about the sisters’ sponsorships, she saw it as a win for the women.

“This whole NIL rule passage. This is really exciting,” Boston said in an interview Friday. “We work so hard on the court, in the classroom, and you want it to be recognized. So for them to get that, it’s like: ‘Wow, great work! I’m so happy for you guys.’ ”

Boston earned first-team all-American honors last season. She played in the Final Four, when South Carolina’s matchup against Stanford drew an average of 1.6 million viewers on ESPN. In June, Boston won a gold medal at the 2021 AmeriCup, her fifth gold overall. As one of the best college players, Boston should bring a ton of value to the state. She’s relatable as a college kid (“I loooove Crocs!” she exclaimed, mentioning a personal favorite brand), yet she’s a proven winner. She should have businesses blowing up her DMs, begging to partner with her. But her only deal has come from Bojangles, the regional fast-food chicken chain.

When surveying the deals her peers are getting, Boston was legitimately happy. Only when asked for her thoughts about social media influence factoring into some opportunities for women did she diplomatically but honestly share her opinion.

“It looks like some companies have that certain narrative already, and that’s kind of what they’re sticking with,” Boston said. “God has that lane ready for me, and it will be there, even if right now I’m thinking, ‘Well, why are only certain people getting certain things?’ ”

And in many cases, the most sought-after endorsers look a certain way: hot, blonde and White.

Make no mistake, the Cavinders are ballers. Hanna made the all-Mountain West team, and Haley was the conference’s player of the year. But their NIL value comes from their profitability as social media influencers. Together, they have generated an Instagram following of more than half a million, with another 3.5 million on their shared TikTok channel — where they lip-sync and perform lightly choreographed dances to, for instance, Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”

Their photo with the whey protein has generated over 30,000 likes on Hanna’s page. A follow-up post, of Hanna alone in a bikini, drew three times as many.

Sally Jenkins: The NCAA’s shameful neglect of women’s basketball has been exposed, and it starts at the top

So kudos to the Cavinders for their sponsorships. And no shade thrown at Olivia Dunne, the TikTok-famous gymnast, for signing with the same talent agency that represents entertainment titans such as Alicia Keys, Kevin Hart and Bruno Mars.

These women are monetizing their platforms after discovering two fundamental truths in this world:

1. If you put one leg in front of the other, point your toe and shift your weight to one side, it makes your butt look bigger in pictures.

2. Thirsty dudes stay thirsty.

Their “likes” make mirror selfies and beach pics go viral, and brands — because they’re just as thirsty — take notice.

Male athletes dance (badly) on TikTok, too. But no one is asking Young, who has a fraction of the social media following of either Cavinder twin, to purse his lips and play with his hair when he endorses a product. Until men get paid to primp in front of the camera and women’s stock blows up thanks to big games on the court and not just bikini photo shoots, this is not equality. This is not empowerment. This is simply advertisers placing less value on female athletic achievement and more on sex appeal.

There are opportunities within NIL for store appearances, autograph signings, youth clinics. Several entrepreneurs have made their own lane here, such as Nebraska all-Americans Lauren Stivrins and Nicklin Hames hosting a sold-out volleyball camp. “That’s not relying on advertisers to go get dollars; that’s leaning into your sport and earning because of it,” Opendorse co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence said. “That’s pretty cool.”

It’ll be even better when major brands notice women for their performance on the court or field and start looking at them less as objects of desire and more as athletes to be admired.

Read more about sports and social issues

“But while Osaka Inc. is thriving, Naomi, the woman, is hurting. Tennis doesn’t seem to be helping. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to keep trying — not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.” Read Candace Buckner on Naomi Osaka.

“I can’t escape into sports. Nor should I. I don’t even want to try, even during this most absorbing stretch of the sports calendar. March Madness for me is no competition for the real madness that, while overseas this time, seems oh so close.” Read Kevin B. Blackistone on the war in Ukraine.

“It was all true. The members of the women’s team had been wronged. For years, they had to play more, and win bigger, to be paid anything close to their male counterparts. They got less pay for better work.” Read Sally Jenkins on the USWNT settlement with U.S. Soccer.

“Who’s lying here? Probably, to some degree, both sides. The NFL expecting Snyder to stop lying, covering up, blocking and bullying is a little bit like expecting a poisonous cobra not to bite you. You are who you are.” Read John Feinstein on Daniel Snyder and the NFL.