Roman Bravo-Young at the 2021 NCAA finals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
On the first day that the NCAA allowed student-athletes to make money for their services and image, the Big Ten released a list of their top individual social media stars. Three of them were wrestlers.
Based on Instagram followers, Iowa's Spencer Lee was 7th with 111k followers and RBY (126k) of Penn State was #3. Gopher Gable Steveson, with 245k, has the most Instagram followers of any athlete in any sport from the Big Ten.
There are several things to take away from that - the first being that it's abundantly clear how powerful our sport is in the Big Ten. Another thing is that RBY, who became a star after Spencer Lee, and has less accolades than him, has surpassed him in followers, and, you could say, 'brand.'
Winning and losing matters most, but it's not the entire equation. RBY put in A LOT of time in his social media game. His prominence has grown with his openness, his volume, and lifestyle content that often has little to do with wrestling. In that way, he's surpassed current and former wrestlers that have accomplished more on the mat than he has.
And everyone will recognize that. If you're a wrestler, you're taking notes. And if you're one of those anti-social media, get-off-my-lawn types, duck for cover. More of it is coming.
Another thing we do know is that the universities will embrace it. There are already courses available to athletes next fall that educate you on NIL decisions. And several schools have announced programs to help facilitate their optimization.
From the media side, old vets like myself and Earl and Jason Bryant of the National Wrestling Media Association have often sung the praises of universities' Sports Information Directors that go above and beyond in wrestling. It's not just the information and accessibility that we've appreciated, but their undeniable passion helps build stars. And now, that quality will take on an even more critical and difference-making role for individuals.
Better, more creative SID's will be appreciated by wrestlers as they act as de facto brand-builders. Coaches would be wise to put a portfolio of their SID's work in front of their recruits. (And let's hope the SID's get paid a little more by the schools going forward.)
What lies ahead will be interesting to follow, no doubt. The advent of NIL cash flow is upon us - and regardless of how much research one did on the topic or how prescient you fancy yourself - no one can guess all the pros nor all potential pitfalls that will accompany it.
Will it be a distraction? Will sometime, somewhere, a wrestler engage in a faux pas that leads to a suspension? Will it lead to more, or less, wrestling programs? I don't think anyone can speak with certainty on those matters, but it sure is a fun ride to watch.
To your questions…
What do you see as possible unintended consequences of the NIL? @DutrowJim
I think there are a few likely scenarios. The obvious one being that a wrestler gets involved with something outside the parameters of what's legal under the NIL framework. So wrestlers. GET. SCHOOL. APPROVAL.
What I hope doesn't happen is that in an effort to keep their athletes eligible in football and basketball, schools don't wind up employing 25 compliance officers that further hamstrings their balance sheets and leads to the cutting of even more Olympic programs.
Another thing is that there are gonna be some really good wrestlers that try to have social media cache to build their brand and end up coming off as ultra cringeworthy. You can say that's already started. But it'll get worse.
Here's one for ya, too - a wrestler wins over fans, wins a title as a sophomore, cashes in, becomes a douche, takes 6th the following year. Fans totally turn on him and chastise him for caring more about his social accounts than his riding ability. This will happen.
You know why wrestlers are often the most intensely focused, goal-oriented individuals? They're hungry. Can you stay hungry when you're comfy?
You know why MMA fighters tail off after a hot start to their careers? They ain't hungry no more.
Another one - bad contracts. There are already really, really, really awful contracts in the wrestling world. People that are signed with certain companies (even big in our sport) have very paltry compensation. I can see current college athletes taking a deal for little more than the serotonin that comes along with the press release.
Don't sign a contract for gear. Make sure you're getting your real value. And make it legal.
What do you think of Barstool Athletics? RBY signed on. @Capt_AlexPerez
I have no idea. And I'm pretty sure RBY has no idea. Dave Portnoy himself said that the project was thrown together at the 11th hour with no real plan.
What I do know is that Barstool is a creative force that typically makes good decisions. At a minimum, I think it leads to increased popularity for the athletes that join and more opportunities. At its ceiling, I think it could be a very influential movement.
Which athletes will be sponsored by The Brain? @chunkofWEAVE
Haha. I don't know exactly, but some will for sure. I got some ideas. Additionally, and somewhat unexpectedly, several current college wrestlers asked me if I was interested in being their agent, and it's something I'm considering. Not sure if it will go that far, but I certainly want to connect them to the right people, so they have more opportunities. Feel free to DM or email me if you're interested.
What school do you view as a dark horse that can really benefit from NIL? @TheGOATFollower
The Ivies and here's why.
Penns and Princetons have uber-rich alumni. Until now, what has been their method of support? Donating to RTC's? Financing a new room?
There have been limitations to what they could do. The NIL deal opens another door. Forget Gatorade and Nike and Coca-Cola. I think we'll see a Penn alum at a major investment firm sponsor Michael Coliaocco. I think Mike Novogratz slaps a Galaxy Capital logo on Patrick Glory at Trials.