San Francisco Chronicle
Cameron Brink sits in the sun-dappled plaza outside Maples Pavilion, where she is an All-America forward for the highly successful Stanford women’s basketball team, and says she once considered herself “the ugly kid.”
“In basketball, you have to look athletic. That’s a piece of it,” she says, pausing to find the right words. “But then you can’t be too thin, too fat, too many muscles. You have to be perfectly in the middle of everything. Not too much makeup, but not disheveled. It’s frustrating. I’ve stopped trying to figure it out.”
In this new era in which college athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness, Brink spends more time than ever thinking about her appearance, and less time dreading it. It is a position of power and vulnerability that Brink and other female athletes must navigate should they want to reap the benefits of NIL.
More than 50 years after Title IX, Division I athletic programs continue to spend almost twice as much on their men’s teams than their women’s teams, and NIL alone hasn’t narrowed that gap. Women still end up performing extra labor, and earn less on average, for their endorsements.
Opendorse, an online platform for facilitating athlete endorsements, found that NIL-compensated women’s athletes engage in 19.6% more social-media activities for their deals than male counterparts, yet 73.5% of NIL compensation among Division I athletes goes to men.
In a landscape in which up to 90% of schools are not Title IX-compliant, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, this new avenue for women to profit off their athletic talent and marketability counts as an especially big development.
Estimated to be one of highest NIL earners in women’s basketball, Brink is cognizant of what it means to be marketable as a woman in sports, with expectations that men’s athletes do not have.
“Sometimes you feel like you have to fit certain beauty standards, there’s a whole aspect,” Brink said. “There’s a whole litany of issues just being a female athlete, not just appearance but you get comments like, ‘Make me a sandwich.'”
She is learning to balance her small NIL online empire with her desire to stay disengaged. Brink finds ways to avoid seeing much said about her online, staying off her phone unless she is having a photo-shoot day.
“Maybe I’m naive, but I feel like everyone knows how much of a facade social media is,” she said. “Like my pictures are super posed, I’ll put a filter on them. That’s just very much like a very curated resume. That doesn’t mean I’m afraid for people to see me, like, in day-to-day life. I’ve learned to really not care.”
That sunny afternoon on Stanford’s campus, Brink’s signature blonde braids are pulled back. No one pauses to notice her. At 6-foot-4, she is acutely aware of how she stands out, something that used to make her uncomfortable.
She now can channel that recognition and her status into securing lucrative NIL opportunities. The juxtaposition of her off-court traditional femininity and the ferocity of her play merges into a prospective advertiser’s dream.
Brink’s phone flashes with notifications every few minutes. She ignores them, at one point turning her phone face down. She thumbs them all away to search for a particular Instagram post, rattling off the brand names as she scans.
“Urban Outfitters, Celsius a lot lately,” she mutters, scrolling, landing on a video she made with Chegg, a platform with which she has worked to promote self-care.
As of October 2022, female basketball players accounted for 12.6% of NIL earnings, trailing only football and men’s basketball players. That reflects the expanding interest in women’s sports.
NCAA volleyball, basketball and gymnastics championships on ESPN brought in their largest audiences ever in 2022. There is talk of women’s basketball postseason rights being negotiated independently for the first time.
Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir said more women have earned NIL deals at Stanford than men’s athletes. Despite that, there are no booster-backed collectives benefiting women’s athletes at Stanford, and for the most part, the athletic department stays out of it.
“I think with our high-profile programs on the women’s side, there’s been more opportunities there, especially when you look at some of our programs that compete at the national level,” Muir told The Chronicle. “It’s attracted sponsors very interested in connecting with our student-athletes, and I think our women have been able to prosper in that.”
Thanks in part to Brink’s social-media audience, which includes 219,000 Instagram followers, she could earn up to an estimated $176,000 over a year in NIL opportunities, according to a valuation from On3.com, a college sports news and data site. But she can’t earn that without additional labor on top of balancing life as a full-time student-athlete.
Recently, Brink changed her representation from Wasserman to CAA Sports, which funnels potential deals to her. From there, she visits Stanford’s compliance office to ensure the endorsements are within NCAA guidelines.
Brink can spend up to seven hours a day working on NIL, such as doing a photo shoot on an off day, though that’s not the norm.
“It’s mostly a really huge plus,” Brink said. “It is definitely a lot of work. I’m always creating my own content. I’m lucky to have my mom and people to help me take pictures or taking me places or be there for photo shoots. I would say it’s just a really good opportunity for me to save some money.”
Heightened attention brings baggage, too. Brink’s head coach, Tara VanDerveer, spends time wondering how to support her players.
“All they know is social media,” VanDerveer said. “All they know is the pandemic. They’re working really hard to do the best they can, and for me, I just try to help them the best I can. When I played basketball, we didn’t even have cell phones. It’s a whole different world for them.”
Mia Mastrov knows her top earning potential as an athlete likely will be during college. A sophomore backup guard for Cal, she is the sixth-ranked women’s athlete with an NIL valuation of $378,000 and has 500,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok.
For women like Mastrov who aren’t projected as a top WNBA or NWSL pick, maintaining an online presence and engaging with the public is necessary if they want to profit off their careers in sports. Most won’t play professionally, and when they do, salaries are often not enough to play in their league full-time, such as WNBA players who have to play overseas to supplement their earnings.
“It can be really vulnerable,” said Mastrov, who is close with Brink. “People (online) can say whatever they want to you. You just have to get used to it, and if someone says something negative about you, like I feel bad for them because they have no respect.”
Mastrov said she’ll hear how basketball is a “guy sport” and having a persona as “on the girly side” will lead to disrespect of her abilities as an athlete. At the same time, expressing traditional femininity has earned her an audience independent of her sport. She experienced inappropriate comments long before the NIL era.
“Sometimes I will just joke to a troll or something, ‘Sorry, I’m an influencer and basketball is my side hustle,'” Mastrov said. “Just trying to take the pressure off you; you have to take it lightly like that sometimes.”
Mastrov is among those who have found success through robust followings on Instagram and TikTok, as opposed to traditional sponsorships. She emphasized that it’s time-consuming work: Consistent posting is key to earning deals and building an audience.
Not all women benefit equally.
“Some companies are attracted to people with certain profiles,” said Cal sophomore guard Jayda Curry, who has 32,000 Instagram followers and ranks 22nd in women’s basketball NIL valuation. “If they’re not interested in me, that’s not a brand I want, anyway. You just hope companies see you as someone they want to work with, but I’m not going to change how I post on the regular.”
The New York Liberty’s Jonquel Jones tweeted in April, “If u don’t fit into the normal stereotype of what feminine is or what it ‘should be’ you lose opportunities, Women have to be so much more marketable than men.”
In 2020-21, 41% of women’s college basketball players were Black, and of the top 15 NIL earners according to On3.com, six are Black, including projected No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick Aliyah Boston at 15th. But the top two earners are Miami twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder with their 4.2 million TikTok followers. They have been the dominant voices in the traditional femininity space that dominates that platform.
There is no data collected on how many NIL deals go to the few trans athletes, but the top 100 women’s athletes on the On3 platform are cisgender, and most women’s athletes do benefit from the reinforcement of traditional stereotypes.
Haley Jones, Brink’s All-America teammate, said at first it seemed NIL deals went only to players with the highest follower counts, but curated smaller audiences have started to become prioritized.
“I think that’s why there were some crazy cash grabs and such a frenzy when this all started,” said the senior guard and projected WNBA lottery pick who signed with Nike last fall. “I don’t sign one-time social-media posts. I want to sign long-term deals, so I’m adding some equity into the deal. … I want to set myself up for my professional career, too.”
After practice, Brink changes into a gray Nike hoodie and sweatpants. She puts on clear-rimmed glasses. Her makeup stays in her gym bag. She says this is a look she would not have shared online a few years ago, but she no longer frets about it.
“I just started to accept that this is my body and what’s the point of hating it?” she said.
Brink ponders how to describe the pressure to perform femininity. She has weighed guilt at knowing that conventionally attractive women do earn bigger NIL deals, and doesn’t want to complain: “I know the privilege I have.”
“I wouldn’t change anything about myself, which has definitely taken some time,” Brink said. “Sometimes I would even hate to say that, because I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds so conceited. You do not want to come across as cocky.’ But I hope women like me finally realize it’s not conceited.
“You can say you love yourself; you can do things to protect your peace.”
NIL has been good to her, as it has been to a lot of women. But that success has required her to learn how to tune out the noise that comes with it.
VanDerveer doesn’t know the answer to striking the right balance. Players like Brink can make money off their influence and athletic skill, but the additional labor required is costly, and not just to those who pay them.
“I can’t even imagine the kind of world our young players live in,” VanDerveer said. “I think the intent is very, very good. People like Haley and Cam have benefited from it, (as have) other players on our team. They own their name, image, and likeness, and they should.”
(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.