NIL reflections — Thoughts from Megan Thompson — Other gym news

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, November 6, 2021

NIL: What have we learned?

What do we know about the impact of the NIL rule change on women’s gymnastics? For the past couple of months, I’ve interviewed six gymnasts who have taken advantage of NIL, which first went into effect on July 1. Granted, six is a small sample size, and all of the athletes I spoke to come from top schools. Still, they had plenty to say, and as NCAA season approaches and schools start to release their schedules, I thought now would be a good time to explore what we’ve learned from them.

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Here’s what I’ve learned about NIL — both how it works, and its impact:

Athletes and brands are both reaching out
Not all athletes are using agents, and not all athletes are waiting to be contacted by interested companies. In fact, a few of the athletes I’ve spoken to have done outreach themselves. 

Maile O’Keefe isn’t one of them. “I’ve done minimal reaching out, honestly,” she said. “I’ve had a fair amount of companies reach out to me.” Similarly, Norah Flatley’s agent secured her deal with Third Love.

Kennedy Hambrick, meanwhile, did the initial outreach to Liquid IV, and Megan Thompson did the same (see her interview below) with an activewear brand called Astoria. Unsurprisingly, and based on this admittedly tiny sample size, the athletes with bigger names aren’t on the hook as much for communicating their interest with brands. When you’re Maile O’Keefe, they’ll come to you.

NIL is an education — not a career
Most of the athletes I spoke to said that they didn’t have the opportunity to work in high school or college, so working on their NIL deals is literally an education that they can take with them into the real world. “It allows them to manage their money and get into real life before they’re actually in real life,” said Hambrick.

Most of them won’t get lucrative deals that will carry them after college. So while someone like Flatley might weave her NIL opportunities into her post-grad plans, for most of the athletes I spoke to, the money and the ability to learn how to manage finances are just added bonuses.

Young gymnasts won’t have to make the dreaded decision
To go pro, or not to go pro … before the NIL rule change, women’s gymnastics was unique in that girls were forced to decide at a very young age whether they could, or should, capitalize off their sport and sacrifice NCAA eligibility. 

“At such a young age you’re trying to decide, do I go the elite route and take the money or do I go to college and pursue more gymnastics?” said Kyana George. NIL eliminates the decision for young athletes, allowing them to do both. In a sport where the peak is usually short and sweet, “this might be the only money we make off our sport,” said O’Keefe.

The brand matters
The athletes I spoke to aren’t taking money from just any brand. For Flatley, what the brand stands for matters. She said of her partnership with Third Love, “I couldn’t pass it up because Third Love’s message of body positivity and self love really lined up with my personal brand.”

The question of whether or not an athlete can honestly promote a brand as useful also comes into play. O’Keefe partners with Bosu because she uses the products herself, and says she only wants to work with a brand if she could organically post about them.

Similarly, Hambrick said, “I really like promoting products and brands that I’m actually interested in. I actually use this in my daily life already, so why not promote it.”

The school isn’t losing a damn thing
“Our universities make so much money off of us, and I know we get scholarships, but they make way more than that through our sports,” O’Keefe said. All of the athletes I spoke to agreed: they do the work, and they deserve to take advantage of NIL opportunities. And while this may not apply to larger sports like football and basketball, for women’s gymnastics, there’s no indication that partnerships with small brands will affect the school’s bottom line at all.

And even if it did? “Nobody should be telling us what we can and can’t do,” Flatley said.

Gymnastics news

  • The Arthur Gander Memorial happened and the Swiss Cup is underway this weekend. Both have weird competition formats, but Spencer at the Balance Beam Situation did a great job of explaining. At the Arthur Gander, Angelina Melnikova, who was inexplicably there, won with a 43.200 three-event score, followed by Tais Boura (38.500) and Ciena Alipio (38.450), who came in third with a fall on bars.  
  • The Voronin Cup, meanwhile, has been cancelled. It was originally scheduled to happen later this month in Moscow.
  • USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung fired an external security firm after it reported coaches to SafeSport for touching athletes’ butts, according to Scott Reid at Orange County Register. I recommend going through this piece with a fine-toothed comb, as there are plenty of infuriating tidbits that call Leung’s leadership into question.
  • The FIG Congress is underway (Inside the Games). Morinari Watanabe will be up for re-election after finishing up his first four-year term. According to Pamchenkova, this is the first time a president has been challenged after serving just one term.
  • Sunisa Lee was on Twitter this week, sharing a throwback to the time she trained a fabrichnova and revealing that she was injured at the Olympics with a fractured shin. But what got the most attention was her rushing off the stage to throw up after her latest performance on Dancing with the Stars. This Parade article presents a problematic situation at best, with the people around Suni pressuring her to dance despite her having a stomach virus, though she eventually decided to do it.
  • Jordan Chiles revealed in interviews that she was verbally abused and body shamed by a previous coach (WOGymnastika), something that sadly isn’t even front page news in this sport.
  • Melnikova’s interviews are always worth a read (Gymnovosti).
  • Brooklyn Moors is training a front handspring front 1.5 dismount:
  • There’s a new technology thing where you can have Simone Biles do flips in your home. I don’t really get it but it’s a thing:

Tweet of the week

Polina FTW

Five at the IX: Megan Thompson

Photo: Sun Devil Athletics

Arizona State senior Megan Thompson spoke to me about her hopes for the season, NIL, and more. Edited for clarity and length. 

How is training going?
It’s going really well and I’m really excited for this season. We did so well last season that I feel like we’ll kind of just build off of that. And I feel like we’re just going to do even better and be even more confident this year.

Do you have any goals for the team this year?
I know we want to be top three, top two in the PAC and make it to nationals. Those are our main two goals. But I’m sure we can do even more than that. We’ll just have to see, I guess.

What about for yourself?
Honestly, I haven’t even thought too much about it. Well, beam is one of my main events and it’s always been my strongest ever since I came to college, so I’m hoping to possibly go to nationals on beam, score a perfect 10, obviously have a national qualifying score or regional qualifying score of higher than a 9.9. Something along those lines would be good.

Do you have smaller goals, like new skills?
I added in a new D-level leap so I’m still working that in. I’ve competed it before in JO gymnastics but I haven’t done it in a long time. Adding that in adds slightly more difficulty to my routine. So getting that in and getting consistent with it would be a really good goal.

How have you taken advantage of NIL?
I had a few small opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of. I reached out to Liquid IV and I’m partnering with them. Every month, I post a few times on my social media account and I get free Liquid IV supplies, like water bottles and different flavors. It’s a hydration powder you can put into your water for recovery. It’s extra hydration so I like to take advantage of that one; it’s something that I used growing up, so I thought it was really cool to be able to partner with them.

I also reached out to a small fitness wear brand called Astoria activewear. I haven’t been working with them as much, but they gave me a code that gives me a certain percent off and I get commission if somebody uses my code. Those are the two opportunities I’ve had. 

Why is NIL important?
NIL has been such a good opportunity; it gives athletes so many more options to either make money or partner with different people, so that’s been really cool.

In the past, it’s something that we really never even thought of as athletes because it was never allowed. So now that we’re able to do it, it gives athletes so many more opportunities to make money if they’re able to. Especially if they’re super good at their sport, it gives them the opportunity to get out there even more and also it can be a good opportunity to get out there in the real world after sports, starting to make money there and getting connections built. So that’s always good.

Is it influencing how you think about our future after college?
A little bit. I’m planning to go into the medical field [as a physician’s assistant]. But I think it’s helped me honestly on a small level, being able to communicate with big companies or people at those higher-level companies or brands. It’s helped me to learn communication. Even that on a small level has been good.

What legacy do you want to leave as a gymnast?
My main thing is I want to be remembered as somebody who was always hardworking and super dedicated to the sport and dedicated to the team and what we are striving to do as a team. I want to be remembered as somebody who always had a smile on her face and was always really positive to everyone around her.

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