Ridgefield Raptors third baseman Kody Darcy first dabbled in the social media app TikTok out of boredom.
In spring of 2020, COVID-19 had shut down colleges around the country. The then sophomore at Xavier University in Cincinnati was back at his home southeast of Seattle.
To pass time, Darcy and his friends would film videos at a nearby baseball field. His TikToks, often humorous baseball-themed skits, quickly gained an audience.
In June 2020, a video of Darcy and his friends getting beaned by a pitching machine at increasingly higher speeds went viral. It was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter and has been viewed more than 9 million times.
After that video blew up, the offers started rolling in.
More than 100 mostly small companies offered Darcy products and money if he would wear their apparel in his videos. Nike, Under Armour and Eastbay also reached out, trying to get their products in front of Darcy’s 120,000 TikTok followers.
Each time, Darcy had to decline. NCAA rules prohibited athletes from earning compensation due to strict amateurism rules.
That era is now over. A gold rush began on July 1, the first day the NCAA allowed college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Some high-profile athletes, such as Heisman Trophy contenders, are poised to rake in endorsement deals that rival those of professional athletes.
But the new earning freedom can also make a difference for athletes in smaller sports, especially those with big social-media followings.
If he’d accepted every offer, Darcy said he would have pocketed a few thousand dollars. While not a huge sum, it can be a big deal for a college athlete.
“You don’t have time as a college athlete to get a job,” Darcy said. “It would be huge. You don’t have to struggle for meal money. That would be big for a lot of athletes.”
Scott Jedlicka is an assistant professor of sports management at Washington State University. His research specializes in sport governance and policy.
Jedlicka told The Columbian that the sea change in the NCAA’s amateurism rules will yield opportunities for athletes big and small.
“Many athletes who aren’t nationally famous will still have opportunities to engage with sponsors in the local university community and/or in their hometowns,” Jedlicka said. “A soccer player could get paid to appear at a private youth camp as a speaker or coach.”
Jedlicka said athletes with a large social media following, like Darcy, will see even more opportunities. And those athletes aren’t necessarily concentrated in football and men’s basketball.
Jedlicka cited an Axios report that measured the social media audiences of all basketball players in the Elite Eight of the 2021 men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament. Eight of the top 10 athletes with the biggest social media audience were women.
“We will no doubt hear a lot about the deals and intrigue surrounding football and men’s basketball,” Jedlicka said. “But the depth and breadth of the marketplace is likely much larger than just those sports.”
A college’s ability to help athletes build their brand is already being emphasized to potential recruits. Last week, Washington State joined most other major athletic departments in touting how the college will help athletes develop content and boost their profile.
“The schools that can commit resources to supporting athletes’ ventures will definitely have a leg up in recruiting over those that can’t,” Jedlicka said. “Sponsorship and endorsement contracts are often complex. Most people aren’t familiar with the intricacies of, say, having to report income tax in multiple states or how their residency affects their filing status. By and large, the schools that can provide this support are the ones that already maintain large athletic budgets.”
The benefits newly opened to college athletes aren’t limited to money and products. Jedlicka said athletes can now strike up partnerships with businesses in the industries they eventually want to work in.
Many athletes haven’t shied away from sounding off on social issues. The new NCAA freedoms could allow for stronger relationships between athletes and organizations that promote causes.
“Athletes might also consider how their personal stories and beliefs connect to certain causes or issues,” Jedlicka said. “For instance, many athletes care a great deal about mental health. So there may be an opportunity to partner with a group or organization that shares that passion.”
Back in Ridgefield, Darcy is already thinking about how he can leverage his social media following. He hadn’t posted much in recent months to his TikTok account @KodyDarcy16, but that changed last week.
“Now if there’s money and a reward in it I will start it up again,” Darcy said.
And Darcy isn’t the only one taking notice.
“A lot of people are excited,” he said. “They’re saying ‘let me get in your videos’ or ‘I’m going to start my own channel.’ It’s a big deal for athletes to have this opportunity.”