The wrong choice could leave your recruiting DOA

You read that headline right. Signing a National Letter of Intent (NLI) has traditionally been the high point of a high school athlete’s recruiting process. However, in July of 2021, the NCAA enacted legislation allowing student-athletes to profit from their name, image, or likeness (NIL), and suddenly an athlete’s NIL deals were as prominent as where he or she had signed an NLI. So which one is more important? To help understand that, you need the big picture of what goes into each one.

What Is An NLI?

A national letter of intent is the binding agreement between a prospective student-athlete and a university’s athletic program. In signing the NLI, a student-athlete agrees to attend that school full-time for at least one year (two semesters or three quarters) and the institution agrees to provide athletics financial aid for that same period of time.

An NLI is the recruiting form of “putting it in writing.” Any scholarship offer a student-athlete receives isn’t official until he or she signs an NLI. Once an athlete signs an NLI with a given school, coaches and representatives from other schools are prohibited from recruiting that athlete any further.

What Is An NIL?

name, image, or likeness (NIL) deal is a contract between a student-athlete and a business or sponsor that allows an athlete to earn money by lending his or her name, image, or likeness to that business for promotional purposes. An NIL deal allows a student-athlete to profit from endorsing a business or product, as an influencer, making personal or promotional appearances, licensing use of their image, or simply selling autographs or their own line of memorabilia and merchandise.

Given that it has only been allowed since July of 2021, the age of the NIL deal is still in its relative infancy and, at the moment, the market is unlimited. Some high-profile athletes signed deals worth over $1 million almost immediately. Since high school athletes (in every state but California) are prohibited from signing NIL deals, other elite athletes are graduating high school early to sign lucrative contracts. And it’s not just star football and basketball players raking in the big deals. Walk-ons, those with big social media followings, and bench warmers are being paid in cash, pizza, and everything in between for the use of their name. Image, and likeness.

NLI or NIL; Which One Is More Important?

While the answer to that question will vary with every student-athlete, think about it like this; Unless you’re an elite athlete and or a 5-star recruit, the key to landing an NIL deal is to first sign an NLI. The big brands will want to associate with the big-name recruits. For the other 99% of high school recruits, any NIL deal you may get will likely hinge on where you sign your NLI.

Another reason signing an NLI is far more important than an NIL is that it guarantees you an education in exchange for you competing athletically at the college level. For most student-athletes, that’s a win-win by itself and any NIL money is simply icing on the cake. Again, unless you’re an elite athlete, any NIL money you do earn likely won’t be life-changing and it might even pale when compared to the true cost of college tuition, room, and board for four years.

In other words, if your goal is to earn a scholarship to compete in college, that should still be your focus, regardless of what NIL opportunities may arise. Further, while many schools are already touting the NIL deals available to their athletes, the NCAA has labeled its NIL regulation as “temporary,” so what’s available today may not be allowed tomorrow. In addition, as NILs are still brand new, the money flow will likely slow as the market settles and companies evaluate the return they receive from their investments.

Finally, any NIL offers you receive should be considered a perk of signing your NLI for a scholarship, not a priority. In the big picture, the scholarship and the education it pays for will likely be far more valuable than any NIL money that comes along with it. Every student-athlete has different priorities, but when it comes to what’s more important for you, remember that finding the school that offers you the best fit for the next four years is far more important than chasing the next NIL opportunity.

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