The First College Athlete to Profit From NIL

The sports marketing industry will soon undergo the single most dramatic change in its history, when college athletes are finally granted the right to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness. The mission of Student Athlete NIL is to help brands seize this opportunity and capture the attention of student-athletes, identify the ones that best personify their values, and then develop value-based partnerships with those individuals to mutually reach their goals. Working hand-in-hand, we can finally democratize college athletics.

“I Just Filmed It, Put It Up, Got Paid”
How Chloe Mitchell Became the First College Athlete to Profit From NIL

As soon as this summer, college athletes at National Collegiate Athletic Association schools may be able to profit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NILs).

Meanwhile, Chloe Mitchell already has been cashing in.

A freshman volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mitchell is believed to be the first college athlete to be compensated for their NIL, thanks to her social media stardom as a Do-It-Yourself enthusiast.

While the NCAA has dithered and stalled on changing its amateurism rules that prohibit NIL compensation—arguing in federal court, Congress, and the court of public opinion that athletes’ economic rights should be severely curtailed, and that player pay of kind beyond what the association arbitrarily allows will basically destroy college sports—the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which Aquinas College belongs to, changed its NIL rules last October.

To learn more about what it’s like to make NIL money as a college athlete, what sort of NIL opportunities await NCAA athletes, and whether or not any of the association’s doomsday scenarios have merit, Patrick Hruby sat down to chat with Mitchell.

Hruby: Let’s start with where this all started for you, which was actually while you were a high school senior in Michigan last spring. The pandemic begins, your school year is cut short, and you’re stuck at home. So you decide—like lots of other Americans stuck at home—to work on some home renovations?

Chloe Mitchell: I was stuck at home. I was bummed. I mean, since I was a freshman, I had been looking forward to my senior year. It’s the pinnacle of your high school career. There’s prom. I have a great group of friends, and we were planning a trip down to Florida. We also had a senior trip set to Chicago. Things we’ve saved up for and worked toward. With club volleyball, I was going to go to Florida for that and also to nationals. In the blink of an eye, that was all gone. And we couldn’t even see each other. We were just stuck inside. It was super, super hard.

I’ve always been a creative person, and I just needed a creative outlet. And there’s only so much you can do inside! I was doing YouTube workouts trying to keep myself busy. I needed a break from my family. So one day, I was outside, working in my backyard, and I took a look at our shed. And I was like, ‘huh, it’s separated from the house, it would be my own personal space.’ My room is right next to my brother’s room and my parents’ room. So we’re all always together.

For once, I had all the time in the world. I didn’t have [volleyball] practice five days a week. Homework was doable because it was online. So I just took it upon myself to transform the shed, and decided on a whim to document it [on TikTok]. Then I wake up one day, and 30,000 people are interested in what I’m doing. And that number kept growing, so I got more motivated. Before I knew it, I had two million-plus followers and a ‘she shed’ in my backyard.

Was this your first DIY project?

In my household, my mom was the one who always owned the power tools. My dad’s handy, but mom’s the one who loved to make a dining room table, or put up custom frames.

[Editor’s note: Mitchell’s mother, Kimberlee, founded a home child-proofing services company called “Boo-Boo Busters.” People Magazine once called her the “child-proofer to the stars” for working with the likes of Matt Damon and Britney Spears].

So growing up, l learned how to reverse a drill. You know which way the bit goes. I could work a power saw, I had my own hammer, my own toolkit. When quarantine came around, it was just time to employ those skills.

When you started putting this project online, did it come from feeling isolated?

Yes! I had, like 32 followers when I started. Mostly my friends.

32?

A solid 32. [Laughs]. So it was just a way for me to somehow feel connected with my friends and keep them entertained by what I was doing.

I don’t think most people would think to themselves, “this is how I’m going to become a social media influencer, this is the key to my world domination plan. A backyard shed.”

No, I had no big picture plans at all. Zero!

What was it like to see this take off?

I honestly don’t even know if I’ve fully processed it now. But there was a moment when I was in the shed working with my mom and one of my friends who had been in quarantine with me. We went outside and she turned her phone around toward me, and on the screen it was one million views. And it was, like, a video where I was wearing pajama bottoms and had a scuba mask on my face and hadn’t curled my hair or taken a shower in who knows how long!

I was floored by it. I still am. I’m not much of a dancer or singer—

That’s what I think of when I think of TikTok.

That’s what I think of, too! I didn’t know people were on there to see home renovations. But apparently, a ton of them are.

I’m really grateful. And I don’t really like the word “influencer.” It doesn’t sit well with me. This may sound cheesy, but I feel like I’m more of a friend to all these people. I talked to hundreds of people a day in my Instagram friends and they’re all interested in the same stuff I’m interested in and have the same questions I did before I started DIY. Or they’re sending me pictures of, like, “hey Chloe, you did a backyard fireplace. I tried that out myself and put a little twist on it. Check it out.” These are people I would get along with in everyday life.

So this has really expanded your social world during an otherwise tough time.

Yeah, 110 percent.

Has anyone recognized you for this at college?

I didn’t want people to know, or want them to talk to me because they simply know me as a TikTok girl or whatever. I told my roommate, and that’s it. And she only found out because when we were talking about rooming together, she sent me a screenshot and asked, “is this you?”

The one time I was recognized for this, I was walking to my dorm. Everyone’s wearing masks, so you can’t really see my face. And these three freshman boys on the basketball team walk past. All they say is, “Chloe Mitchell, TikTok famous.” And I’m sitting there on the sidewalk, like, what just happened? But everyone has been super sweet about it.

So your first sponsorship for this came last summer, before you went to college, through a company called Smart Cups. How did that happen?

Smart Cups is owned by a guy who is super close friends with my dad. They were business partners for years.

By that point, I’m assuming, you’re already committed to and planning to play volleyball for Aquinas College. But the NAIA rules about NIL didn’t actually change until October. Did you have to check with your school or the NAIA about the Smart Cups deal to make sure it was okay and that you would still be eligible?

I wasn’t technically a college athlete yet when I did that deal. So I didn’t have to talk to them about it.

That’s different than the NCAA, which tells high school athletes that they can’t do stuff even though they’re not enrolled or on a college campus yet.

Exactly. But my parents did reach out to check with my college volleyball coach and the NAIA to make sure we weren’t messing up my eligibility. I was okay because I was making content before I became a college athlete.

And after you become one, the NAIA’s NIL rules change in October. Then in December, you become the first college athlete to profit from a NIL endorsement. I think it was for two golf or mini-golf brands. Do I have that right?

Yes. I made a full mini-golf course in my living room. My dad’s a huge golfer and he also loves mini-golf. So I just filmed it, put it up, got paid. It was a really smooth and awesome process.

That sounds nice—get paid, and also have fun.

It was so, so freaking fun. We played on the course for at least an hour afterward. The cleanup after that was kind of annoying!

What’s it like being the first college athlete to do this?

It’s amazing. Both of my parents and I are entrepreneurs, and we knew that being the first would mean a lot of things. And I didn’t just want to be the first, business-wise—I wanted to be the first so I could, like, educate other people about the opportunities that are out there.

[Editor’s note: Mitchell’s father, Keith, is a former University of Michigan football player. He’s also a screenwriter who wrote “Mr. 3,000” and “Eddie” and also created the world’s first online film festival].

Let’s talk about NIL opportunities for women college athletes. One big takeaway after talking to marketing experts is that social media is not like traditional media, which is dominated by football and men’s basketball. Social media, one expert told me, is the “great equalizer” for women, because how much your sport is on TV matters a lot less than how engaging you are, who you are as a person, and what things you like to do outside of sports. It’s not just, “did you score a bunch of touchdowns on Saturday afternoon?”

What kind of NIL opportunities do you see for college athletes, especially women college athletes? 

I see endless opportunities, to be honest. I’m not a large-scale athlete. I’m not on someone’s TV every weekend. And I’m already working with brands. So much of that depends on what kind of person you are, what you’re interested in, how much you’re willing to work.

Do you have any volleyball-related deals?

No! I haven’t had one. Which is the craziest part.

The Athletic reported that your sponsorships have earned you enough to pay for your schooling, a computer, and a car. Is that accurate? I ask because a lot of the conversation around NIL presumes that only, say, the star college quarterback or point guard at a big-time school is going to have any value.

I’ve paid off my student loans. I bought a car, bought a computer, and I’m working and saving to buy a house.

A house?

Yes, I want to buy a house, and then eventually when I go on to graduate school, I’ll have it as an investment property.

That’s pretty wise in terms of financial planning. And it’s funny, because I’ve seen NCAA-connected people argue that, basically, we can’t allow college athletes to be paid because they’ll be extremely irresponsible with that money.

That physically angers me. First, it’s the athletes’ money. It’s not their business to focus on what they’re spending it on! Second of all, why don’t we give athletes money first, and then see if it’s actually a problem? And if it is, why not teach athletes to file for taxes, to invest their money, to spend it wisely. Because right how, once athletes get out of college, they don’t necessarily know how to use their money. My dad was talking to me about that just the other day. It’s a real problem when athletes are no longer playing their sport, finally get a job, and haven’t had a big boy or big girl job for the past four years.

It’s hard to learn money management without actually having some money to manage, isn’t it?

Yes. Exactly!

The NCAA has argued in federal court—and in the court of public opinion—that if college athletes like yourself are allowed profit from their NILs, some very specific bad things will happen. We just discussed one of them! Anyway, you are a living test case for this. Can we quickly go through some of those things and see if they match your experience?

Sure.

Has NIL made you a worse student?

No, if anything it has made me a better student. [Editor’s note: this interview was conducted via Zoom, and Mitchell visibly rolled her eyes at this point].

Has NIL made you disconnected from the rest of the students at your school?

It’s made me me more connected. My company, PlayBooked, is paying over 100 athletes right now. So not only am I getting paid, I’m saying to my peers, “I want to give you money, too.” They’re loving it!

Here’s another one: NCAA president Mark Emmert once testified in court that if college athletes were allowed to receive money, they would no longer eat at the student cafeteria, which would be, uh, bad. Now, I don’t know if your cafeteria is open right now because of the pandemic—

He said that in federal court?

Yes.

Oh, I am embarrassed for him. Oh, no. That’s terrible! My cafeteria is open and I go there to eat all the time because it’s on campus. I don’t even know how to respond to that.

Has NIL made it harder for your coaches to coach you? Has it made your teammates resentful of your financial success?

It’s the exact opposite. I’m really close with my coaches on and off the court. I love them like crazy. And all the girls on the team are on board. They’ve been phenomenal.

Are there any downsides for you to being able to make money, or something challenging about profiting from your NIL that other athletes need to know about?

I haven’t found it challenging. I’m comfortable in front of a camera. I love connecting and talking with people. I will say that if you are the kind of person who is a little bit more reserved or aren’t comfortable on camera, and you’re doing deals, it might be a little challenging. But it’s something anyone could work on and get better at.

The most work you really have to do is write a script for yourself, and then do some takes until your [sponsor] has one they love. I mean, it’s 30 minutes, max. And then you get paid!

What kind of marketing skills have you learned from doing this?

There’s a lot I’ve learned from working with brands that I didn’t even take into consideration before. There’s certain language—things you can and can’t say. There also have been time where I’ve had to shoot videos four-plus times, edit them, and then do voice overs because in my contact it says they have the right to four rounds of edits. I couldn’t get mad about that, because it was it was in the contract and I didn’t look.

So one skill is learning to read the fine print. That’s really useful!

For sure.

Are there any rules from the NAIA or your own school about what you can and can’t endorse?

No. I’ve been thinking about wearing my school jersey or branded stuff in certain promotions, and they’re all for that. They are all about the publicity. And with PlayBooked, we try to get all of our athletes to wear stuff from their colleges.

Let’s talk about PlayBooked. It’s an online platform that you and your parents built to connect college athletes to NIL opportunities. ESPN reported that the first partnership on there paired an apparel company with other athletes from your school.

Yep. I had a few girls from the volleyball team. Obviously! I’m trying to get my girls paid first, right? They’re like family to me. So I wrote out a text to all of them and I was like, “hey guys, this is a brand that wants to partner with us. Are any of you interested? A few of them were.

It was a little T-shirt company. I think the pay was $50 each. Just basic “wear the shirt, take a picture, do a post on your feed or story.”

Since then, there’s been more deals—ESPN reported PlayBooked is up to about 200 NAIA athletes, who are making between $30 and $100 for social media posts.

Right now, we have a website and our team at PlayBooked is connecting with brands. Eventually, we will have an app where a lot of that will be automated. We want to get a system in place so what when the NCAA changes its rules, we’ll be able to get those athletes on board.

So if I’m an athlete and I want to use PlayBooked, how does the process actually work?

We would say, “okay, great. We have these brands lined up. You’re going to do this brand. This is the product. Here’s information about what the brand wants to be said about it.” If the athlete likes the brand and wants to do the deal, it’s pretty seamless. You take a video of yourself talking about it, send it to us to look over, and if we like it, we say “thumbs up” and provide you the cash right now.

If we don’t like it, we’ll say, “hey, do another take.” But we haven’t had much of that. Everybody has been so good at following the directions so far.

Could the platform grow to work almost like an online dating platform, where athletes and brands have, like, profiles and they all can just swipe on each other to set up deals, or search for each other to find the best fits? 

That’s exactly what it is going to be. We also want to be able to allow fans to be able to buy a video of an athlete saying “happy birthday” to them, or a video for their daughter of someone like me saying “You’re a great setter, I see you’ve been doing my drills, you’re awesome.”

This sounds like Cameo.

Basically!

What about other NIL opportunities, like contacting you to come be an assistant coach at my summer volleyball camp or something?

Yes, we want it to be across the board, each athlete creating their own profile according to whatever business they want to conduct. They can do shoutouts, special appearances, whatever.

Do you see this as something that could become a career—either as a social media influencer or working on the business side of online marketing with college athletes in the future?

I see both. I see this app, in 10 years if we’re talking big picture, on the phone of every college athlete in America and on the phones of millions of people who are fans and brand owners. I see myself working with both of my amazing parents, and hopefully my brother getting paid if NIL gets passed and he’s in college [in the future], playing [Division I].

What sport does your brother play?

[High school] basketball. He’s awesome. He’s going to go places. He’s still being recruited [by colleges] right now. He’s gotten a lot of visits.

So, I mentioned earlier that the NCAA has argued that NIL will interfere with college athletes being educated. Beyond being something that has earned you money, it seems to me that this experience has given you a business education. Could you see schools actually integrating NIL into the education that they provide to athletes as part of entrepreneurship courses or business classes? A lot of college athletes are business students!

Yes, I do see that. In fact, a lot of schools already are partnering with NIL marketing organizations and implementing that into a curriculum and teaching students how to do it.

Looking at your Twitter account, you’ve been pretty active re-Tweeting and expressing support for the #NotNCAAProperty hashtag and movement, in which a number of men’s and women’s NCAA basketball players are basically demanding that they be allowed to capitalize on their NILs the same way that you already are. What are your thoughts on what they are asking for?

I think it’s totally warranted. One of my favorite Tweets was [University of Rutgers player] Geo Baker talking about how, “I was an education major and I started tutoring service, I would be able to make full commission. But because I’m an NCAA athlete and play a sport, I can’t make any money.”

When it comes down to it, that’s inequality. That’s not okay. It’s not okay at any level. Speaking of that, look at what has been going on with the March Madness weight rooms for men and women. Are you kidding me? That’s an embarrassment!
It definitely was. I have better weights in my office closet for pandemic workouts than what they provided to women players! It looked like someone realized about 45 minutes before the women’s weight room opened that there weren’t any actual weights, and ran over to a Target to buy some.

It was really, really bad. It just showed where the NCAA’s priorities are and where its heart isn’t.

One of the #NotNCAAProperty player demands is to sit down and speak to NCAA president Mark Emmert. If you had the chance to do that, what would you tell him about NIL rights for athletes?

I would say everything that I just said to you about the lack of equality. I would also ask him why he thinks that’s okay—and for him not to give some terrible excuse. I would want a real, valid reason. And then I would tell him that we live in America, this is a capitalist nation, this is what we do, and ultimately the NCAA is being unfair. NIL will happen. I would tell him to get with the program and start pushing this along—because you have a lot of people angry right now, and rightfully so.

That’s good advice. You could charge the NCAA for it!

Oh, yeah. I could even ask him, “do you need me to DIY your house? I know you’re really rich.” I could take a good commission! [Laughs]. I’m just kidding.

So way back in 1987, your dad won a car on “The Price is Right. The Athletic reported that he put the car in his brother’s name just to make sure he wasn’t running afoul of NCAA amateurism rules. Is that something he has talked to you about?

I’ve watched that clip with my family, and I still can’t believe it. The fact that my dad won a car on “The Price is Right” and then had to put it in his brother’s name—like, it’s just the cherry on the top to this whole story. And it goes to show that this has been an issue for so long.

Kimberlee Mitchell, joining the Zoom chat: It’s so cute to watch the video. [Show host] Bob Barker knew who [then-Michigan football coach] Bo Schembechler was, so every commercial break he talked to Keith. At the very end of the show, Keith gets up on stage and wins the car—

Keith Mitchell, also joining the Zoom chat: And Bob starts asking me all the questions about football and Bo and everything

Kimberlee: And Keith just goes “I don’t know. I’m just here to win some prizes.” He was scared!

Keith: I was thinking, “I’m going to get in trouble, I’m going to get in trouble. This is an eligibility issue.” And I want to win something!

Kimberlee: How it works is that you go back home and they say, “here’s the equivalent of the car you won on the stage. You can pick something you want off the lot.” And what do you think he picked? Like a meathead boy, he picked a candy apple-red Trans Am.

It had, like, the flaming Phoenix on the hood?

Kimberlee: Yes. Hideous! He drove it all around town, and because he was in a fraternity, they all used it, too. He ended up selling it to move to California when he graduated—

Keith: Because I was broke. I was a college football player. I didn’t have any money, because my job 24/7 was football.

Wow, so that car played a role in Keith starting his career.

Kimberlee: Yes! So you see, you never know where those NIL kind of opportunities are gong to lead you. He moved to [Los Angeles], we met three years later working at [E!] Entertainment Television, and the rest is history.

Speaking of history, I need to check back with you all in a few years and see where PlayBooked is at once the NCAA rules change.

Chloe Mitchell: Hopefully, PlayBooked will have its headquarters somewhere cool, and not here in my parents’ kitchen with my brother storming in and out! [Laughs]. And hopefully, there will be thousands of athletes who have benefited and have been able to make money to build and set themselves up for their futures.

Fifty bucks to wear a T-shirt and make a post isn’t bad, either.

Me and my friends are planning to go on a trip together, and we were going to donate our plasma to help pay for it. Then we looked at each other and I thought, “what am I talking about? Let’s just get more PlayBooks.” One of my teammates was like, “oh, yeah, I hated needles.”

There’s so much you can do with even $50. And it doesn’t have to just be limited to that. The bigger your following, the bigger the endorsement. I mean, you only have four years as a college athlete. And what we’re trying to do is teach these athletes how to leverage this limited time. Hopefully, athletes will be able to do that at the NCAA level—if the NCAA ever gets with it.