Less than three weeks after the NCAA began allowing athletes to use their name, image and likeness on July 1, Alabama football coach Nick Saban announced that “our quarterback has already approached ungodly numbers” – nearly $1 million in endorsements, he said, maybe a little overzealous.
But the player with more marketing deals than perhaps anyone else in college sports — a whopping 69 in the past year — isn’t a Crimson Tide flagger. Nor is he a cornerback for the LSU Tigers or a defensive end for the Michigan Wolverines or, for that matter, a power forward for the Duke Blue Devils.
No, the self-proclaimed King of NIL is a track and field athlete and running back who played 11 career games for Norfolk State, a small historically black college on the Virginia coast.
“In Power 5 schools, people can earn close to $500,000 or more. I know I’m in a small school, so I know I’m not going to make it,” says Rayquan Smith, a 20-year-old senior who still has three years of eligibility to play. “So I was like, okay, I know I can’t earn that much [per deal]but how many transactions can I close and add to that? »
Smith has yet to hit six figures, says his marketing agent, Freddie Berry of Berry Athlete Representation, but his business has come a long way in the 12 months NIL deals were allowed for college athletes, who were previously prohibited from any form of endorsement under the NCAA definition of amateurism. He is now signing contracts that pay him anywhere from $500 to $1,500 or even $2,500 in exchange for promotional social media posts, Berry says, for a five-figure sum over the past year.
Smith, who played football and track at Highland Springs High School outside of Richmond, Va., says he was recruited by big programs like Duke, Maryland, Pitt and Virginia Tech, but eventually dropped out. received his only scholarship offer from Norfolk State due to poor grades. He left for college in 2019, the same year California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act, promising school athletes across the state that they would soon be able to maintain their playing eligibility while adding sponsorships.
It was an important link in a chain that produced a landmark Supreme Court decision in June 2021 in NCAA vs. Alston, a case that challenged NCAA restrictions on athlete compensation and prompted the NCAA-wide rule change on July 1. But Smith was not a keen observer of these developments. In fact, it wasn’t until June 30, the day before the new NIL policy came into effect, that he found out about it.
Smith noticed talk of the impending redesign while scrolling through Instagram and headed to Google to figure out what was going on. Once he felt he had the basics down, he started reaching out to businesses – 100 right off the bat. He cast his net wide, targeting all the brands whose products he liked: Skittles, Crocs, Hi-Chew.
Only three responded, but Smith was undeterred. “Rejection is part of life,” he says. “Everyone gets rejected – rejected by companies, women, whatever. So I’m fine with that. Rejection doesn’t tell me I’m not good enough; it just tells me I need to work harder. strong.
It helped Smith already know he could be successful creating social media content, a hobby he started as a rookie at Norfolk State during the time off he unexpectedly took when his athletics coach encouraged him to focus on football. He had previously made a video that went viral – a lip-synch of a Kevin Hart track – and his TikTok account had around 60,000 followers, after one of his previous TikTok accounts hit 100,000.
Smart Cups, which makes an energy drink in a bioplastic container, was the first company to sign Smith, who released a video for the brand on July 9. Five days later, Smith reached an agreement with Berry to represent him.
Berry, who turns 29 this month, had used the pandemic to earn a master’s degree in sports marketing and media and was in the process of getting his NFL Players Association certification as a contract adviser. Hailing from the Richmond area, he had initially contacted Smith about a day, potentially guiding him to the NFL or CFL as a player’s agent, but when the NIL shockwave hit college sports, he thought that it might be useful sooner than that.
Berry helped Smith hone his pitch to marketers and land more lucrative deals, getting cash payments as opposed to the free products Smith initially worked for, and he signed a few big brands including Arby’s, Boost Mobile, Eastbay apparel and Pedialyte. He’s also tried to avoid one-off deals in favor of longer contracts – three- or six-month deals, as well as two-year partnerships with Get Laced shoelaces and VKTRY insoles.
But Smith, who now has nearly 99,000 followers on TikTok and nearly 19,000 on Instagram, remains heavily involved. He continues to reach out to companies himself because he loves it, even though he now receives a message a week or so from brands interested in working with him. He is looking for local cameramen on Instagram who want to advertise by filming his commercials. He talks to marketers via Zoom to go over contract terms and get approval for videos he creates for them from his own concepts.
“I do it how I want to do it,” Smith says. “That’s my source of money, being myself.”
Nor does he allow himself to be bound by the limits of a contract. When Bodyarmor declined Smith’s offer to work together, he bought a bottle of sports drink and filmed a video anyway. This changed the company’s mind and Smith was given a goodie bag for his troubles. He also continues to promote his partners after their deals end, posting photos of him wearing their products online and tagging them on social media, which sometimes leads to free products.
“I haven’t paid for clothes in a while,” says Smith, who also passes on shirts and sweatshirts to his five brothers and uses the extra income to help his mother, a physical education teacher and track and field coach. Richmond, to pay the bills. (His father died when Smith was 12.)
Smith says his main goal remains playing in the NFL, and he plans to move into a larger football program as a graduate transfer after spending the coming year recovering from foot surgery and compete with the Norfolk State track team as a decathlete. But his NIL success – which won him the Hustle Award at the NIL summit last week – also showed Smith he had other options. For starters, he’s starting a channel on Peakz, an athlete streaming site, where he’ll share NIL tips with his followers.
“I always feel like I’m more than an athlete; I don’t want anyone to think I’m just playing football and that’s it,” says Smith, who changed majors to mass communication and broadcasting last year. “I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a businessman, I’m a football player and I’m just me.”