Less than three weeks after the NCAA began allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness last July 1, Alabama football coach Nick Saban announced that “our quarterback already has approached ungodly numbers”—nearly $1 million in endorsements, he said, maybe a bit overzealously.
But the player with more marketing deals than perhaps anyone else in college sports—a whopping 69 over this past year—isn’t a Crimson Tide signal-caller. Nor is he an LSU Tigers cornerback or a Michigan Wolverines defensive end or, for that matter, a Duke Blue Devils power forward.
No, the self-proclaimed King of NIL is a track-and-field athlete and running back who has played 11 career games for Norfolk State, a small, historically Black university on the Virginia coast.
“At Power 5 schools, people might make almost $500,000, or more. I know that I’m at a small school, so I know that I’m not making that,” says Rayquan Smith, a 20-year-old rising senior with three years of playing eligibility remaining. “So I was like, okay, I know I can’t make this much [per deal], but how many deals can I make and add up to that?”
Smith hasn’t cracked six figures yet, says his marketing agent, Freddie Berry of Berry Athlete Representation, but his business has come a long way in the 12 months that NIL deals have been permissible for college athletes, who were previously barred from any form of endorsement under the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. He’s now signing contracts that pay him from $500 up to $1,500 or even $2,500 in exchange for promotional posts on social media, Berry says, for a five-figure sum over the past year.
Smith, who starred in football and track at Highland Springs High School outside Richmond, Virginia, says he was recruited by major programs like Duke, Maryland, Pitt and Virginia Tech but ultimately received his only scholarship offer from Norfolk State because of poor grades. He headed off to college in 2019—which just so happened to be the same year that California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act, promising athletes at schools in the state that they would soon be able to maintain their playing eligibility while adding sponsorships.
That was an important link in a chain that produced a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2021 in NCAA v. Alston, a case that challenged NCAA restrictions on athlete compensation, and prompted the NCAA-wide rule change on July 1. But Smith was no close observer of those developments. In fact, it wasn’t until June 30—the day before the new NIL policy went into effect—that he knew anything about it.
Smith noticed some chatter about the impending shakeup while scrolling through Instagram and headed to Google to figure out what was happening. Once he felt he had a grip on the basics, he started reaching out to companies—100 right off the bat. He cast a wide net, targeting any brand whose product he liked: Skittles, Crocs, Hi-Chew.
Only three responded, but Smith didn’t get discouraged. “Rejection is part of life,” he says. “Everybody gets rejected—rejected by companies, females, anything. So I’m good with it. Rejection’s not telling me that I’m not good enough; it’s just telling me that I need to work harder.”
It helped that Smith already knew he could be successful making social media content, a hobby he’d started as a freshman at Norfolk State in the free time he unexpectedly picked up when his track coach encouraged him to focus on football. He had already made a video that went viral—a lip-sync of a Kevin Hart bit—and his TikTok account had around 60,000 followers, after an earlier TikTok account of his had hit 100,000.
Smart Cups, which makes an energy drink in a bioplastic container, was the first company to sign Smith, who posted a video for the brand on July 9. Five days later, Smith struck a deal with Berry to represent him.
Berry, who turns 29 this month, had used the pandemic to pick up a master’s degree in sports marketing and media and was in the process of earning his certification from the NFL Players Association as a contract advisor. A fellow native of the Richmond area, he’d initially reached out to Smith about one day potentially guiding him toward the NFL or the CFL as a player agent, but when the NIL shockwave hit college sports, he thought he could be of service sooner than that.
Berry has helped Smith refine his pitch to marketers and land more lucrative deals, scoring cash payments as opposed to the free products Smith worked for in the early days, and he has signed up a few major brands, including Arby’s, Boost Mobile, Eastbay apparel and Pedialyte. He’s also tried to avoid one-offs in favor of longer deals—three- or six-month arrangements, as well as two-year partnerships with Get Laced shoelaces and VKTRY insoles.
But Smith, who now has nearly 99,000 followers on TikTok plus almost 19,000 on Instagram, stays plenty involved. He still reaches out to companies himself because he enjoys it, even though he now gets a message a week or so from brands interested in working with him. He looks for local camerapeople on Instagram who want publicity from shooting his ads. He speaks with marketers over Zoom to go over contract terms and get approval on the videos he creates for them from his own concepts.
“I make it how I want to make it,” Smith says. “That’s my money maker, being myself.”
He doesn’t let himself be bound by the limits of a contract, either. When Bodyarmor declined Smith’s offer to work together, he bought a bottle of the sports drink and filmed a video anyway. That changed the company’s mind, and Smith got a gift bag for his trouble. He also continues promoting his partners after their deals end, posting photos of himself wearing their products online and tagging them on social media, which sometimes keeps the free stuff coming in.
“I haven’t paid for clothes in a while,” says Smith, who also passes shirts and sweats to his five brothers and uses the extra income to help his mother, a PE teacher and track coach in Richmond, with bills. (His father died when Smith was 12.)
Smith says his top goal remains playing in the NFL, and he plans to jump to a larger football program as a graduate transfer after spending this coming year rehabilitating from foot surgery and competing with Norfolk State’s track team as a decathlete. But his NIL success—which earned him the Hustle Award at the NIL Summit last week—has also shown Smith that he has other options. For starters, he’s launching a channel on Peakz, an athlete streaming site, where he’ll share NIL tips with his subscribers.
“I always feel like I’m more than an athlete; I don’t want nobody to just think that I play football and that’s all,” says Smith, who switched his major to mass communication and broadcasting this past year. “I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a businessman, I’m a football player—and I’m just me.”