Malachi Palmer is atypical of most kids his age who steadily peruse their social feeds scouring the like counter to subconsciously gauge their worth among their peers.
Even at 17, Palmer is “way too” consumed with countless hardwood training sessions spanning multiple hours and traveling all over the country playing against elite competition while top college coaches watch intently from the sidelines.
“I just love to play ball,” says Palmer, a rising junior shooting guard at Central Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.). “I have always been more of a laid-back guy, so I don’t need 10,000 likes. That’s not really me. I let my game talk for me, not my likes.”
The irony is that in the end his worth, at least monetarily, could absolutely be measured by how many of those annoying likes he chalks up.
In the new world order of college athletics, where athletes collect donor-arranged seven-figure checks under the veil of endorsements and where collectives rake in millions to snag highly productive players from the infamous transfer portal, branding and marketing on social media seem but a small price to pay for the potential tradeoff.
“It’s just a different world now,” Centennial (Corona, Calif.) shooting guard Jared McCain says.
From wallflowers to social butterflies, elite prospects, parents and coaches contend that nearly a year into the name, image and likeness (NIL) era, marketing is a newly accepted part of the game that everyone is adjusting to in real time.
“It’s not like it used to be when social media was looked at as a distraction,” Baylor associate head coach Alvin Brooks III says. “Now the players need social media.”
To that end, for the first time in his 19 years as head coach at Baylor, Scott Drew ended his policy of taking players’ cellphones at night during road games.
“When you have a more mature group, they’re less likely to get distracted,” Brooks says. “Also, now you have guys that have obligations to post things and handle their business. For a lot of guys, that marketing piece; that’s just not them, but for some guys, that’s second nature.”
McCain certainly falls in with the latter.
From look to style to personality, McCain oozes marketability, evident in his massive following on TikTok and Instagram of more than two million.
“If I wasn’t a basketball player, I’d probably be a YouTuber or just dancing on TikTok somewhere,” McCain says with a laugh. “I love social media. It’s just me being me.”
McCain became one of the first high school athletes to cash in after the NCAA voted to allow college athletes to profit from NIL last July. More than half a dozen states, including California and New York, expanded the policy to include high school athletes.
McCain’s fun-loving, carefree aura earned him “lucrative” deals with everyone from Kay Jewelers to Crocs.
“It’s still wild that people want to pay me to be me, but this is the nature of the sport now,” says McCain, a rising senior who committed to Duke in March. “For that reason, you have to promote your brand and grow your following. One of the first things companies mention when we talk is how impressed they are with all the followers I have. Even for guys who don’t want to do dances or skits you can just post highlights or pictures or a day-in-the-life type thing. Gotta do something.”
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Mikey Williams, a rising senior at San Ysidro (San Diego), is the most popular high school athlete in the country with an Instagram following that eclipses 3.4 million and friends like Drake and Da Baby, as well as NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
Last July, Williams inked a deal with Excel Sports Management, becoming the first high school basketball star to sign with a major sports agency to pursue NIL endorsements.
Four months later, he inked a multi-year deal with Puma, making him the first American high school basketball player to sign a sneaker deal with a global footwear company.
Bishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) point guard Boogie Fland, a rising junior, signed a sponsorship deal with Spreadshop, which enables him to create his brand on the organization’s platform.
The four-figure deal spanned six months and required Fland to post once a week promoting his brand and mentioning the company.
To McCain’s point, Fland is nearly as excited at growing his social media presence as he is to dominate the competition in the grueling Nike EYBL this summer
“I’m really excited about my Tik Tok,” Fland says. “I have a big personality, but through the years it was hard for me to show it; Tik Tok really allows me to show that side of me. People don’t know that I got my name because I can really dance. I have a lot of fun with it.”
Still, the vast majority of elite players across the country contend that hyper-focused marketing requires intentionality.
“Posting all the time just wasn’t something I thought about all the time,” says Windermere (Fla.) forward Sean Stewart. “That’s something I’m getting better with.”
Stewart’s interest was piqued this past season, watching his brother, Miles, a forward at Howard, pickup NIL money while suiting up for the Bison.
That got Stewart, who committed to Duke in December, thinking about the possibilities, which has prompted multiple brainstorming sessions with his family.
Part of the reason that Stewart picked the Blue Devils was that “their NIL presentation was, by far, the best.”
“Duke has the biggest brand for sure,” Stewart says. “Me and my family talk a lot about building my brand and my following on social media. We’re hoping that next year they’ll open up NIL for high school players in Florida. I don’t think I’ll have a hard time with branding and showing my personality and things like that. I think my focus is gonna be on engagement; just showing what I do outside of basketball. Posting and all that is something you have to make a routine.”
As one of the top players in the 2024 class, Liam McNeeley is on the trajectory for a hefty NIL payday when the time comes.
At 6-foot-7, McNeeley is one of the most versatile players in the country; an elite playmaker with three-level scoring ability, consensus top 10 status in the class, a gold medal with USA Basketball and a state title.
He also comes equipped with all the spoils afforded to a top prospect including the full-court recruiting press by everyone from Kansas to Baylor to Duke, among many other schools.
Still, McNeeley’s mother, Ashley Elsey, who owns a communications company, said they prefer organic to overdosing when it comes to marketing.
“We try to keep the main thing, the main thing,” Elsey says. “Liam loves basketball; that’s what he enjoys doing. From a marketing perspective, we haven’t spent a lot of time on that, we just try to let things happen organically. Not being naïve, I understand that it’s a reality of how the game is evolving, but I still believe that it’s his love of the game and the way that he plays that will sustain him.
“He naturally does things on social himself and the guys that film him do that anyway. Still, at the end of the day, we feel like keeping basketball as the thing that matters most is what ultimately is going to be the most fulfilling.”
That was certainly Baylor Scheierman’s mindset when he entered the transfer portal last month.
As one of the top players in the swelling portal, Scheierman knew NIL could potentially stall talks and told his agent and parents about his desire to focus on the long game to sidestep that reality.
“It would be a blessing to make money off what I worked for, sure,” says Scheierman, who committed to Creighton. “But the biggest thing is fit for me. Yeah, I could get a one-year deal with NIL that’s big, but if I played 10 years in the NBA I think that would work out for me a lot better.”
Truth is, million-dollar NIL deals are still the exception, not the rule.
That said, it’s the nature of a teen wearing the “next big thing” label to key in on top-tier earning potential. That mindset makes the report of the anonymous 2023 five-star football recruit’s $8 million NIL deal an attainable goal, perceivably. Add in the adoption of marketing as an acceptable part of the journey and the adjusted plan for success will be centered around balance.
“You’ve always had guys that were distracted in some way,” Brooks says. “This is just another thing they’re gonna have to learn to balance. The most successful players are gonna understand and master time management. That’s the key.”
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