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Nike’s First Student-Athlete Sponsorship Deal Isn’t With Who You Might Expect

This summer, the NCAA abandoned its archaic rules prohibiting college athletes from making money off their name, image and likeness. On Tuesday, UCLA women’s soccer player Reilyn Turner was announced as the first Nike NIL deal, a sign the athletic apparel behemoth is interested in more than putting its products in front of the most eyes possible.

While many might have expected Nike to sign its first college sponsorship deal with an Alabama quarterback or a Duke power forward, Nike instead chose last season’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Turner, who has played for a variety of U.S. youth national teams, has scored 21 goals in two seasons with the Bruins.

“As a Black woman and Mexican American, I think about those who have paved the way for me and how they used their platforms to create so much change, even beyond sport,” Turner said in a Nike news release. “I hope to be a role model for those around me and those after me, and I’m so excited to be a part of what Nike is bringing to the future of women’s sport.”

Turner isn’t the first college athlete to sign a sponsorship deal, merely the first to do so with one of the most iconic athletic brands in the country. Exact terms of the Nike NIL deal were not disclosed, but the company made it clear this is about more than sports. Turner started Tuesday with about 3,000 Instagram followers (a number that has nearly doubled in the hours since the announcement was made). 

“Nike’s agreements with college student athletes in the United States will include an element that connects back to their local communities,” Nike’s news release said. “Because the impact of sport goes beyond competition and success — it’s also about the changes you can make to give everyone an opportunity for a more level playing field.”

As part of the sponsorship deal, Nike and Turner will work with Los Angeles-based non-profits to encourage young girls to get into sports and be active. 

“I’m so excited to be a part of what Nike is bringing to the future of women’s sport,” Turner said in a statement. “Picking up a ball opened so many doors for me. Playing sports has allowed me to build relationships with people around the world, to go to an amazing school, to be part of a community that means everything.

“As an athlete, you’re in a position to be a role model, to have a platform to speak up for what you believe in. I hope to be a role model for those around me and those after me. I want to inspire little girls and little boys to pursue their dreams too.”

Turner, 19, led the Pac-12 with 11 goals and 27 points in 17 games in 2020-21. This season she tallied 10 goals, trailing only Mia Fishel’s 12 on the team. Fishel, a junior who has already had USWNT call-ups, has entered into the NWSL draft.

Turner is also, according to her Instagram page, a fan of “The Office,” which earns her bonus points in my mind.

In other Nike women’s soccer news on Tuesday, Megan Rapinoe posted some vague images to Instagram, two of which included Nike swooshes, the middle post saying only “Been working on something … stay tuned.”

Will it have anything to do with Reilyn Turner becoming the first Nike NIL athlete? Will Rapinoe become the latest NWSL star to transfer clubs? Will she announce her retirement? Who the heck knows, but Nike’s sure to factor in somehow. 

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