Chloe Mitchell: A student, athlete and mastering in NIL comprehension

Chloe Mitchell saw all the limitations of the pandemic and the impact it had on her life in 2020. But she is also a teenager who has grown up on social media and has a love of doing DIY projects.

Mitchell wouldn’t be going to an in-person graduation. Or her senior prom. She would be keeping up with friends on Instagram and Tik Tok and building an incredible following with photos of her various DIY projects and crafts. 

“I feel like a lot of people in my generation see social media as an outlet, as something you do when you’re bored and just take off some steam,” Mitchell told the Osceola. “So when COVID hit, I was sad and depressed that my senior year was practically over. I didn’t get to go to prom or on my senior trip, and I couldn’t see my best friends. So my only way to connect with them was through social media, and it was an outlet for me. And through that, I decided to just start posting videos and people took interest in that. And the rest is history.”

History? Yes. The future? Yes. At the time, Mitchell was wrapping up her senior year. Now she has completed her freshman season as a volleyball player at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She gradually built her social media brand in 2020 and, last fall, became the first NAIA athlete to profit off her name, image and likeness.

Post by post, Mitchell now has more than 2.6 million followers on Tik Tok and 44,000 on Instagram. Some of her recent posts include videos of DIY she sheds, dorm room makeovers and bathroom redos. 

A few years ago, Mitchell would have had to make a choice — to be a student-athlete with a social media platform or give up college athletics and try to be a paid social media influencer. Michigan does not have an NIL law in place, but the NAIA was progressive and jumped in head first. For all of the concern around the country — what a college athlete can and can’t endorse, how it will impact college athletics programs, recruiting and a myriad of questions — it’s worth reminding of a few things:

NIL is a relatively simple concept. An athlete can sign autographs, operate his/her summer sports camp as an instructor, endorse a product on social media, do commercials for local and regional businesses on TV. The legislation and implementation can, however, make NIL as complex as any issue college athletics has seen and that’s where it resembles peeling back layers of an onion to understand the issue.

NIL is the reality at the NAIA level and has been since October. While college athletics has been coming to grips with the financial implications of the pandemic, there are few minor or major concerns with NIL as it has been implemented by the NAIA right now.

NIL is coming up quickly. Laws in a number of states will be in place on July 1, including those in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee among those. The NCAA and elected officials in Washington, D.C., are also weighing legislation, although with about two weeks left in the month that’s not likely to be in place by July 1.

NIL is not just about the deals that will be made for a big-name quarterback or star point guard. Yes, there are some national deals that could be done. But many will be agreements with local or regional businesses, too. And this is not just an opportunity for men’s athletes, as Mitchell and other women have already shown.

The possibilities with NIL reach beyond the concepts that many of us have — a car dealership or on-campus restaurant are examples but just a starting point. And the money-making options could also be inspirational. It’s possible a college athlete could engage in a one-on-one conversation with a boy or girl in middle or high school, encouraging them to work hard in the classroom and in their sport. They could be a mentor. They could offer training tips or record instructional videos about their sport. A young athlete in school may view it as a cool experience to meet a favorite college athlete while a parent may see it as more than that, perhaps an investment in their child’s future.

The Osceola is taking a look at NIL and its impact from various points of view. In the coming weeks, we’ll also take a look at what Florida State is doing to prepare its athletes, coaches and staff for NIL. In this story, it’s important to understand NIL from the standpoint of a student-athlete — and one who has not just earned money via social media and endorsements but one who has helped launch a company to help others do the same. 

Getting started

Mitchell gravitated toward DIY projects and power tools, seeing her mom had chosen DIY and home décor as a hobby. She learned to use a circular saw and nail gun and began doing projects with her mom and on her own.

When Mitchell’s school closed down in March 2020, she was bored. So she started a project. And then another. She began posting photos and videos. More than just her friends and family members were watching from their homes. They responded and shared the posts and Mitchell’s following grew with each day.

By the time Mitchell was ready to go to college, the NAIA hadn’t settled on its NIL legislation just yet. She was concerned and shared her thoughts with her parents. 

“So I went to my Dad,” Mitchell recalled. “ ‘Dad, I’ve started making money on Tik Tok and Instagram. Dad, I am going to become ineligible in a few months when I become a freshman in college, when I become a collegiate athlete. I’m not gonna be able to make this money anymore. And it’s great money.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, that is a problem.’ But he said, ‘Chloe, don’t fret. Take it day by day, the legislation is changing. Let’s see where this goes.’ ”

Up until that time, Mitchell never said on social media that she was a college student-athlete. No mention of Aquinas College was anywhere on her feed. If she did post something about her volleyball career, Mitchell was told she would be declared ineligible.

In October, Mitchell got a phone call from her dad. The NAIA had given NIL the green light and passed the legislation. Mitchell was elated. Yes, she wanted to get paid. But she also wanted to blaze a trail and began to put into action the concept of Playbooked, a company that would have an app and connect athletes anywhere with potential advertisers.

“I want to be the first athlete to get paid, I want to be the face of this, I want to do this, I want to do it right,” Mitchell said. “And I want to teach other athletes how to do this too. As you can see, I’m super passionate about it. So the bill was passed, my company found my team, and I found a golf company that was willing to work with me. 

“And we made a video. They paid me and we reached out to the NAIA. And they said, ‘You’re the first one. Great job. Congrats.’ And since then, my company and the NAIA have been super close.” 

Mitchell also says her coach, athletics director and personnel at the school have been “nothing but supportive.”

What’s next?

Mitchell said this spring that more than 100 athletes in 12 states have been paid already via their Playbooked platform. Her dad is the CEO, her mom does public relations, Patrick Werksma has joined as COO and they’ve brought on more employees to handle compliance, technology and other day-to-day responsibilities.

“We decided not to go the route where we’re trying to partner with the institutions itself,” Werksma said. “We’re partnering with the athlete. We’re trying to focus on the 99 percent of the athletes from the NCAA and the NAIA. There are 570,000 athletes between the two. And we’re successfully getting NAIA athletes paid by partnering them with brands and get into doing endorsements with nationwide brands.”

Some of these endorsement deals are relatively small but are a welcome source of revenue to students who could use a few extra dollars in college. Werksma said the majority of the deals have been between $30-$60 for a video endorsement on Instagram given that they have between 1,000 and 3,000 followers. In his view, an athlete’s social media following is “peer to peer endorsing,” and their analytics have shown a high engagement rate.

This sounds like a small start but it’s easy to see the snowball. Mitchell’s big-picture goal is to have the app on thousands of athletes’ phones and to connect them with opportunities.

There is, of course, concern about NIL. And it is one thing to watch what has happened so far in the NAIA, which is a relatively small pond compared to the NCAA. There is understandably fear in July of what’s to come. Having a better understanding of the topic is essential in Mitchell’s view.

“Education is very important,” Mitchell said. “I also think talking to the athletes in the program are very important, and ultimately I think that it’s American to let people capitalize off of their name, image and likeness. It’s who we are and to not allow athletes the opportunity to do just that in my opinion is wrong.”

Mitchell has worked with big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart but also done deals with smaller businesses and companies. In quite the understatement, Mitchell says: “I’m just a 19-year-old girl. So I don’t have that much experience in the business world. But I would love to say I’m a growing entrepreneur.”

Regardless of her age or experience, Mitchell figured out how to build her brand, manage it, profit from it and start a business. And to her credit she is out ahead of state and federal NIL laws and produced a template for athletes to follow.