Rose Zhang enters this week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles fresh off a victory sweep at the NCAA Championship and another impressive first: She’s the first student-athlete to sign an NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) deal with Adidas.
Zhang called being the first to sign with Adidas both humbling and a dream.
The NIL scene in college golf varies wildly, but good friends Rachel Heck and Zhang have built an impressive portfolio of partnerships. Together they’ve won 12 college events over the past 18 months, including two NCAA individual titles. Heck won the ANNIKA Award, given to the best player in college golf, in 2021, and Zhang followed suit this year.
They are, of course, exceptional. But they prove what’s possible, too.
“It’s just really good experience because it’s a step forward to being part of the real world,” said Zhang, who recently got a new debit card and a lesson in how taxes work.
Zhang has been wearing the Adidas brand for years as part of company’s elite junior program. She’ll wear the brand’s clothing at events when she’s not representing Stanford, which is a Nike school.
“Our intention there is to fully integrate her into our spring/summer 2023 marketing campaigns,” said Tim McNulty, Global Director of Sports Marketing for Adidas. That could mean ads alongside the likes of two-time major champion Collin Morikawa.
Zhang, past champion of both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and Girls’ Junior, was the first NIL ambassador for Callaway, too. She also added a deal with USGA partner American Express ahead of her fourth consecutive U.S. Women’s Open. Zhang will sport the logo of local North Carolina shop Eloise Trading Company on her bag this week as part of American Express’ commitment to support female-owned small businesses.
Zhang’s portfolio also includes deals with Amundi Assset Management, title sponsor of the Evian Championship, Uswing Sunglasses (which she wears on the course), Paradox, an HR Recruiting Software company, and Beats by Dre. Zhang and Heck are the Beats’ first two female golf ambassadors. The brand has signed NIL deals with six college athletes, including Shedeur Sanders, son of Deion Sanders. Tony Finau is the only current pro golfer on their roster.
“Through our NIL partnerships, we’ve developed custom 1 of 1 product for our talent and produced social and digital content sharing their stories and highlighting them to Beats fans on social as they prepare for their biggest moments,” said Aminah Charles, Head of Sports Marketing, North America at Beats.
“NIL is still a relatively new space for us, but we’re excited to go deeper with how we activate and support our NIL talent.”
Heck, who was forced to withdraw from her U.S. Women’s Open qualifier due to illness, was the first to sign with Excel Sports Management and Zhang quickly followed. Both work with agency vice president Kevin Hopkins. While a handful of football and basketball stars had already inked seven-figure NIL deals when Heck jumped into the NIL scene, she certainly wasn’t expecting life to change overnight.
Still, both players and agent say what has transpired thus far has exceeded expectations.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest and the financial terms behind these partnerships, but I would attribute that to a few key factors,” said Hopkins. “They are elite talents with unique personalities; there is a PR pop that comes with any new NIL deals; the influx of investment by corporations into women’s athletics; and the ability to capitalize on high-profile amateur events on network television.”
The deals are tied to NCAA eligibility, meaning they would terminate when the players turn professional. While financial terms were not disclosed, it’s estimated that the NCAA stars would each be earning more than six figures annually while competing for Stanford.
Heck is hopeful that NIL opportunities will keep top players in school longer.
For many companies, NIL is an important first step for athletes like Heck and Zhang.
“I think anytime you enter into any sort of official partnership with an athlete,” said McNulty, “your intention is that that relationship continues as they progress through their career.”
Heck and her family decided early on that they wanted to “do this right” and not simply respond to every direct message that came with an offer. This is the foundation of her brand, after all, and it’s important to her to tie in her passions for the military and the RTOC, as well as a message of empowerment for girls. She has already said no to offers that didn’t align with her values.
Heck started a new art Instagram account (@raindelayz) last summer because the new NIL rules now allow her to sell some of her pieces to raise funds for military charities. Whatever medium Heck finds herself working in at the minute becomes her favorite – oil painting, watercolor, black-and-white sketches.
Heck has played Ping clubs her entire amateur career and became the company’s first NIL ambassador in January. She wears Ping headwear in all non-NCAA competitions (like the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur, any majors). Heck also became Nike’s first NIL ambassador earlier this month and was later joined by USC’s Amari Avery.
Heck filmed a commercial for Stifel, which was shown around the ANWA and NCAAs. Paradox, Beats, Six-Star Pro and Whistle Sports round out her current deals.
Josh Zywien, chief marketing officer of Paradox, hasn’t yet ironed out the details of how they’ll use Zhang and Heck as ambassadors, but as a software company with a large percentage of female employees, putting them in front of their team will be part of the plan.
Zywien said he was blown away by the Stanford players when he met them for the first time.
“The level of maturity and professionalism and intelligence was just off the charts,” he said.
Heck came into college fully confident that she’d stay four years – regardless of NIL money.
Zhang said NIL money plays a role in how long she’ll stay in school, but it’s not the biggest part. The timeline for when she’ll turn professional, Zhang said, remains unclear, but one year of college has already made a big impact on the World No. 1.
“Meeting people, building those close relationships and really just understanding what I want to do and balancing my life,” said Zhang. “I feel like college is a great tester for that. Just staying here, there’s so much more to learn. I have no idea what’s to come, but I feel like college is doing me wonders right now.”