Leah Clapper‘s impressive career as a Florida Gator has not only established herself as a highly talented gymnast, but also as a successful content creator. Her work is inspiring athletes all over the country to become involved in the new world of NIL.
Clapper had been dreaming of establishing a content creation career and capitalizing on her personal brand since her high school days, long before the passing of NIL legislation.
“I just thought it was so unfair that college athletes couldn’t do that, but everybody else in the world could. I actually started a food blog after my senior year of high school, and was learning about how all of these food bloggers were making a full-time income. But I soon found out that if I were to be that successful, I could jeopardize my NCAA eligibility,” Clapper told The NIL Deal in a recent interview. “That was when I really started thinking about the idea of being an influencer, or a content creator. So that being said, when it came around, I was really excited. I just felt like, ‘Finally, I can do what everybody else can do.’”
Clapper wasted no time getting involved in the NIL space when legislation passed in July of 2021. Through navigating the space, she’s learned everything from how to negotiate brand deals, to how to make better ads for social media, to figuring out how to read a contract.
“I had all of this advertising and social media knowledge from my classes, because I was an advertising undergrad. And I wanted to put that into practice. So, I started doing a couple of brand deals, reaching out to local companies, and had a really great time,” Clapper said. “My first couple of brand deals, I think I got paid $100 each. I found that I really liked making videos and sharing recommendations with people. And it was energizing to me. I just started getting better at it and understanding the process, and feeling so confident and not overwhelmed. That confusion started slipping away.”
One of her most rewarding NIL ventures came in November 2021 — the creation of Balance Palace, the first-ever gymnastics board game. She designed the board game with her former coach, Claudia Kretschmer, and co-founded Shine Creative.
“It was so much work, but it was an incredible experience and I’m so glad I started that business because, for one, I learned so much,” Clapper said. “But just being able to put a smile on gymnasts’ faces around the country was incredible. I’m blessed that I get to do that and that I get to share a message of playfulness in sport, which is something that’s really important to me — sharing that serious athletes can have fun, too.”
With the wealth of knowledge she had acquired, Clapper was eager to assist athletes who were feeling similarly overwhelmed as she had been when she first encountered the complicated landscape of NIL.
She touched on the various organizations that began emerging in response to NIL legislation passing. Agents, collectives, and marketplaces all began popping up to take advantage of this new space. While they each have their place, Clapper noticed a gap — one that she was willing to step up and bridge herself.
“I identified that missing piece as ‘community.’ Besides talking to your teammates, there wasn’t a place where athletes could really go to talk about their challenges, their struggles in NIL, and help each other out. So that’s what I wanted to create,” Clapper said. “Of course, some schools have brought in some NIL education. From a personal standpoint, it wasn’t really benefiting me. And I didn’t see other athletes really engaging with it, either.”
NIL Island started as a capstone project Clapper worked on for her Master’s in mass communication, but it has evolved into something she’ll take with her far past graduation.
“Athletes need better NIL education and resources and tools that actually help them on a day-to-day basis, getting NIL deals for who they are, and everybody has different goals,” Clapper said. “And then I just want to empower athletes to go after what they are interested in, and make their dreams come true. As cliche as that sounds.”
Clapper announced the launch of NIL Island on March 28. The site features a blog filled with helpful posts surrounding NIL, an area to review NIL deals for the sake of transparency, and offers to help athletes with content creation. There’s also a rate calculator, a negotiation framework, and a quiz to determine how compatible an NIL deal is for the athlete.
Clapper is currently finishing up her final year as a Gator gymnast, where her team will be competing at the NCAA Championships April 13-15.
The next step in her life is continuing her involvement in the NIL space with NIL Island.
“I’m excited to jump further into NIL Island and really try to make it the place where athletes go to figure out NIL and discuss with other athletes and help each other out,” Clapper said. “It starts with building the audience a little bit and seeing what athletes really need. I mean, I have my experience and I know what my teammates are saying and the other tons of athletes that talk to us. But there are other gaps in the NIL space and new ways to help athletes out — some that haven’t been uncovered yet. My goal is to start to help fill in some of those gaps and just bring innovative solutions to NIL.”
She shared some inspirational words of advice for athletes who want to take advantage of NIL, but aren’t sure how to get started.
“For those that really wants to pursue NIL opportunities — whether they’re the star of their team or not — social media is the magic wand to making money in NIL,” Clapper said. “And I think the winning combination is when you have great performance, accomplish amazing things in your sport, and you have a great social media presence.”
She suggests treating your social media as if it were a digital scrapbook of memories. Share behind-the-scenes footage, your accomplishments, and any struggles. When you have a social media following with a built-in community, it’s much easier to pitch brands and entice them to come to you.
“Document your life as a student-athlete on social media because there are people that look up to you and want to see that type of thing,” Clapper said. “And that is the fast track to building an audience and monetizing your NIL. And secondly, stay true to your values. Figure out your ‘why’ for pursuing NIL opportunities and stick with it.”
Clapper added: “NIL is going to be better for athletes if athletes have a say in how things move forward. Helping to advocate for the athlete perspective in NIL is a really big piece of what I’m looking to do.”