Despite not playing a revenue sport, Emily Cole has become one of the most influential athletes in the NIL space. She talks with Boardroom about how she got here.
July 1, 2021, marked the official beginning of college sports’ name, image, and likeness era, but Emily Cole’s NIL journey began two years before that, shortly after she graduated high school in 2019.
The track & field star, who was about to enter her freshman year at Duke that fall, was visiting her older sister in London. Searching for something to do one day, she poked around her sister’s flat and came across a book called Unshakeable.
Three years later, she recalled that moment at the first-ever NIL Summit in Atlanta on a panel about making confident financial decisions, presented by Invesco QQQ.
“I thought it was about athletics and being an unshakeable athlete, but it ended up being about investing” Cole said. “I unintentionally ended up reading this book about financial education.”
From there, Cole was hooked. She worked with her sister on finding an ETF that made sense for her, and her investment journey had officially begun. When NIL became a reality last summer, she was already prepared to take advantage.
Now, as NIL nears its one-year anniversary, Cole has done deals with Invesco QQQ, H&R Block, Cheribundi, Family Dollar, and BeetElite. She has also written her own book called The Player’s Plate, all about athlete nutrition, due out in September.
She sat down with Boardroom at the NIL Summit to talk about what she’s learned in the past year and what’s still to come.
RUSSELL STEINBERG: On the panel, one of the first things you said is that you kind of accidentally picked up Unshakeable. I’m wondering why you didn’t put that book down when you realized it wasn’t what you thought it was?
EMILY COLE: That’s a great question. It’s funny because the book itself wasn’t that interesting. I have my older sister, who has been that mentor for me in financial education; she’s always preached the importance to me of being financially literate because she went through struggles on her own when she went through college. And so I knew whenever I picked up the book, even though it wasn’t gonna be the most entertaining and fun thing that I had ever read, I knew that it was a book that would really benefit me in the future. And I’ve been so grateful that I’ve read it ever since.
RS: So you finished that book, you put it down. What’s the first thing you did after that?
EC: First thing I did was download Robinhood and just start looking at investments. One of the things that really stuck out to me from the book was the different fees they have on index funds. Over many years, [it] can really add up to be a large amount. There’s always little things in investing in the financial world that you might not fully understand if you aren’t able to talk to a professional. So that’s one of the first things I did, just downloading that app and getting familiar with it, even if it’s just investing like $10, just playing around with little sums of money and seeing how it goes, to start making my own mistakes and learning that way.
RS: You’ve been a student-athlete pre-NIL and now in the NIL era. Before NIL, it was still important to manage your image and develop your brand. How did you approach that before July of last year?
EC: I think that I’m just someone who is naturally more open, so that lends itself well to being able to share my story on social media. But I actually have another older sister who is a country music artist, and so she has a big social media platform, and I really looked up to her and was really just learning from her. She encouraged me to download these different social media [apps] and start sharing my experience as a student-athlete, not even thinking about name, image, and likeness. Just starting to build a brand and starting to build an audience because I knew even if name, image, likeness rules weren’t changed until after I graduated, I’d be able to take advantage of it. I’m really grateful that I started earlier on building my brand before I even knew that NIL was likely, because it gave me a head start on getting to let the audience know who I am and share my story.
RS: NIL has changed immensely in the last year. Can you take me through what it’s been like as a student-athlete from July 1 of last year to now?
EC: You know, it has been crazy. I would definitely say that when it first started, I think that everyone thought that it would just be the big football teams or basketball teams that are making these big deals and there wouldn’t be much left for anyone else. But what I’ve been really impressed with are the incredible movements that have come from big companies, like the partnership I did with H&R Block to support female athletes. And especially in sports that aren’t as covered. I think that that’s been really incredible to see how NIL is gonna start giving female athletes and those smaller sports a much bigger platform because they’re able to create their own audiences and not fully depend on TV coverage for that.
RS: As an athlete in a so-called non-revenue sport, why have you been able to break through? Why are you here today?
EC: I think that a lot of athletes get discouraged if they aren’t in those revenue sports, thinking that they don’t have an opportunity. And so I think that something that has helped me find success is kind of pushing past that mentality and believing that people do wanna see the day-to-day, and they do wanna learn the behind-the-scenes. I would think about me as a little middle school girl, wanting to look at these college athletes. Like, I would’ve wanted to know everything. And so whenever I give myself that perspective, it’s a lot easier to think about the little things that my teammates and I might take for granted every day, like having the athlete dining hall and, you know, getting backpacks and whatnot. All of that. If I can get back into the mindset of middle school Emily, it gives me more ideas for creating content and being able to share those behind-the-scenes [moments] that maybe other people our age just think is normal. But we’re definitely in a little bubble, right? We don’t realize that there are so many people out there that would love to learn about the day-to-day of our lives.
RS: How did you get involved with Invesco QQQ, and what is that partnership all about?
EC: It was through Duke compliance. They had sent out the [Invesco QQQ How Not to Suck at Money game] to all of us. And it wasn’t like we were required to do it or anything. I found it and jumped on the opportunity to be able to learn more about financial literacy and investing and whatnot, and played it and loved it.
RS: Panelists spoke this morning about knowing your worth and being able to determine your value. How do you do that?
EC: You know, I think that that is one of the hottest topics right now in NIL. Everyone’s trying to figure it out. Specifically, your rates when talking to different brands. I think that there needs to be a lot more communication of what typical rates are, and that’s something that I’m actually gonna try to start creating — a space where athletes can share the different deals that they’re doing so that people have more information. But I guess for me, so far, it’s really helped to reach out to other athletes doing similar deals. And if you can find someone who y’all can be vulnerable and open enough with, to share the deals you’ve done and compare — well, this person did this deal for X-amount. You can bring that to a brand and be like, ‘You’re severely undershooting me right here, and I know that,’ whereas they might not even know. Everyone’s learning at the same time.
RS: I know you’ve also written a book. Can you share details about that?
EC: My book is basically an all-in guide to sports nutrition, and it’s something that I wish that I had had 10 years ago, starting out my athletic career. I did volleyball and basketball all through high school, along with track and cross country. My senior year, when I started focusing on running, I also started paying a lot more attention to my diet and eating healthier.
I was not raised in a healthy household. We had fast food for like every meal, all of the desserts all the time. And so my senior year, it was really me having the autonomy and taking my diet into my own hands, eating healthy, and it set my career in a completely different direction and allowed me to run in college. I wouldn’t be here today if I wasn’t able to do that. Since it changed my life and it was such an impactful experience for me, I was just like, ‘I just wish I could share this with all the other athletes and tell them about how incredible it could be.’ It could change their athletic career if they were optimizing this huge pillar of their athletic training and recovery.
So it’s called The Player’s Plate, and it ties in not only what is physically on your plate, but also the saying of making sure there’s not too much on your plate in general. I know as athletes, we get a lot of societal and psychological pressures that come along with trying to fuel to peak performance, whether it’s people competing in really revealing uniforms and worrying about their body image, or different weight sports, where that is a key factor. There are a lot of different psychological elements that can bring your mental health into your fueling journey as well.
I have chapters dedicated to those different topics, and I’m really grateful because I was able to interview such incredible registered dietitians and athletes. I interview people like April Ross and I interviewed Colleen Quigley and Jesse Thomas — Ironman champion — and basically asked them what they wished they had known at the beginning of their athletic careers. And I gave them each their own chapter, had one core sports nutrition lesson come from their stories. So that way I can teach. I could show rather than tell all these different sports and concepts throughout the book. At the end of each chapter, I have a recipe teaching you how to put that lesson into practice.
RS: Then I’ll ask you: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your athletic career? And that could be about nutrition, it could be about investing, whatever. Lessons you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known.
EC: I would definitely say that the core theme of my book and the lesson that I wish that I had known was just really learning how to find the optimal balance earlier on. I think, especially within sports nutrition too, whenever you’re trying to reach these extreme heights and pillars, it can be easy to get too wrapped up in it and think you only have to eat chicken and broccoli all the time, right? That’s all you can have. And that’s just simply not the case. In fact, having that bowl of ice cream could give you the nutrients you need to reach your calories for the day and not get injured. It could be crucial to your performance as well. So I think that being able to find that balance and find mentors that can help you find that balance is something that I would encourage everyone to try to find as early on as they can in their career.