CHAMPAIGN — The opportunity was always there, but Dylan Kolak just couldn't take it.
"Companies would (direct message) me on Instagram or TikTok and ask like if I wanted to collab or collaborate or work with them and stuff like that to be compensated," Kolak said. "And I never even responded to them because I never thought (college athletes) would actually be able to do that. I always thought that if the (name, image and likeness) thing would get passed it would be like so far in the future that I wouldn't still be in the NCAA."
Kolak, a junior Illinois gymnast, was in attendance Tuesday at the State Farm Center when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 2338, also known as the Student-Athlete Endorsement Rights Act, into law. This new legislation will allow college athletes in Illinois to profit off of their name, image and likeness starting Thursday at 12:01 a.m.
The law, which was co-sponsored by former Illinois football player and state representative Kam Buckner, will give student-athletes the chance to make money in a variety of ways, including selling custom merchandise, hosting camps and signing autographs.
Those NIL opportunities have the potential to be lucrative for student-athletes, especially those in revenue sports like football and men's basketball that already have large fan bases.
Non-revenue sports, however, do not have that same platform. Thousands of people aren't paying to watch the Illinois men's gymnastics team compete at Huff Hall, but Kolak still has the potential to become one of the Illini's most profitable athletes.
How? Social media.
"It was something that happened in the gym," Kolak said. "I was doing a skill and I accidentally stood on the bar, and I posted it (on TikTok) as a joke like, 'Oh, I cheated death today.' ... It was a complete joke, but I remember I livestreamed after that for like 30 minutes and when I got off live, it had a million views already within like an hour of posting."
Kolak has nearly 23,000 followers on Instagram, which is on par with other Illinois athletes, even those who play football and men's basketball. However, he is in a league of his own when it comes to TikTok.
Roughly seven months after his "cheating death" video went viral, Kolak now has nearly 500,000 followers and over 17 million likes on TikTok, compared to just over 46,000 followers and 723,000 likes for the Illinois athletics account.
So, while Kolak may be able to walk around the Champaign-Urbana campus in more discrete fashion than Illini men's basketball guards Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier, he's constantly racking up views and likes on his TikTok account.
Thanks to Illinois' freshly minted NIL legislation, he'll finally be able to cash in on his ever-growing audience that stretches from his hometown of Pomona, New York, to Champaign and beyond.
"I'm gonna obviously try to do like some networking in the Champaign area with local companies and local brands and stuff like that that are in Champaign County, but I'm honestly not going to limit myself to just Illinois," Kolak said hours before boarding a flight to the West Coast. "Actually, I'm going to LA today, and we're gonna try and reach out to companies and brands and see if they'd like to work together."
According to Forbes, TikTok users with large followings like Kolak can often "promote products or services to their followers and be compensated by a company." Famous users, also known as influencers, can make money by selling their own merchandise, too, which is an idea Kolak said he's open to.
TikTok also has a "Creator Fund," which pays high profile users monthly, according to its website. To be a part of the Creator Fund, users must be 18 years old and have at least 100,000 followers, among other requirements. The monthly payments vary depending on views and other engagement metrics.
Kolak added that while the NIL legislation is "a great opportunity" for him to bring in some money, he also highlighted how important it can be for men's gymnastics as a whole.
Most of Kolak's viral TikTok videos are related to gymnastics, and he believes a lot of the sports' eye-popping flips and hard-hitting falls peak viewers' interest and could inspire younger athletes to give gymnastics a shot.
"(The NIL law) is so big for men's gymnastics; I can't stress that enough," Kolak said. "In the last couple years with men's gymnastics, our audience has kind of been dying out, and we haven't gotten a whole lot of engagement. ... Like Iowa's men's gymnastics team and Minnesota's men's gymnastics team actually got cut this past year, so it's really at this critical point. So I think the more audience and more light we can shine on this sport, the better."
More than money
Illinois women's basketball player Eva Rubin was also present at the State Farm Center on Tuesday, and she spoke candidly about how the state's new NIL law will help her advocate for those dealing with circumstances that others often don't see.
Rubin, a 6-foot-5 senior center, is excited for the chance to sell T-shirts and other gear, but that's not the first thought that came to her mind when she saw NIL legislation on the horizon.
"A little bit about myself, some of you may know — I'm actually a Type 1 diabetic," Rubin said during Tuesday's press conference. " ... I've had many opportunities to work with diabetes research foundations like the American Diabetes Association — just causes and organizations like that that are important to me. So now with the NIL being passed, I can only imagine the opportunities that I'll be able to create for myself and build for myself in ways that will help me give back to my community."
For Rubin, the NIL legislation is not solely about financial gain, but an opportunity for her to proudly stand by the companies and products that help her compete at the highest level.
Rubin said "the most important product" she uses as a Type I diabetic is a constant glucose monitor that she wears, even while in games, so that she and the Illinois training staff are aware of her glucose levels in real time.
"It's something that I wear on my body and it Bluetooth connects to my phone and to my athletic trainer's phone, so that we can see my blood sugar throughout practice and games without me having to stop and prick my finger. It just shows up on my phone and it's as easy as that," Rubin said. " ... So working with a company like that, that makes those kinds of things and makes being a diabetic athlete a little bit easier, it would be amazing to work with a brand like that."
Similarly to Kolak, Rubin also took a look at Illinois' new NIL legislation from a bird's-eye view in regards to women's college basketball. She acknowledged that her sport is not a revenue sport like men's basketball and football, but she is certain that it is just as important and deserves more attention.
"Let's take the WNBA for example, spearheading so many important causes," Rubin said. "We look at leagues like that and that's not a revenue sport like (the NBA) either, but their impact has been so monumental because they're so involved in the other communities that they're in besides their sports, whether that's LGBTQIA+ rights or Black Lives Matter. ... There is space for that and there's value in that whether or not you're a revenue sport, and because we are athletes at all, this (NIL law) is enough to garner that interest and garner that attention."
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid