Lexi Hiltunen is a senior forward on the Princeton women’s soccer team. She scored her seventh career goal Aug. 27 against La Salle to help the Tigers get off to a 3-0-1 start to the season, while in the classroom, she’s writing her thesis for the School of Public and International Affairs on normative pressures surrounding party bias.
But something sets Hiltunen apart from your average Princeton student-athlete: She’s accrued more than 140,000 followers on Instagram alone. And that sort of audience opens doors.
Hiltunen is a unique but notable example of Princeton athletes capitalizing on their name, image and likeness rights. Two years after a Supreme Court decision opened the door for college athletes to earn money via NIL deals, the trend has made its way to the Ivy League.
As a teenager in West Palm Beach, Fla., Hiltunen modeled swimsuits for catalogs. Her social media following took off, and companies would sometimes offer to send her free swimsuits if she’d post a few of them online.
But Hiltunen was also a highly-rated soccer player and knew for years she wanted to play in college. There was no Ivy sports season when she matriculated at Princeton in 2020-21; still, because athletes were not yet allowed to earn compensation, Hiltunen removed any reference that she played soccer from her social profiles.
“I went by Lexi Hill, which is the name I went by for modeling, and that kind of just stuck,” Hiltunen said. “I never really could do anything sports-related and never could share that I was playing soccer at Princeton, which kind of sucked.”
That changed after the NCAA v. Alston ruling of June 2021. Hiltunen, busy with academics and soccer, didn’t jump right in at first, but companies began reaching out to gauge her interest in brand deals.
Since then, Hiltunen has partnered with both local businesses and larger companies like Walmart, Alba Botanica sunscreen and the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase. In one video posted this summer, Hiltunen and Princeton teammate Pia Beaulieu filmed an ad for the energy drink Reign Storm that featured their soccer skills.
“I was just excited to be able to post soccer content and share that I do play for the soccer team here,” Hiltunen said.
Time management, a skill all student-athletes are acquainted with, has been crucial for Hiltunen to balance school, soccer and her influencer side gig.
“I usually lay out my weeks quite early in advance and then block out times to do quick filming,” Hiltunen said. “It doesn’t usually take me hopefully too long to film, but kind of getting all of those done because deadlines are often quite strict with a lot of these campaigns.”
Many NIL deals are facilitated through an online platform called Opendorse, which Princeton officially partnered with last May. Dozens of Princeton athletes have set up an Opendorse profile, including Tigers starting quarterback Blake Stenstrom.
“It says that this might match your profile, do you want to apply for it? And you can click ‘apply’ and you see the dollar amount that it might be worth,” Stenstrom said. “So they’ve made it very easy. I think they’re doing a really good job trying to expose the Ivy League and Princeton especially to NIL.”
When he played at Colorado before transferring to Princeton, Stenstrom had NIL deals with Rhoback men’s apparel and Liquid IV. Princeton wide receiver Jo Jo Hawkins promotes C4, another energy drink, in his Instagram bio. Many deals like these come in the form of posting discount codes, where the athlete will receive a kickback each time the code is used.
“One of our freshmen actually mentioned that he got on a podcast through an NIL opportunity and got paid a good amount of money, and everybody was excited to hear that, because guys didn’t necessarily know that was an opportunity,” Stenstrom said.
Stenstrom made clear that NIL was not a major part of his Princeton experience and he pointed out the “growing pains” the early days of NIL have caused around college football. The Supreme Court ruling was far from universally popular: Princeton basketball legend and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley told Princeton Alumni Weekly that it was decided by “people who are obsessed with the materialistic culture that we live in.”
But Hiltunen, who aspires to become a chief marketing officer in the sports space, only wondered why NIL rights weren’t in place sooner.
“Especially for the Ivy League, it’s a really great thing for student-athletes just because we don’t have athletic scholarships and other schools can offer that,” she said. “So for us, being able to find ways through Opendorse and different platforms to support athletes and help them make money in school – especially when a lot of us have to pay for school.”
Hiltunen urges fellow student-athletes to not be shy about exploring what’s available.
“I would say take advantage of your opportunities because there are a lot out there and a lot of companies that want to work with athletes,” Hiltunen said. “Don’t be fearful of doing it or partaking in it or what people would say, because it can end up being extremely lucrative as well.”