Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders and receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter are two of college football’s best players. And two of its richest.
Each earns millions from endorsement deals based on their name, image, and likeness, which wasn’t even possible a few years ago. The exact totals are unknown because they’re private deals that don’t have to be reported publicly.
In June 2021, the NCAA voted to allow college athletes to benefit from NIL. Sanders is the son of Colorado coach Deion Sanders, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Shedeur Sanders was arguably the best FCS quarterback in his two years at Jackson State when he passed for 6,983 yards with 70 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while leading the Tigers to consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. Sanders has been equally productive at Colorado. With a game left in Colorado’s season, he’s passed for 3,230 yards with 27 touchdowns and three interceptions for the Buffaloes, one of college football’s most intriguing stories.
Hunter, the only player starting on offense and defense, has been equally productive despite missing three games with a lacerated liver. He’s caught 49 passes for 614 yards and four touchdowns while intercepting three passes and breaking up five others. Once in every game, Hunter seemingly makes a spectacular play whether it’s on offense or defense.
Shedeur Sanders has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, 598,000 on TikTok and 61,300 on X, formerly known as Twitter. Hunter has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, 872,800 on TikTok, and 68,800 on Twitter. He’s also active on Twitch, where he has more than 24,000 followers.
Their combination of performance, social media prowess, and the power of SMAC Entertainment (the agency that also represents Deion Sanders) makes Sanders and Hunter among the sport’s most marketable athletes.
Sanders has appeared in national commercials for Oikos yogurt and KFC with his famous father, but he’s also created his own brand awareness.
“I haven’t met Shedeur, but he seems to have some of those same personality traits that make people either love or hate him,” said Kristi Dosh, CEO of Business of College Sports, a website that analyzes the economics of college athletics.
“He has that polarizing type of personality that is really intriguing to brands. When people are passionate about someone, whether it’s love or hate, it carries a lot of value. He’s a little flashy like Deion, He likes to show off his cars and jewelry and that kind of stuff. He’s certainly had opportunities alongside his dad, but he has his own brand and he’s built a large following that’s not based on who his father is.”
It’s not hyperbole to refer to Deion Sanders as a marketing genius. After all, he created the “Prime Time” persona when he was at Florida State to market himself because cornerbacks were one of the NFL’s lowest-paid positions.
Sanders did such a good job that he’s made Prime Time an iconic brand like the one Michael Jordan built. And like golfer Tiger Woods. And like NBA legend LeBron James. Well, Shedeur Sanders has picked up some of those marketing techniques and tactics.
He likes luxury. In 2022, the quarterback partnered with Mercedes-Benz, headphones maker Beats by Dre, sports apparel supplier Under Armour, and the Tom Brady clothing line brand, Brady.
Sanders has driven a Mercedes-Maybach and a Rolls-Royce Cullinan at various times this season. He made headlines recently after the university police at Colorado put a boot on his car because he parked illegally.
He also started a touchdown celebration trend that’s been seen on NFL and high school fields. After touchdowns, Shedeur Sanders holds his arm up to the crowd or an opponent as though he wants them to see the face of his watch. It started during a pregame scuffle against Nebraska when he held his wrist up at a Nebraska player, flaunting his diamond-studded Royal Oak watch worth about $70,000.
Soon, rappers Rick Ross and DJ Khaled imitated the celebration and posted their antics on Instagram. The New York Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall did it after a win over the Denver Broncos in early October.
“We on the biggest stage, much love and shoutout to DJ Khaled — he’s the one who stamped it, he and Rick Ross — that’s ’hood royalty,” Deion Sanders said last month. “It’s hilarious to me, I love to see it, we joke about it on a daily basis.
“We gotta get him a lucrative watch deal, he can’t do it for nothing. We gotta capitalize on the moment, he is my son.”
Shedeur Sanders grew up around wealth; Hunter did not. That has made him attractive to a different type of company.
“Travis’ brand is a little more of the people. He does things we can all relate to, like fishing. Shedeur’s brand is more of an aspirational brand like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll never be able to afford a car like that, but that’s really cool.’
“I think he probably appeals to more of a luxury brand where Travis Hunter appeals more to brands that me and you can afford.”
During the recruiting process, Hunter and Deion Sanders bonded over their mutual love of bass fishing. Hunter wanted to play offense and defense in college, and Sanders is the last player to play those positions full time in the NFL. During the 1996 season, Deion Sanders was the NFL’s first two-way starter since Chuck Bednarik started at center and linebacker in 1960.
“Travis Hunter does such a fantastic job of showcasing what he enjoys doing on the field. So many athletes only post about their sports because they think that’s the content people want to see the most. People want to know other things about what they do off the field. He does such a good job showcasing his fishing content.
“What’s remarkable about him — and I think it’s because he puts up so much off-the-field content — is that when he got hurt earlier in the season no one I spoke with thought the weeks off the field were going to ding his NIL opportunities at all. The strength of his brand and following were built just on football.”
Hunter’s love of fishing led to a deal with Waterland Co., which sells premium polarized fishing sunglasses.
Hunter likes interacting with his fan base. He’s often on the streaming site Twitch wearing a onesie with Squishmallows stuffed toys on the bed behind him. He recently signed a deal with Squishmallows and announced it on Instagram.
The endorsement opportunities are the reward for the work Hunter and Shedeur Sanders have put in to become successful on the field. Each understands that without producing on the field, the opportunities could disappear, which is why Shedeur Sanders usually turns off his social media during the week.
Hunter, who’s had the same girlfriend since high school and drove a blue Honda Accord as a freshman at Jackson State, told Forbes magazine last year that he likes being shown the power of hard work.
“I’m very good with the leadership/role model role. I like that role. I like to show people that I’m going to be on a straight line, I’m not going to mess up or do anything out of the ordinary to jeopardize anything,” he said. “I’m happy to be the leader and to show people if I can do it, you can do it.
“It’s not that hard. You just have to work towards it. If you’re working towards something you really love, it’s not hard at all.”