Ohio State synchronized swimmer Laila Huric is making a splash in the NIL era. Synchronized Swimming is not an officially sanctioned NCAA sport, but that has not stopped her from leading the way for women across the country.
As Ohio State prepares to host the U.S. Collegiate National Championship from March 25-27, Huric discussed empowering women, representing her sport, and more.
Synchronized Swimming and Emerging Sports
The NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics plays a critical role in the development of sport in the United States. The group is responsible for identifying and exploring new sports with the goal of providing more sport-sponsorship options for NCAA institutions and more opportunities for women.
It’s a mission close to the heart of Ohio State synchronized swimmer Laila Huric.
“For myself, it’s really important to empower other women,” Huric said. “Growing up, I always had great female role models. Potentially being one of those people for someone else is really important, to be one of those people involved with NIL deals, opening doors for other people, especially women in my sport.”
Since the formation of the program in 1994, some sports have become NCAA-sanctioned championships (beach volleyball, bowling, ice hockey, rowing, and water polo), while others have been added or removed from the list. To achieve championship status, there must be a minimum of 40 varsity NCAA programs at the NCAA Division I and II levels – plus 28 at Division III – within 10 years or “show steady progress toward that goal” to remain on the list.
Also known as Artistic Swimming, Team USA and USA Artistic Swimming support the participation and growth of the sport at the collegiate level. There are currently five collegiate teams (Ohio State, Incarnate Word, Stanford, Texas Women’s, Wheaton), 17 university club programs (notable schools include Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, and UCLA) and three start-up programs (Central Florida, Northeastern, Texas). While it may not be a mainstream sport, there is a strong Synchronized Swimming community and Huric takes pride in being an ambassador.
“Synchronized Swimming is not the most popular sport, and we might be a little bit overshadowed,” Huric admitted. “So, being a representative for my sport is really important.”
She is, indeed, an outstanding advocate from a storied collegiate program. Ohio State University is a powerhouse of Synchronized Swimming with 32 national championships.
Huric is a native of Milano, Italy. She was a member of the Italian National Team in her youth, lettering five times and participating in international competitions. Now a sixth-year student-athlete in the United States, she earned U.S. residency, meaning she may participate in NIL activities.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t use Opendorse [for deals],” she said. “Once I got my U.S. residency, this was my first paid job in the U.S. I really wanted to do something for myself. I was able to go to school with my scholarship, but if I wanted to go out and buy something, I wanted to be able to do it by myself. When we got introduced to Opendorse I was really excited about the opportunities. I was applying to things [on Opportunities] thinking, ‘I might not be a fit, but you never know.’ That’s how it started.”
Since then, she has refined her approach and earned more deals. She is proof that a sound strategy and engagement with the NIL process will lead to brand partnerships, regardless of your sport. She learned her value and how to advocate for herself.
“At first when working with brands, I didn’t care how much they paid me,” she admitted. “It was just fun, and I wanted to get into it. You’ve got to start somewhere. As I got more and more deals, I got more confident and understood my worth. I started to evaluate certain things, learned about the differences between platforms and what I could charge.
“I put a lot of work into my partnerships so if a brand reaches out to me, I go above and beyond what I’m asked to do. As I started understanding how the market works, certain prices weren’t OK so I would try to negotiate.”
Huric also points out the unique opportunity that currently exist in the NIL space: the ability for brands and student-athletes to learn together.
“It’s really exciting to see new brands coming in. There are a lot of brands on Opendorse and it’s their first experience. They’re looking to launch their brand and they’re looking for representatives. It’s a two-way teaching experience: for the brand and also for the student-athlete.”
Leading the Way
Most athletes will have to work to create NIL opportunities for themselves, especially those from Olympic sports, emerging sports, or non-championship sports like Synchronized Swimming.
“Put yourself out there,” said Huric. “Don’t be scared of being judged or being rejected. We’re all going to be rejected at some point, so put yourself out there and wait for the moment that is coming to you. There are so many opportunities, you just have to wait for the right one.”
There is a wide selection of potential deals on the Opendorse Opportunities board, from brand ambassador opportunities to merchandise partnerships, to storytelling features, and more. New opportunities are added daily.
“There are little brands and bigger brands,” Huric said. “Working with all the brands I’ve worked with has been really fun. It’s interesting that the market is open to anyone and that fact that I was able to join bigger brands like Fanatics, for example, was just an honor for me. It is empowering.”
Be Yourself, All Yourself
Huric has an innate understanding of branding and marketing, but she has also worked at it. She has identified what makes her stand out from other athletes, and what could make her appealing to potential brand partners.
She knows she is far more than just an athlete.
“Growing up, I always thought of myself as just the athlete. In school I was always branded as the athlete,” she said. “Then I came to the U.S. and there was the student and the athlete. I’m a Translational Pharmacology graduate medical student so I also represent women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I don’t think I have a specific niche on my social media because I fit in different worlds. Yes, I am an athlete and I have people who follow me just because I’m an athlete. Then I have people who follow me because I’m a woman in STEM and I love science. Also, outside of that, I have a big passion for fashion. I’m trying to close the gap between these three things, mix it up a little bit and make it more fun.”
Synchronized Swimming. STEM. Science. Style.
“It’s about trying to create a community that isn’t only focused on one specific thing.”