Forced by the NCAA to choose between playing college football or his YouTube channel, kicker Donald De La Haye made the tough decision to pursue his online video career.
"Honestly, the best advise anyone gave me was make the choice with your heart, and decide based on what you wanted to do," De La Haye said. "That turned out to be making content that people enjoy."
The decision to choose YouTube may already be paying off. His channel is skyrocketing in popularity, with more than 197,000 subscribers and 9.65 million views. it caught the attention of Whistle Sports, who signed him onto their network of creators in August. Whistle, which has more than 375 million followers across social media, has raised $80.5 million in funding from sports greats Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter, as well as Tengelmann Ventures, NBC Sports Ventures, Emil Capital Partners and Sky.
"We want to take his really unique point of view and sports and bring it to the forerefront, and give him a chance to express himself 24-7 and be the voice of the next generation of sports fans," said Whistle Sports co-founder and chief marketing officer Jeff Urban.
De La Haye started making YouTube videos when he was 12 or 13, mostly around video games. As he got older, his focus switched to sports-related content on his channel Deestroying. At the same time, his football career began progressing and he eventually earned a full scholarship to the University of Central Florida to be a kickoff specialist.
As De La Haye's UCF career progressed, so did his YouTube channel. Though the junior who is majoring in marketing had no sponsorship deals, he was able to earn a "substantial amount" from straight advertising revenue to "eat and survive." He also noted in other YouTube videos some of the money goes to support his family, and making online videos has helped him explore future career possibilities. The channel caught the attention of the NCAA in June, which doesn't allow students to earn money using their athletic skills.
Though UCF tried to lobby for him, the NCAA only granted a waver that allowed De La Haye to post athletic-related videos on a non-monetized channel or make money off videos that didn't use his sports image and likeness. The NCAA said making ad revenue off YouTube is not a violation of the rule, as long as it was not based on the "reputation, prestige or ability" of a student. The stipulation has caused controversy in the past, with opponents arguing since the NCAA makes money off the athletes they should be allowed to personally make money on their image.
"Although Donald De La Haye has chosen not to compete any longer as a UCF student-athlete, he could have continued playing football for the university and earn money from non-athletic YouTube videos, based on a waiver the NCAA granted July 14," the NCAA told CNBC in a statement. "De La Haye decided he did not want to separate his athletically-related videos from non-athletic ones he could monetize, which was outlined in the waiver for him to maintain eligibility."
De La Haye considered it unfair since it would mean he had to start from scratch and couldn't build on his existing channel. After talking with his supportive best friend and parents, he decided to focus on his YouTube career.
Free of NCAA restrictions, De La Haye will be working with other Whistle Sports creators, including on an upcoming social media ad campaign for a major fast food brand, as well as doing some videos for the Canadian Football League.
"I don't necessarily agree with the rules… I would hate for other student athletes to go through what I had to do," he said. "But I'm just focused on what I have to focus on, my own camera and creating content with Whistle."
And if he continues to work hard, he believes he can have both a YouTube and NFL career someday.
"I left college sports, but that doesn't mean my whole sports career is shattered," De La Haye said. "I'm always going to work towards that (being in the NFL) and keep working, and hopefully I'll make it there one day."
Note: NBC Sports Ventures is owned by NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of CNBC.