By Matt Fickenworth, Account Associate
Haley and Hanna Cavinder are twin basketball stars at Fresno State University. And their agent says they’re on the cusp of securing $1 million in endorsements by July. With the passing of the NIL policy, a new crop of influencers is on the horizon for marketers.
For an institution that has been highly criticized for not allowing their athletes to be paid (even Barack Obama had something to say), the NCAA changed course last year with NIL. So, what is NIL? Essentially, it refers to the right of collegiate athletes to monetize and profit from their personal brand, consisting of their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). While it opens up opportunities for these athletes to promote themselves, it also opens up opportunities for brand partnerships and promotions across the country.
Before the policy, student athletes could not endorse any commercial product or service – whether they were paid or not. Now, collegiate athletes can start making money using their influence (depending on the state), and schools are trying their best to inform their athletes. Many Division 1 schools are introducing NIL training: how to present yourself on social media, how to talk with brands, and how to navigate the NIL process. Schools are also protecting their own lucrative relationships with corporate partners, such as food, apparel, healthcare agreements – and often times don’t allow athletes to work with competing brands.
Social media is king.
What does it look like for athletes to partner with brands? We’ve seen endorsements on a wide variety of media channels, from radio to tv to print. But the biggest and most commonly used — by a landslide— is social media. Brands not only want to target those segments of consumers, they need to if they want to build a sustainable brand. And the potential numbers to reach are eye-catching – just check out this list of the top 20 athletes with the most to gain from NIL.
Nearly all NIL deals have a social media component, and many are based entirely on social media. Compared with professional athletes, collegiate athletes don’t have routine press conferences and media appearances, allowing for social media to have even more of an impact in their public-facing voice. And the athletes taking advantage of it the most? The content creators – mainly TikTokers or YouTubers, who are translating their established personal brands and content into collaborations with brands.
Welcome to the Wild West.
But, we’re sort of in the Wild West phase of NIL. It’s brand-new territory, so that means a lack of organization for brands to leverage, negotiate, and navigate with athletes. Without agents, collegiate athletes are left to themselves to communicate with brands, which often leads to a messiness that brands would rather avoid. You may want to work with that great basketball player, but he probably has an insane schedule, weird hours, unpredictable roommates, and a still-developing frontal lobe that can sometimes make some questionable decisions.
So far, brands are taking it in several different directions as they look to create successful business relationships with collegiate athletes. Some have teams of brand ambassadors, some are helping walk-ons, some are partnering with athletes that have stories of overcoming adversity, and so much more. And the opportunities truly abound – we’ve seen the waves influencer marketing has made, and it can be the same with the introduction of NIL.
Current status: it’s complicated.
Along with those issues, ambiguity also remains: working with student-athletes may be vastly different than working with the typical influencer who already knows the ins and the outs of the marketing game, and the NCAA’s NIL rules differ state by state – forcing each party to know the state laws and legislation, especially brands with athletes in multiple states.
Moving forward, what’s next? We could see NFT playing cards (check out this blog to see what an NFT is), athletes partnering with brands to fight for social movements/mental health awareness (maybe more like this), schools and the NCAA vying for a portion of the compensation, the launch of businesses across the country trying to help athletes navigate this new era, and many more possibilities.
Marketers, get yourselves to the starting line.
This isn’t something where marketers should sit on the sidelines. While strong research and effective strategies should be given due consideration, this is something that you might want to hop on before you miss out. Because if you miss out, well, you’ll still be on the sidelines. And no one wants to be on the sidelines.
Let’s end with a few questions athletes and marketers should be asking themselves as they move forward together.
Athletes: How can you build your audience? How can you partner with brands that align with your values, attitudes, and motivation? Are you aware of the legal and compliance specifics?
Marketers: What value are you creating in partnerships with collegiate athletes? What consumer segment do you intend to reach? What type of athletes (sport, demographics, behavior, etc.) do you intend to partner with? How can you differentiate yourself from other brands undergoing NIL deals?
Remember, even Joe Burrow once started out in pee-wee football. We all gotta start somewhere.