In recent years, the influencer marketing and sports industries have converged like never before. Why? A recent ruling by the NCAA allows student athletes to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness, or “NIL.” This June 2021 decision rocked the brand marketing world, unlocking opportunities for students to monetize themselves based on their collegiate sports reputations.
The most important piece of this puzzle — at least from our perspective — is how businesses in all types of industries can leverage this ruling for maximum returns on athletic endorsement marketing. Let’s talk about the ins and outs of NIL both legally and strategically.
What Is NIL?
NIL refers to a set of rules and regulations set forth for college athletes. It allows them to profit from their own name, image, and likeness in various ways. For example, college athletes can now earn compensation for the commercial promotion of products. In other words, these students have been given the chance to use their own name to lend credibility and familiarity to brands — all while continuing to participate in their college sports program of choice.
Now that monetization is an option, NIL marketing empowers student athletes to become unique brand ambassadors, or influencers, for products or services they find appropriate to endorse. NIL deals can’t be used as incentives to draw athletes to certain college teams during recruitment, meaning the power to choose partnerships is entirely in the hands of the college athletes themselves. Given this stipulation, it’s important for brands interested in pursuing an NIL partnership to carefully vet potential college influencers while keeping in mind their own viability as an athlete-led brand. (#ProTip: We covered this back in 2020, right before the ruling was set to be determined — read more of our suggested best practices here!)
What Does NIL Mean for My Brand?
Well, based on how things are going, it could mean a lot. According to Business Insider, student athletes are performing up to 12 times better than standard influencers on social media platforms. Of course, not every brand is a perfect fit for a student athlete. For example, athletes may not want their healthy image tarnished by greasy fast food nor cast into question by supercharged supplements (although some athletes are willing to break with tradition here). However, thinking creatively is key when developing a potential influencer partnership strategy in this space. A lot of what we said in 2020 still applies — but let’s make a few tweaks to account for NIL deals’ successes so far:
- Evaluate your brand for student athlete compatibility. Over the past year, athletes have made unexpected deals with brands outside of traditionally sports-coded spaces, expanding the world of NIL marketing trends. For example, Maya Nnaji of the University of Arizona partnered with Dunkin to give their drinks and donuts a fresh, Gen Z face. Don’t assume limitations where precedent proves they don’t exist.
- Research athletes whose profiles match your brand’s mission, archetype, and messaging. And unless your brand is Nike or Adidas, you’ll most likely benefit from the micro-influencer — influencers that are both professional and high-quality content creators, rather than simply looking for an athlete with a large following.
- Monitor your prospective athlete’s social media channels to ensure they are regularly posting, their messaging is consistent, and their followers are engaged. For most college athletes, this is a given. To better guarantee success, however, you may want to determine your company’s standard influencer KPIs and assess athletes’ social performance through your own lens before trying to strike a deal.
- Plan ahead and keep a lineup of qualified influencers. Now that the NIL door has opened, some college students will be hungry for partnerships while many more will have already signed contracts. Developing and consistently updating a list of potential influencer partners will only serve you well as competition increases. You may not get your first draft pick, but that doesn’t mean you won’t score a touchdown.
How Do I Start?
Put us in, coach! We’ve been activating influencer partnerships for brands across the industry spectrum. Just look at our influencer work with this brand. Or maybe this one. Heck, why not go three for three? Contact us here — yours might be the next success story on the list.