James Royer | July 19, 2021
Every spring, broadcasters reach into the archives and replay an unforgettable moment from the 1998 NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. The highlight, which embodies the terms "March Madness" and "Cinderella Story," is from Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew. Down 69-67, the guard from the 13th-seeded squad heaved a 22-foot three-point shot through the net as time expired, upsetting heavily favored No. 4 Ole Miss.
Events like these embody March Madness, and similar events across college sports' entire catalog of memorable moments. Drew, or any athlete who achieved a level of popularity through a single highlight or sustained prominence, could never fully leverage those kinds of moments or influence for personal financial gain. Those rules just changed in an amateur sports landscape-altering decision.
On July 1, the NCAA allowed student-athletes at NCAA Colleges and Universities to profit from name, image, and likeness (NIL) opportunities a decision that alters the amateur sports landscape. This change in the so-called NCAA “NIL rules” will not only alter the amateur sports landscape and muddy the rules around recruiting inducements, it will transform how marketing strategists leverage college athletes and their memorable performances or personalities for social media influencer programs.
All three NCAA divisions adopt interim name, image and likeness policy:— NCAA (@NCAA) June 30, 2021
So why is the open door for student athletes to monetize their name such a boon for brands who leverage social media influencer programs? Many collegiate athletic programs have built-in audiences – national television broadcasts, an alumni network that spans generations, and a connection to Gen Z through its thousands of students. The natural affinity of these audiences furnishes marketers with something few influencers can: an intersection of audiences.
This profound reach to pre-primed audiences becomes even more appealing if a student-athlete has built a robust social media following on their personal accounts.
The ability for brands to transform these moments into business results by leveraging moments to drive business results requires both agility and discretion. The following is a look at five reverberations the move will have on marketers.
Imagine how Drew could have found financial gains, in addition to his newfound popularity, if he hit that same shot with 2021's name, image and likeness rules in place. With his status as a proverbial David who helped slay Goliath, Drew could have considered national endorsement deals and a likely windfall from NFT (non-fungible token) ownership of the video highlight shared across social networks.
Game-winning plays or a jaw-dropping highlight can become viral. Likewise, a funny or awkward moment can foster opportunities for athletes to capitalize on influencer deals.
More prominent brands with large budgets will have the upper hand for those more significant moments. By the same accord, it will be challenging for brands to be always-on in order to react adeptly to viral moments.
As in any partnership, brands must evaluate the association through the lens of authenticity, effectively identifying and partnering with a student-athlete who aligns with the brand identity, voice, and values.
While it is easy to look to the more prominent programs and the opportunities in front of men’s football and basketball players, the NIL rules also open the door for student-athletes in lesser popular "Olympic" sports like soccer, golf, swimming, softball, volleyball, track and field, etc. Athletes in these sports may prove to be a more precise fit and provide brands with more value.
The NIL rules could even become an avenue to democratize women's sports by giving these athletes more prominence and more visibility to their sports.
During the USA Track and Field Championships in June, Christina Clemons made headlines for two reasons: she qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in the 100-meter hurdles event, but her choice of jewelry somewhat overshadowed her achievement. Clemons finished third and qualified while fashioning a pair of Cool Ranch Doritos earrings.
Frito-Lay, the parent company of Doritos, responded by sending Clemons a custom bag with her picture. Great move by Frito-Lay, and it remains undetermined if the partnership lasts beyond the Olympics.
While Clemons is not a college student, this story illustrates the dilemma many brands will face when partnering with student-athletes. More prominent brands will capitalize on brief, short-term opportunities. Conversely, budget-conscious brands may want to invest in a long-term approach sustained beyond the four years an athlete will spend on campus.
The latter will require more diligence up front when assessing a potential alignment, sometimes considering post-college career ambitions. For example, a popular player pursuing an advanced medical degree will attract pharmaceutical marketers. An athlete majoring in finance could attract companies like CashApp, one of the first organizations to sign deals when the rules went into effect on July 1.
Athletes between the ages of 18 and 24 have grown up with social media. Many have built audiences on Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, and alternative sites like Twitch.
The most pursued athletes will be those who, in addition to building a sports following, have amassed audiences with other interests like music, fashion, gaming, trick shots, and more.
Twins Hannah and Haley Cavinder aren't blue-chip athletes at a major school, but they ushered in the new era of college athletics by signing a deal with Boost Mobile. The twins, who play basketball at Fresno State, have more than 3.3 million followers on TikTok. They built an audience with synchronized dance and basketball dribbling videos.
The Cavinder twins' value to a brand isn't weighed by how many highlights they produce on the hardwood, but by the makeup of the audience who listens to what they say and do. It is the perfect example of the value a student-athlete can create and monetize for themself.
Like any influencer campaign, working with college students presents an element of risk. Injuries can derail a promising career, and so can college students acting like … well, college students.
Brands still must weigh the risks and perform the due diligence of activities like looking at old tweets on an athlete's account. Beyond any exposure to inappropriate behavior, an assessment also requires a thorough examination of the student-athlete’s ability to reach audiences through their social media accounts. Discretion in evaluating their followers’ audience demographics, how they engage audiences, and even platform insights will be critical functions your agency partner can provide.
It is safe to say the new NCAA rules and future state and federal laws governing NIL activities will change college athletics. The full ramifications are unclear. Many questions will remain unanswered until more formalized rules and state and federal legislation is proposed, passed and adjudicated by state and federal legislators, and likely the Supreme Court.
As marketers, we know NIL laws have widened the aperture for brands to partner with student-athletes who command high-affinity, multi-generational audiences in potentially valuable segments.
Bryce Drew and brands could never fully leverage those kinds of moments until now. Marketers, however, still need to maintain standards to evaluate, assess and execute influencer campaigns with discretion and value-driven insights.
Author Jessica Nemecek is the Senior Digital Strategist at Falls & Co. She translates client goals into creative, innovative, and integrated strategies in both paid media and influencer marketing campaigns.
James Royer is Social Media Director at Falls and Co. He formerly led social media for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, and outdoor performance footwear brand Merrell. Learn more about how Falls & Co. can connect your brand and products with the influencers, bloggers, vloggers, content creators (and yes, college athletes) your audience trusts.