The NCAA has a well-known commercial where they acknowledge that 98% of their student-athletes “will go pro in something other than sports.” The actual figure is north of 99%, but companies should keep these figures in mind when deciding if and how to enter the name, image and likeness (NIL) marketplace.
The phrase “name, image, likeness” is perhaps unintentionally accurate in describing the nature of the deals now available to NCAA athletes. The NIL framework opens the door for companies to use college athletes in advertisements, as endorsers and brand ambassadors, but there is little indication that anything will rise to the level of sponsorship in the way we would normally use that term. Long-term, mutually reinforcing “win-win-win” (brands, properties and fans, respectively) relationships do not emerge from names, images and likenesses.
Despite being new for the NCAA, NIL deals are old-school in terms of sports marketing, even if the content now appears on TikTok instead of network TV commercials.
Opendorse released data in July from the first wave of NIL transactions. They found that social media promotions accounted for 89% of the total number of NIL transactions and 46% of the money paid to athletes. Across all three divisions of the NCAA, the median payment to athletes was $30-35. The average amounts are wildly skewed by a few six-figure deals in Division I. Division I’s average payment was $471: 10x the median. In Divisions II and III, by contrast, the average was 1.5-2x the median. Football players accounted for 79% of the transactions, followed by men’s basketball (9.6%), women’s volleyball (5.5%) and men’s lacrosse (1.3%). No other sport garnered more than 1% of the share.
Putting these figures together, a picture emerges of a marketplace where athletes in the most popular sports or athletes who have made themselves popular via social media attract a wildly disproportionate share of the not-very-large-to-begin-with deal flow on offer. Some of them would have already been paid social media influencers and endorsers if not for the NCAA’s earlier restrictions. Their social clout may have little or nothing to do with their sport or athletic prowess.
Said another way, 98% of student athletes – maybe 99% – will create value for themselves through something other than endorsement-based NIL deals.
Companies interested in entering the college athlete marketplace should take their cues from existing sponsorship best practices when developing their NIL roadmap. Very few sponsorships are evaluated solely or even primarily in terms of impressions and quick turnover sales figures. The most successful sponsorships create returns on both investment and objectives, some of which are nuanced, long-term and specifically focused in their execution and measurement.
While some brands may be able to leverage 1-2% of NCAA athletes to boost their social media engagement and sales, they and other brands will have to identify and cultivate those athletes from the 98% who can help them achieve deeper objectives.
One way they can do this is to look at those 98% non-athletic career paths that await NCAA athletes.
Companies can use the NIL marketplace to develop their talent pipelines. There are plenty of reports and articles – mostly anecdotal – about the desirability of hiring college athletes. Pre-NIL restrictions produced an absurd tension that sometimes came between college athletes and potential employers. Many college athletic departments have staff members whose job is to help the athletes find jobs post-graduation. But any company that came through the front door hoping to interact with college athletes would run into the brick wall of the compliance department. The NIL era’s openness can facilitate this match-making. The companies can then go further by working with the athletes to develop both their personal brand and their professional profile ahead of potential employment.
Another opportunity could be leveraging the “non-revenue” student-athletes as ambassadors for their talent pipelines. For example, a company seeking to hire more women in STEM fields could partner with female athletes majoring in STEM subjects. A statistics major on the women’s track & field team probably won’t move the needle on sales or engagement for a consumer product, but she is uniquely placed to inspire, motivate and engage high school, college and even post-collegiate women on behalf of a data science consultancy or tech company trying to expand their applicant pool.
Just about every article on NIL includes some college athletics administrator using the phrase “wild west.” From their perspective, it is. For companies’ sponsorship and marketing departments, though, it’s really just more of the same. Any brand-side success in the NIL marketplace will depend on their creativity in leveraging a new asset to achieve an objective, which may or may not directly connect to a bottom line ROI.
While 2% of the athletes can leverage their name, image and likeness on Instagram and TikTok, the other 98% and their NIL partners should be thinking more along the lines of LinkedIn.