Open for Business: Latest Developments in Athlete and Influencer Marketing
Ishveen sat down with podcast host Jim Andrews to discuss dealmaking and trends in the influencer space, including what brands are looking for, the rise of NIL deals and the role of her digital marketplace in forging successful marketing partnerships. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Regular listeners to this podcast know that we typically don’t delve into the backgrounds of guests, but I want to do that here because I think it’s important to understand where OpenSponsorship came from, so can you share your story and the backstory of the company you founded almost nine years ago?
Ishveen: I fell into sponsorship. I grew up in England playing sports. I was a student-athlete all my life. I graduated from Oxford and like many people went into a career in consulting—a boring office job! I realized sports was my passion. I fell in love with sponsorship. What a great form of marketing and a great way of spending money.
I did that for a few years, predominantly based in India working on the Indian Premier League in cricket in its second year, which was fascinating. Fast forward to about eight years ago when I had this eureka moment of “Why is there not an Airbnb for industry?” Somewhere to easily get deals done that would be data driven.
In our personal lives, we were all using LinkedIn, Uber and Airbnb, but in the sponsorship world it was still all about going to conferences or trying to find people. So that’s what we created.
Jim: Fast forward to today and OpenSponsorship is a successful tech platform, a digital marketplace where brands are finding athletes and other influencers for marketing relationships. What are some of the relevant numbers associated with that—number of users, deals, average deal value, etc.?
Ishveen: We have over 18,000 athletes on the supply side. About half are self-managed, so you can imagine that is a lot of NIL athletes, Olympians, CrossFit, UFC fighters, etc. The other half are managed by agents. An agent for us could be as big as WME, IMG, Roc Nation or Wasserman—who all use us—or as small as a golf agent who reps his best friend or next-door neighbor.
On the supply side, we make it free for them. We take a take on each deal. On the brand side, we have done deals for about 4,000 brands. They are as big as Walmart, JD Sports and The Vitamin Shoppe and all the way down to small start-ups. We have done equity deals, royalty deals, product only, etc.
The average deal value is $3,500, but that is very skewed. Our biggest was just shy of $1 million, but that is an anomaly. Typically we will do maybe one low-six- or very-high-five-figure deal a month and also do loads of product-only deals, or $50 and $100 deals, which for a small athlete could mean paying for a tournament entrance or vitamins for a month.
Jim: If I’m a brand manager thinking about doing an athlete or influencer campaign, is it literally as simple as logging in and putting in some search criteria for what I’m looking for?
Ishveen: It really is as easy as that. We have amazing search criteria. AI is such a big thing now, but back in 2016, if you went to IBM’s homepage, it had a feature on a new company using AI to do athlete deals, and that was us.
So we have some amazing tools. But all the tools in the world are not going to tell you who is genuinely interested in working with your brand as well as the athletes and agents themselves. The not-so-secret sauce is to turn the model on its head and have brands put up a campaign a bit like they would a job posting and have people come to them. We are allowing the agents and athletes to say, “Pick me.”
That results in more authenticity, better value, more commitment to seeing the deal through because we hold the money in escrow, etc. These things are very common in personnel recruitment or other areas, but in sponsorship it was never done that way.
Jim: I’m guessing it’s fair to say that NIL rights for collegiate athletes have been a boon to your business. What is OpenSponsorship’s role in the NIL space?
Ishveen: I both love and hate NIL! I love it for what it stands for. College athletes should be paid, considering how few go on to turn pro. I love the uptick. About one-third of our 18,000 athletes are college athletes and its really fun to have athletes who are often better content creators and offer very good value—so they really work well for the brands.
The problem is that NIL has brought a lot of different entrants to the market. We have a lot of copycats now. I know they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but we don’t need that flattery!
It often becomes a race to the bottom when that happens. A brand will say, “We can do something over there and it’s free.” Well, during Covid when athletes and everyone were hurting, we tried to make our platform free for brands to use, but what happened was a lot of brands put up campaigns that they were never planning to execute just to see who they could get to bite. That created a really bad atmosphere for both sides.
So when you have too many entrants and many are not thinking strategically, you get that race to the bottom that destroys margins. We stick to being premium and helping with strategy. If a brand just wants to find lots of college athletes for free, there are probably other places to get them. If it wants to be effective, we won’t be free but we will be the best value.
Jim: What are some of the trends you are seeing in the influencer space?
Ishveen: There are so many, but I’ll just give you two. One is we are seeing many new types of brands come into the influencer marketing space, including sports properties. We recently worked with the Premier League when they came to the U.S. and were looking to boost ticket sales in some markets. We helped them connect with a couple of NFL players for videos promoting ticket sales for matches at their home stadiums. We recently spoke to the NFL about their influencer program. At the conference you and I were at in Chicago, I spoke to one of the local teams about their influencer program. We work with LIV Golf as well.
It makes sense. All of these organizations have a marketing budget. For us it’s a case of our supply has become our demand, which is kind of fun.
The second trend is the massive demand for strong content. It’s great for someone to have a lot of followers but if your social content isn’t good, you never create video and you don’t post regularly, you are not going to get brand deals.
That’s definitely a challenge for us, but also an opportunity. We can surface, for example, out of the 1,800 players in the NFL who are the top 20 who post regularly and get great views on their Reels. It’s interesting because it’s moving brands away from the idea that they have to work with the quarterback and toward working with the best content creator.
Jim: Any examples of deals that have been done through OpenSponsorship that you are particularly enamored with or proud of?
Ishveen: The first time you do anything, it’s always really fun. I remember our first Paralympian deal with Sperry, the shoe company, which was good for both parties. We recently did our first Formula 1 driver deal with Alex Albon. I remember the first time we did an NBA deal—with Draymond Green.
On the brand side, it’s really nice when we see our brands leverage the assets they get from our athletes and use them across multiple channels.
Jim: I’m often surprised that more team sponsors don’t leverage athletes to activate their official partnerships. Perhaps it’s because they think it is going to be expensive and they have already spent a lot of money on the sponsorship fee. Do many of the deals on OpenSponsorship come from brands that are sponsors looking to activate, or are they more likely to be companies looking to align with athletes without a team or league connection?
Ishveen: When we started, I think I was naïve about that. I had previously done some work with the International Hockey Federation and other governing bodies, and I thought that all the Olympic organizations would use the platform to get their athletes and brand partners on board and use the marketplace for that purpose.
But the answer to your question is no, not many of our deals are done with brands that have official rights. I think part of it is that the properties don’t become actively involved in athlete deals because of concerns that if the deal doesn’t work out right—the athlete doesn’t post on time, etc.—it could reflect badly on the team and damage its relationship with the sponsor.
The problem with that is that the athletes are such good assets for the property and we can guarantee deliverability, so I wish we were doing more. I think it’s a massively missed opportunity.
Jim: OpenSponsorship has gained great traction in connecting brands and individuals, but the digital marketplace idea has not ever taken off in terms of matching potential sponsors and properties. Why do you think that is and do you think there is a way to unlock the benefits of a marketplace for smaller properties and rights holders who struggle to get in front of brands?
Ishveen: For those types of properties, there is no reason why the technology couldn’t work for them in the same way it works for athletes.
What I sometimes hear from the upper end of the market is, “We are pretty good at selling the inventory we have and renewing and upselling current partners. What we need is new inventory.” In that case, maybe they see us as competition.
So how do we create new inventory together? For example, if we know that Chance the Rapper is a Chicago Bulls fan, why don’t we get him to do an influencer program for the Bulls and package that up and sell it to a Bulls sponsor? You’ve created new inventory and you are reaching a new target demo in Chance’s following.
There is also a lot of focus on a team’s top partnerships and maybe they need to be incentivized to do those $25,000-$100,000 deals. I would say they should because more partners equals more reach, more visibility, more cool activations for the fan base, etc. Are teams at the point where they are thinking about doing smaller deals, or are they too busy servicing the big ones? And if so, is that a good or a bad thing? It’s hard to say whether it is or not.
Jim: What’s next for you and OpenSponsorship?
Ishveen: We talked about brands wanting good content creators. That’s guiding a lot of what we are doing at the moment. How do we help our athletes and agents become better at delivering good quality content that is going to drive better ROI for their partners and subsequently get them more deals?
ROI is a big piece for us. It is an absolute necessity today, when people are keeping a close eye on their marketing budgets. We are building tools and putting systems and people in place to drive ROI.
There’s also the question of where we go next. Seventy percent of our athlete base and 85 percent of our brands are in the U.S., but as a technology platform you are international from day one, so how can we take advantage of that. You and I just talked about teams and events: Do we have an offering there? We will try out a couple of things on that front. So lots of possibilities.
As a business, the focus for tech companies has changed from growth at all expense to profitable or scalable growth, so that’s a big thing for us as well—finding better ways to go to market, less expensive ways to do our own marketing, cool partnerships, etc.