- In 2021, student-athletes earned the right to earn money from their names, images and likenesses.
- Athletes, universities, startups and brands have spent months learning how to better navigate the new NIL world.
- Here’s a breakdown of recent Insider coverage of student-athlete marketing and NIL activity.
On July 1, after a decades-long struggle, student-athletes across the country won the right to cash in on their names, images and likenesses (NIL) thanks to a flurry of new state laws and a change in NCAA policy.
What happened next was a mad rush of student-athletes, small businesses, national brands and startups looking to cash in.
Some widely followed sports athletes have secured deals worth five or six figures. But many of the more than 460,000 student-athletes in the U.S. ended up working with local businesses such as restaurants or participating in one-off marketing campaigns with bigger brands, receiving free products, gift cards or smaller cash payments rather than big days of payment, for your NIL promotions.
In addition to branding deals, student-athletes run brand training clinics and are paid for appearances and autographs.
Unlike professional influencers, college athletes tend to have a small audience on social media. In the world of influencers, these athletes would be classified as “micro” (generally with less than 100,000 followers) or “nano” (generally with less than 10,000) influencers – a growing area of focus for marketers.
“You don’t have to have 40,000 followers or even 10,000, 5,000 followers to take advantage of these [NIL] rules,” Christopher Aumueller, CEO of athlete marketing and brand development startup FanWord, told Insider. “These small businesses, while they may be small in monetary value, can go a long way for these student-athletes. A few hundred dollars here and there can have a big impact on some of these young people.”
Read more about how student-athletes with few social media followers are cashing in on the NIL gold rush
A company that leaned towards nano-
for its first student-athlete campaign was The Vitamin Shoppe, which hired 14 college players for a campaign.
The company worked with sports marketing firm OpenSponsorship to identify 14 student-athletes across a wide range of sports, from golf and cross country to volleyball and cheerleading. All athletes had less than 10,000 followers on Instagram.
Each athlete received about $100 worth of free products, including a whey and plant-based protein kit, a True Athlete performance supplement, and a bottle of shake, in exchange for promoting the brand on social media.
“The micro-influencer trend has become popular because when you get people with smaller followings, with smaller networks, the things they promote or suggest feel more genuine,” Dustin Elliott, senior brand manager at The Vitamin Shoppe, told Insider.
Read more about how the company boosted its social media engagement by hiring college athletes from niche sports like golf and cheerleading.
In some states, even high school athletes are starting to participate in the NIL action.
Jaden Rashada, quarterback at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, California, signed an endorsement deal with recruiting app AIR in December.
“Who better to talk about recruiting from a marketing perspective than someone who has just been through it or someone who is currently going through it,” AIR founder James Sackville told Insider.
Read more about how a high school football star landed his first branded sponsorship deal
How much student-athletes are earning with NIL
While many schools are tight-lipped about how much their student-athletes are earning from NIL activities, in November the University of Arkansas released data on how much their student-athletes have earned since July 1.
He reported that 140 of his student-athletes participated in some form of NIL activity, working with more than 170 companies on at least 300 deals and earning an average of $4,102. Football, basketball, softball and baseball players had the highest NIL turnover in Arkansas, according to the university.
Read more about how University of Arkansas student-athletes took advantage of NIL opportunities
Those gains could increase next year as some brands are already placing spending bets on the category for 2022.
More than half of the 300 brand, agency and retail professionals surveyed by retail analytics firm Inmar Intelligence in November said they planned to spend between $50,000 and $500,000 on student-athletes in the next year. Only 15% of respondents said they do not plan to invest in the category or were not yet sure what their budget would be.
Read a breakdown of Inmar survey responses, including how marketers think student-athletes will fare in advertising campaigns compared to traditional influencers
Student-athlete growing pains
While some marketers are optimistic about running student-athlete campaigns in 2022, the category comes with logistical challenges.
Colleges, student-athletes and brands are still figuring out how to navigate a web of state laws and university guidelines about what players can and cannot do with their names, likenesses and likenesses.
Some colleges and universities have developed policies to prevent student-athletes from making deals with brands that interfere with their own lucrative sponsorship deals.
An agreement that requires an athlete to “use competitive Nike products during team activities – eg practice, competition, media, team travel, community service, photo shoots, team building activities, etc.” could violate Ohio State rules, for example. The university also said students should not “promote competitive drinks for Coca-Cola on campus”.
“It’s confusing,” Blake Lawrence, CEO of sports marketing platform Opendorse, told Insider in August. “If a student athlete from an Adidas school who signs a contract, say, Lululemon shows up at a press conference wearing a Lululemon cap and shirt, is that a violation of the team’s contract with Adidas? They’re trying to find out.”
Other universities objected to Barstool Sports’ student-athlete ambassador program, telling Insider that the company did not have approval to use its trademarks and logos.
Read more about how colleges are taking steps to limit the deals student-athletes make with brands as they look to protect their own sponsorships.
Brands tested their first campaigns with student-athletes during March Madness 2022
One of the first marketing events for student-athletes after the NIL rules change was the 2022 March Madness tournament, which put NCAA men’s and women’s basketball players in the spotlight.
Some players, such as University of Saint Peter guard Doug Edert and University of Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, have managed to capitalize on the attention by closing deals with brands like Buffalo Wild Wings and Chegg.
But industry experts said the real payoff for student-athletes who gained a following on social media during the tournament may still be ahead.
“If you have a really successful March Madness, you are increasing the value of your NIL,” Nicholas Lord, CEO of NIL trading platform NOCAP Sports, told Insider. “So you can capitalize more in the future because you have more eyes on your social media and your personality in general.”
Here’s a full rundown of what brands learned from the first March Madness, when they were able to hire student-athletes as influencers.
Startups and Other Companies Are Shaping the Future of NIL Marketing
As with any new industry that has a variety of regulations, a wave of startups and established companies rushed to help universities, student-athletes and brands succeed in the field and avoid mistakes.
Some companies, like Athliance, are focused on helping universities and players deal with NIL education and compliance. Others, like MOGL, are interested in building marketplaces to connect brands with student-athletes.
Learfield, a nearly 50-year-old company that helps schools monetize their IP in categories such as digital media and stadium signage, has launched a series of resources in recent months to support NIL activities among students and athletes.
“People keep saying it’s the wild west,” said Chase Garrett, CEO of athlete marketing platform Icon Source. “But I think 2022 will be the year of adoption. People have marketing budgets built in. They’ve started to find the athletes they think they’d like to work with. They’ve started to learn what market value is.”
Here’s Insider’s List of Top 13 Companies Helping Student-Athletes Make Money and Shape the Future of NIL Marketing