With New NCAA Policy, Brands Win Big

The new rules allowing amateur athletes to make money on their name, image, and likeness rights portends major changes in marketing and advertising

By John Wolfe

D'Eriq King, quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes (No. 1), rolls out against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second half of the Chick-fil-A Kick-Off Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this month. The NCAA’s recent decision to allow college athletes to cash in on their name, image, and likeness is expected to have major changes throughout the sports marketing industry. Several deals and new advertising platforms — including one co-founded by King — are already in the works. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

To call the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) recent decision allowing college athletes to cash in on their name, image, and likeness (NIL) a game changer — pun totally intended —would be a gross understatement.

Since the decision was announced in July 2021, speculation has been rampant in marketing circles that the move would lead to millions of dollars in endorsement deals from companies eager to sign up top stars in collegiate athletics to serve as spokespersons and influencers.

The speculators weren't wrong. In the short time since the NCAA's move went into effect, a plethora of deals is already in the works. They include:

  • All 90 scholarship players for the Miami Hurricanes college football team have been signed, to the tune of $6,000 each annually, to promote American Top Team, a South Florida martial arts gym.
  • Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton and University of Miami quarterback D'Eriq King signed on as co-founders of Dreamfield, an NIL-based platform focused primarily on booking live events for student-athletes.
  • Louisiana State University (LSU) quarterback Myles Brennan signed deals with Smoothie King and Baton Rouge, La., burger restaurant Smalls Sliders.
  • University of Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox inked a social media deal with PetSmart in which the football star's posts will focus on his dog Blue, a Husky, and PetSmart's support of pets and their owners.
  • Identical twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder, who play basketball for Fresno State, have been named spokeswomen for Boost Mobile.

There was also speculation that deals for certain college athletes could reach the stratosphere in terms of dollars, with LSU gymnast and social media sensation Olivia Dunne at the top of the list. Dunne has roughly 4.4 million followers on TikTok and more than 1.3 million on Instagram, far outstripping any of her contemporaries. In July, she was reported to be meeting with top Los Angeles-based talent agencies hoping to represent her.

"Olivia Dunne signing with CAA or another company for something like $4 or $5 million — that's not out of the realm of reality," Roy Maughan Jr., a Baton Rouge entertainment lawyer, told the Daily Advertiser, which is part of the USA TODAY network. "Her reach as an athlete is what is impressive — five million on social media. The fact that she has that following, she can touch a lot of people. She could endorse sports drinks, gymnastics wear, other clothes."


Variety of Marketing Vehicles

The rule changes are a groundbreaking development with wide-ranging implications, both locally and nationally, that are destined to change the face of sports marketing inalterably, according to industry observers.

"The NCAA decision is hugely significant," says J. Michael Keyes, a partner at the international law firm and ANA member Dorsey & Whitney LLP, who provides legal services in intellectual property, copyrights, promotion, and false advertising. "College athletes can now participate in a multibillion-dollar industry. This is a massive shift in position by the NCAA that has, up until now, tried to keep money out of the hands of student athletes."

Keyes adds that student athletes will now be able to cut a variety of deals, such as serving as a brand ambassador, social media influencer, or corporate spokesperson. Athletes might also sign on to conduct camps, lessons, or clinics under their NIL.

Matt Grandis, chief commercial officer at CSM Sport & Entertainment, agrees. "This is a massive step forward for the NCAA in the evolution of a model that needed to be evolved," he says, adding that the move could impact influencer marketing more than other disciplines. "Influencer marketing has become an integral tool to drive engagement and the newfound ability to make it accessible on the collegiate level is a seismic shift for brands."

Chris Raih, founder and president of ad agency Zambezi, which has roots in sports marketing, predicted that the move will impact virtually every aspect of collegiate sports.

"The about-face by the NCAA will fundamentally impact how college games are played, watched, financed, and measured," Raih says. "The deeper impact of the NIL rules won't be known for years to come. But, for now, it corrects what had been a long-running labor imbalance."


Different Calculus for Brands

Grandis and others predicted that deals with collegiate athletes will likely be developed on the local, regional, and national levels, depending on the brands and the popularity of the athletes themselves.

"We're already seeing a combination of local, regional, and what I would call, 'nation-local' deals emerging," Grandis says. "Many of the universities represented are already the 'professional sports team' in their respective markets, hence the local and regional relevancy. That said, putting national weight around locally relevant influencers can be unpredictable when scaled to the national level."

Raih calls it the dawn of a new era. "The first movers we're seeing are the regional level, such as Wright's Barbecue deal with the Arkansas offensive line," he says. "But we're also seeing born-on-the-internet brands like Chubbies shorts doing national deals with Notre Dame."

To calculate the value of potential deals, Raih advised marketers to take the approach of a media planner and ask who's watching, what products are they buying, and what purchase habits can they most likely persuade.

"Regional car dealership chains, food service, and restaurants are the low-hanging fruit," he says. "At the national level, discretionary purchases like sneakers, sports apparel, accessories like mid-market men's watches, hair products, etc., are likely to be next."


Passion Plays

It's also expected that all levels of athletes will be able to take advantage of the new opportunities in marketing and advertising.

"There are two buckets — athletes from the higher revenue and visibility sports in football and basketball and the second bucket focused on athletes that provide sizable social followings," Grandis says. "With both buckets, brands are trading on the athlete's personal brand, platform, and reach. Personality and overall presence on and off the playing field/court will be the key drivers to determine which athletes will have the most opportunities."

As a cautionary tale, Grandis and others noted that working with college athletes can be dramatically different than their professional counterparts, and potentially hazardous.

"As with all influencer marketing, there comes inherent risks and an added layer with NIL in particular, as most college athletes are teenagers," he says. "They may not have the media training or day-in day-out mindset to know that they are not only representing themselves but also these brands." His advice to brand managers: Tread carefully and remain vigilant.

"Remember that your brand is tied to this ambassadorship with someone who might not be of the age or have the experience to ensure they can be good brand stewards just yet," Grandis says. "As long as brands go in with their eyes wide open, there are tremendous opportunities to engage in a new market that taps into some of the deepest-rooted passions that exist in not only domestic, but global sport."



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