NIL and the Student-Athlete: Advice from a Marketing Professor

Updated: Jul 17


Name, Image, and Likeness rights are arriving as we speak. The NCAA isn’t ready, and it doesn’t seem like Congress will create a legislative solution in 2021. Major schools are reacting and are rapidly constructing and announcing Name, Image, and Likeness programs for current and prospective collegiate athletes.


Ohio State has The Platform. Student-athlete will soon have the ability to profit from their personal brands. Alabama has The Advantage. Texas A&M has Amplify. Branded programs that promise to help athlete’s manage their brands.


It is hard to grasp what these programs will offer. I suspect they are works in progress. Maybe some internal guidance on brand. A slew of partners that will offer platforms to connect athletes to brands. Maybe other partners that provide social media tools. And more partners that will offer seminars on building a branding strategy.


These NIL support functions are already becoming a key topic in recruiting pitches. It makes sense. The supreme court has implicitly declared (if that’s even possible) that student-athletes are employees and college sports is a business. (Oddly, if student athlete’s are employees, and college sports are a business, then I suppose that the schools may suddenly regain some ability to regulate NIL).


The goal of the current article is to offer some advice on NIL from a neutral observer. NIL programs will be a part of every high-level recruiting pitch. So, how should prospective athletes assess the various NIL support services?


What will follow is a ten-point list of guidance from yours truly. A marketing professor with twenty-plus years of experience focused on topics like sports analytics, the valuation of marketing assets (like brands), and fandom.


I’ll start with the most important considerations and work down. Some of the rules will modify other rules. It's marketing, so the key is that the athlete’s goals fit with the school’s opportunities. Customization is critical, but general principles are where we start.


1. Choose the Biggest Platform


Fanbases are communities that share passion and knowledge about a player or team. This community aspect is critical, and it reveals the critical nature of affiliating with a school that already has broad appeal. For example, signing with a top SEC or Big Ten football program means that there is instantly a fanbase that puts 90,000 fans in seats for every home game. It means playing in front of national TV audiences on Saturday nights and perhaps playing in the college football playoffs.


After the NFL draft, the IG follower counts for Zach Wilson and Justin Fields are about 250,000 and 875,000, respectively. As everyone knows, Justin Fields played at Georgia in the SEC and Ohio State in the Big Ten while Zach Wilson played for BYU in the West Coast Conference.


This guidance is simple, look at the potential offered by the platform. Not the platform if you are a transcendent player. It probably doesn’t matter where you go if you are Zion or LeBron. Look at what the platform can do for the solid starter. Look at attendance. Look at times on national TV. Postseason appearances. Let’s call this the “Market Potential Principle.”



2. Choose the Biggest Platform where you can be a star


Rule number 2 is an adjustment to rule number 1. Choose the biggest platform where you can be a star. To build your brand, you need to be on the court or on the field. You need to have the ball in your hands. You need to be the focal point.


This guidance may be a challenging piece of advice. As a high school athlete, you have always been “the man.” However, at the next level, your role may be less certain. If you go to Duke will you see the court as a freshman? If you go to Alabama will you become a starter?

The challenge is that you have to believe that you will succeed at any school. You need to believe that you will be the best point guard or quarterback in the country, so it doesn’t matter who else the school recruits.


But.


You can be the best basketball player in the country at Iowa, and you can be the second pick in the NFL draft coming out of BYU. But, if a school just brought in a 5-star quarterback, then go somewhere else. If a school has a returning All-American at PG, then choose another option. You might be better, but politics and risk aversion might leave you on the bench.


To become a star and a star brand, you have to get a chance. So Rule 1 is about the “Market Potential” the school provides, and Rule 2 is about maximizing your chances to get a shot at that potential.


Be at a place where you have a clean shot at being the focal point. Maximize your chances of being the player with the ball at crunch time and the player taken to media day.


Let’s call this one: Being a Big Fish in a Slightly Smaller Pond Principle.



3. Marketing Comes Second


The easiest way to create a vast social media following is to be famous first. For example, Ronaldo doesn’t have 300 million IG followers because he is a great social media personality. Likewise, LeBron James has 90 million followers because he has ten trips to the NCAA Finals.

It’s not just sports. With few exceptions*, quality is what underlies the best and most valuable brands. Whether it’s Apple, Coca-Cola, or Porsche, the product is what drives the brand.

Researchers have claimed that Trevor Lawrence’s social media account is worth over $300k.


Research from Thilo Kunkel (Temple University), Bradley Baker (University of Massachusetts), Thomas Baker III (University of Georgia) and Jason Doyle (Griffith University) examined athletes’ social media accounts and found that college athletes’ NIL value varies but “the NCAA’s position that student-athletes lack meaningful NIL value is false.” The study found that the Instagram account of former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft, had a value of $331,272.

This estimate implies that if you build an IG account with 800k followers, you have created an asset worth several hundred thousand dollars. But is this really how it works?


What if a Clemson long-snapper was somehow gifted with a million Followers? Perhaps there was a technical snafu, and an algorithm led to the account size. Would the account have value?


Maybe a little as a pure publicity engine. But does the follower count equal the account’s influence? Do followers care equally about all of the accounts they follow?

Let’s make it simple, Lawrence has a massive account and influence because he is an absolute star on the field.


What does this mean for the student-athlete? The easiest way to build the brand is to be a successful athlete. In sports, brands are built by winning and performance. The marketing department only affects brand equity on the margins.


Who built the Bull’s brand in the 1990s? The Vice President of Marketing or #23?


Let’s call this principle: The Game Comes First.



4. Smile


This one is simple, and it may sound dumb.


Smile and look like you are having fun.


Smiles are powerful marketing tools. Smiles are inviting, and they elicit a positive emotional response. It’s straightforward. Smiling draws people in, and the positive mood will become associated with whatever brands you are endorsing.


Need examples? How about Coke and McDonald’s. Click on the McDonald’s link. One of the greatest athlete’s ever and a smile that sold a lot of products.


Let’s call this principle: Smile



5. Authenticity


Authenticity is an overused term. It’s almost a management talk cliché at this point, right up there with being transparent and listening.


But genuine authenticity is critical in building a human brand. The brand can’t seem fake or artificial.


Achieving and communicating authenticity is about two things. First, it is being consistent with who you are as a player. If you are a 340 pound beast of an offensive guard, then embrace being a monster. Fill your social media with massive deadlifts and squats.


Second, being authentic is also about being unique. Marketers tend to want to play things safe. They want to run a focus group and see what the people like. Its image generation by committee, and it's why most branding is boring. For your brand, don’t run a focus group. Just think about who you are and who you want to be.


Maybe you are a 340 offensive guard that also has a 4.0 in computer engineering. Then maybe you juxtapose more cerebral images with the massive deadlift pictures. But, again, this is about authenticity. If you are a “bulldozer” of an offensive line that happens to be a chess master, embrace it.


Let’s call this principle: Be Yourself (within some acceptable standards)


I probably need to expand on the qualifier in the the parentheses. Be yourself but be a self that you can display in public. You can push the boundaries. Think of athletes like Ray Lewis or Conor McGregor. Strut and be audacious if that is who you are.



6. Understand your Audience


Maybe you have never thought about your audience. Thus far, maybe you have only played to hundreds of hundreds. Perhaps your social media following is made of high school friends. Thus far, your audience is really just your community. In the future, the people in the crowd and on the social platforms are likely to be people you have never met.


When it comes to NIL opportunities, the audience can be a couple of different things. As the manager of your own brand, you should think about different types of audiences.


The first audience is your personal audience or fanbase. These are the people that follow you on social media and might want to wear a jersey with your name and number. This group is your core audience. Social media platforms are the key for this group because these platforms allow you to interact with a group that likes you and thinks you are aspirational. (I use the word aspirational with intent. Fans often aspire to be like their favorite athletes. Case in point. one of the all-time great sports marketing campaigns focused on “Being Like Mike”.)


You need to understand your core fanbase. Are they kids that want to play like you? Are they folks that graduated from the college you chose to attend? Are they into pop culture? Are they more conservative? As you develop your social media channels and choose marketing partners, make sure your choices will resonate with your core fans.


A second audience is the segment of consumers that you will reach through your brand partners. For example, if you deal with a local clothing shop, your new audience is the people who shop and know the retailor. Suddenly, your audience shifts from high school kids who follow AAU basketball to middle-aged folks who buy khakis and suits.

When you are building your brand/platform/community, think about these evolving and shifting audiences. Of course, the core should come first, but the core might also be the means to acquiring paying gigs with different audiences.


In marketing, we typically talk about customer segments and the idea of positioning brands to appeal to different segments. For example, the positioning or messaging about the Ford 150 and Tesla are very different because the brands are trying to appeal to different segments/audiences. You need to adapt this principle to how you manage social media.


Let’s call this principle: Know your Audience (Segments)



7. Understand Your Talent


Sports provide the platform, but sports may not be the ultimate goal. Do you have pro potential? Are there pro opportunities in your sport?


Maybe the goal is to become a coach. If so, your brand should focus on leadership and expertise. Maybe the goal is to become a commentator. If so, your brand should focus on being able to communicate.


Match your brand to your talent and goals.


There is also a time dimension to this advice. Think long-term. You have four or fewer years of college, somewhere between zero and ten years playing, and then a lot of time doing something else.


That something else could be a lot of things: maybe a coach, maybe an agent, or maybe an actor.


The brand you build now can help in a lot of things.

Let’s call this principle: Matching (your brand to your talent)

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