5 Tips for Brands Entering the NIL Game

January 30, 2024 | Articles

Article published on the GS&F Creative Agency Website in January 2024 – In 2021, individual college athletes gained the opportunity to profit off their names, images and likenesses in landmark policy changes from the NCAA and in state laws. NIL regulations opened the door for student-athletes to partner with brands for endorsements; host branded training camps; and sell merchandise, autographs and more.

The changes come after a decade of debate that began with Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA college basketball player, suing EA Sports over using his likeness in a video game. The ruling, which determined that EA Sports had violated antitrust laws, began to break down the NCAA’s rules that prevented players from profiting from their own names, images and likenesses.

Today, the NIL landscape is truly the Wild West as brands, teams and players scramble to create partnerships and explore new possibilities. From NIL collectives and agencies that sign entire teams to individual athletes partnering with agents, approaches to the NIL game are endless.

For brands, new NIL laws represent a completely untapped pool of potential influencers, and chances are there’s a partner who could be a great fit to promote what your brand is about. But how do you get in the game? Check out these five tips for approaching the NIL game as a brand.

#1: Think About Who They Are, Not What They Are

As with any marketing decision your brand makes, keeping the audience first is critical. Who will your audience connect with best? “Any college athlete” is likely not the answer—get specific and see whose personality, interests and passions align with those of your brand. Importantly, the Gen Z athletes you may be partnering with care more about the brand’s mission, vision and values than prior generations have.

Gen Z athletes may pass on a partnership—and a purchase—if they don’t feel their own values match up with your brand’s. This is why thinking about who they are, which goes beyond what they do, is critical. For example, if you’re a brand with a strong sustainability drive, a great match might be a well-known athlete, regardless of sport or position, who happens to value environmental causes. They’ll resonate with your audience because of these shared values, catch customers’ eyes with their on-field performance, and help create meaningful partnerships.

#2: Go Beyond Football

Athletes participating in two of the nation’s most popular sports—football and men’s basketball—are likely who comes to mind when brands consider NIL deals. But with nearly half a million athletes across 24 NCAA sports, football and basketball represent the tip of the iceberg.

Keep in mind that your audience simply may not be into football or the most popular men’s basketball teams. Brands in the South may be able to tap into star Alabama football players, for example, but the same player won’t resonate the same way to Indiana basketball fanatics.

Grocery store Hy-Vee realized this when they signed a deal with Iowa women’s basketball standout Caitlin Clark. Clark is from Des Moines, Iowa, and Hy-Vee stores are only located in eight midwestern states. Not only did Clark and Hy-Vee align on their values, Clark represented an athlete that local community members would recognize and connect with.

Athletes at every level of every NCAA sport are eligible for NIL deals, so why not find partners with unique perspectives and stories that can truly reach your brand’s audience? Could a star diver be the perfect fit for your multivitamin brand—or a hockey goalie match well with your new line of outerwear? Taking the time to think through whose personality will resonate with your audience will pay off.

#3: Pay Attention to Forward-Thinking Organizations

Because NIL regulations are extremely new to the NCAA and the advertising world, not all organizations have established resources to help their athletes navigate these new opportunities. As your brand begins to dig into NIL partnerships, follow the organizations taking steps to be on the forefront of the NIL era.

For example, Kim Mulkey, head women’s basketball coach at Louisiana State University, hired Jennifer Roberts as LSU Women’s Basketball Director of Player Personnel and Influence. This first-of-its-kind role is dedicated to helping athletes growing their brands to their fullest potential. Not all universities have this kind of support in place, and LSU’s initiative shows their interest and investment in making NIL deals a reality for their players. Seek out innovative moves like this one to find programs and athletes who are staying on top of all that NIL regulations have to offer.

#4: Tap Into Unheard Voices

Almost all brands are working to elevate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and NIL opportunities can be another way to give typically marginalized voices a chance to be heard. For example, according to the NCAA, over 3,000 Hispanic athletes competed in 2021 for D1 schools, alongside 788 Asian and 104 American Indian athletes.

Every athlete has a story, so why not tap into the stories of unique athletes who may not typically get the attention they deserve? Your brand only stands to benefit from increased efforts toward inclusion, and connecting with athletes who bring new perspectives to the table can broaden your brand’s ability to resonate with more people.

#5: Remember the Goal

Ultimately, the goal of NIL partnerships should be to empower collegiate athletes to use their voices to make an impact. They are likely the youngest partners your brand will have, so remember they’re navigating major steps as they develop as athletes, students and human beings. Kindness, flexibility and understanding will go a long way, as will finding the right partner for your brand.

At GS&F, we’re prepared to approach potential NIL partnerships strategically with the same audience-first mentality we bring to all our work. Recently, we facilitated a partnership between Jack’s Family Restaurants and two SEC football players—Alabama wide receiver Javon Baker and Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe.

Each player contributed content for the Jack’s social media channels and the Jack’s app. They also posted selfie videos promoting Jack’s on their own social media channels. This pair of influencers fit Jack’s perfectly—a Southern brand connecting with its football-crazed audience with players from two rival teams. We knew the Jack’s audience would love to see each player’s favorite meal—and a little trash talk in the comment section, of course.

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