How NIL deals and brand sponsorships are helping college athletes make money

How NIL deals and brand sponsorships are helping college athletes make money
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College Football
  • Student-athletes gained in 2021 the right to make money from their names, images, and likenesses.
  • The billion-dollar industry has exploded thanks to brand deals, startups, and donor-backed collectives.
  • Here’s a breakdown of BI’s recent coverage of student-athlete marketing and NIL activity.

Name, image, and likeness, or NIL, has redefined college athletics in the past three years. Student-athlete influencers have become key parts of marketing strategies for companies and capitalized on their athletic performance to bring in previously unattainable levels of fame and fortune.

College athletes make money by posting branded content on social media and attending events with fans. Some athletes can bring in millions of dollars in deals each year, but most make a couple hundred dollars for attending an event or a social-media campaign.

The NIL market is worth an estimated $1 billion annually, according to NIL company Opendorse. The industry’s growth has been driven in large part by collectives, nonprofit organizations that operate outside universities in order to bring NIL opportunities to student-athletes. These donor-backed groups facilitate NIL gigs like autograph signings and appearances at fundraisers and account for 80% of the money flowing to student-athletes.

Read more about the flow of NIL money in college sports

The remaining 20% comes from brand deals, per Opendorse. Men’s basketball players earned the most money from brand deals when compared to athletes in other sports, the company has found.

One of the biggest earning opportunities for basketball players is March Madness, where players can set up deals with tournament sponsors and score brand campaigns on the fly if their team makes it deeper into the tournament. 

Read more about the student-athlete marketing strategies brands use during March Madness

To support student-athlete marketing throughout the year, new startups and existing companies have popped up and pivoted to become major players in the space. These companies help athletes design and sell their own merchandise, connect with brands for campaigns, and make money on jersey sales.

Read more about the startups and companies shaping NIL

While NIL has kickstarted a massive transformation of the business of college sports and how student-athletes make money and build careers, it may only be the beginning. A February federal court ruling that effectively paved the way for “pay-to-play,” a recent proposal by the NCAA president to pay student-athletes, and a March vote by the Dartmouth men’s basketball team to unionize could all have huge implications for college athletics.

How NIL became a major factor in college athletics

On July 1, 2021, after a decades-long fight, student-athletes across the country gained the right to make money from their NIL thanks to a flurry of new state laws and an NCAA policy change.

What happened next was a mad rush of student-athletes, small businesses, national brands, and startups looking to cash in.

Some athletes in widely followed sports scored deals worth five or six figures. But many of the 500,000-plus student-athletes across the US worked with local businesses like restaurants or participated in one-off marketing campaigns with bigger brands, receiving free products, gift cards, or smaller cash payments rather than big paydays for their NIL promotions.

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Read how much college football player Phoenix Sproles earned in the first year of NIL

In addition to brand deals, student-athletes have run branded training clinics and have been paid for appearances and autograph signings. 

Many of these fan engagement events have been put on by collectives or donor-backed groups that have popped up at most colleges and universities to organize NIL opportunities for student-athletes. Some pay as much as five figures for college athletes to attend meet-and-greets and other events.

Collectives first began popping up during the inaugural year of NIL, but most gained footing in year two. Though some in the industry condemn these organizations as “pay for play” models, collectives say their existence is necessary to remain competitive in recruiting, leaders of these organizations have told Business Insider.

“It’s become a recruiting advantage to be a school that’s more permissive with NIL activities,” Kristi Dosh, a consultant and writer who founded BusinessofCollegeSports.com, previously told BI.

Read more about how NIL collectives pay student-athletes, fundraise, and more

Dinkytown Athletics collective
Student-athletes at the University of Minnesota chat with a fan at an event for Dinkytown Athletes, the school’s collective.

Unlike professional influencers, college athletes often have small audiences on social media. In the influencer world, these athletes would be classified as “micro” (generally under 100,000 followers) or “nano” (generally under 10,000) influencers — an area of increasing focus for marketers.

Read more about how student-athletes with small social-media followings are cashing in on the NIL gold rush

And it’s not just college athletes who are benefiting; some are signing brand deals while still in high school.

One company that leaned into nano-influencer marketing for its first student-athlete campaign was The Vitamin Shoppe, which ran a campaign with 14 college players, all with under 10,000 Instagram followers.

Read more about how the company boosted social-media engagement by hiring college athletes from niche sports like golf and cheerleading

Some college athletes have become social-media stars, especially female students. Student-athletes like USC’s Bronny James and LSU’s Olivia Dunne and Angel Reese have amassed millions of followers across platforms, leading to big payouts and six-figure brand deals. Women’s basketball players have an especially high engagement rate, with athletes including Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, and Flau’jae Johnson becoming household names.

How much student-athletes earn and how they get NIL deals

The student-athletes who are already making life-changing money tend to play for Power Five schools. But some players have leveraged their brands to create content and gain significant followings.

BI spoke with several student-athletes to learn how they built their followings and secured deals, how much money they make, and what materials they use to pitch themselves to brands.

Learn how student-athletes land NIL deals and how much they’ve made:

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Check out the documents and outreach templates they use to land brand partnerships:

Chase Griffin & JPMorgan Chase
UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin prefers long-term partnerships, like his one with JPMorgan Chase.

Student-athletes are the ‘best-performing subset of influencers’

A July 2022 study by influencer marketing company Captiv8 showed that student-athletes had outperformed the engagement benchmarks of standard influencers on social media through the first year of the NIL rules.

“We started to see anecdotal evidence of athletes outperforming influencers by wide margins,” Captiv8’s director of partnerships, Bryce Adams, told BI. “The results of the study showed us that college athletes are the best-performing subset of influencers available right now to brands.”

Read more about Captiv8’s study on student-athletes outperforming standard influencers on social media

Captiv8’s study compared standard influencer benchmarks on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter with data on 312 student-athletes. It showed that student-athletes received two times more engagement than other influencers on Instagram, five times more on TikTok, and 12 times more on Twitter (now called X).

A recent study from Opendorse found that freshmen had the biggest earnings in the second year of NIL, bringing home 521% more per deal than the year before, the platform’s NIL and business insights manager Braly Keller told BI. The freshmen earned twice as much money per deal on average than all other grade levels, the report found.

Big events like March Madness can bring massive popularity and NIL deals

The first March Madness tournament following NIL saw big returns for athletes. Some brands reached out to athletes as the tournament progressed like Buffalo Wild Wings’ deal with St. Peter’s University star Doug Edert as he led the No. 15 Peacocks to the Elite Eight.

In year two, most of the teams in the Final Four already had lucrative deals under their belts and strong NIL collectives backing them. By March 2024, brands began to do more forward planning for NIL around the tournament, signaling that it was being taken more seriously as a marketing opportunity.

“There’s a significant uptick in interest in March Madness sponsorships and influencer-marketing campaigns this year as compared to years past,” Ayden Syal, the CEO of the NIL marketing platform MOGL, told BI. “I think it’s just more of a function, more than anything else, of the industry expanding and brands recognizing how much value these micro and nano influencers provide.”

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Angel Reese puts up a shot through traffic against Michigan.
Reese is one of the most followed college athletes and has signed NIL deals with companies like Amazon, Airbnb, and Playstation.

Marketers are navigating a patchwork of regulations

Colleges, student-athletes, and brands are still trying to navigate a web of state laws and university guidelines around what players are — and aren’t — allowed to do with their names, images, and likenesses.

Some colleges and universities have developed policies to stop student-athletes from making brand deals that would interfere with their own lucrative sponsorship contracts.

A deal requiring an athlete to “wear products competitive to Nike during team activities – ex. practices, competitions, media, team travel, community service, photo sessions, team-building activities, etc.” could violate Ohio State’s rules, for example. The university also said students should not “promote beverages competitive to Coca-Cola on-campus.”

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

“It is messy,” Blake Lawrence, CEO of Opendorse, previously told BI. “If a student-athlete at an Adidas school that signs a deal with, let’s say, Lululemon shows up to a press conference with a Lululemon hat and shirt on, is that a violation of the team’s contract with Adidas? Those are the things that people are trying to figure out.”

The regulatory framework is likely to become even more confusing in the coming months as new business models and court rulings around how collectives can work with student-athletes reshape the NIL industry.

Startups and other companies are shaping the future of NIL

As with any new industry with various regulations, a wave of startups and established companies have rushed in to help universities, student-athletes, and brands succeed in the field and avoid missteps.

Numerous marketplaces have been launched to help athletes and brands find one another. Companies like Opendorse, OpenSponsorship, and Postgame allow brands to post a campaign just like a job listing, after which athletes can apply and track the deal progress through the platform.

Student-athletes can design and sell their own merchandise through platforms like NIL Store and Nillie.

Learfield, a firm that helps schools monetize their IP in categories like digital media and stadium signage, has added NIL sponsorships and student-athlete storytelling to its brand work.

Read BI’s list of the 20 NIL companies helping student-athletes, colleges and universities, collectives, and brands navigate an ever-changing industry

This story has been updated with additional information and coverage. Margaret Fleming and Colin Salao contributed to earlier versions.

 

Read the original article on Business Insider

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