Sports Marketing

Brands are ditching their usual influencer marketing strategies for NIL deals

“Whatever strategy you have for influencer, take it and throw it out the window,” one NIL exec said.
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Express via YouTube

· 5 min read

Ever since the NCAA gave college athletes the chance to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses with its NIL policy, brands have been lining up to court them. Almost two years later, though, some companies are finding that student athletes can be a bit hard to pin down.

Many student athletes don’t have agents or PR reps for brands to reach out to. Some aren’t used to checking their emails regularly (they’re Gen Z, after all—you have to slide in their DMs). And between academics and athletics, they are essentially juggling two full-time jobs already.

“We’ve had to relook at our marketing timelines and adjust to new factors such as the players’ academic schedule, practice, and game days,” Sara Tervo, CMO of fashion brand Express, which last year entered into NIL deals with Ohio State Buckeyes football players C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, told Marketing Brew in an email.

As a result, brands that want to play ball with college athletes might have to ditch their traditional influencer marketing strategies and write a different playbook.

“Whatever strategy you have for influencer…take it and throw it out the window, because it does not work in this space,” Danny Morrissey, co-founder of college sports marketing agency Postgame, told Marketing Brew.

Call me, brief me

There are plenty of perks to working with college athletes, NIL pros noted. For one, players can be “regional heroes,” Morrissey said, which makes them ideal for crafting winning local ad campaigns.

Express, for instance, was “able to focus on more regional marketing opportunities where we can hone in on the fandom of a localized network with appearance days, local media outreach, and photo shoots,” Tervo said. The brand’s initial partnership with Stroud and Smith-Njigba resulted in 30 billion social impressions, she added.

Iowa-based pizza chain Casey’s specifically chose basketball players from schools in states where the brand has a presence—Tyreke Key of the University of Tennessee, Kris Murray of the University of Iowa, and Sydney Parrish of Indiana University—for its first NIL campaign announced last month, according to the brand’s director of communications and community, Katie Petru.

College athletes also tend to convey a level of realness that can be hard for others, even full-time content creators, to achieve, Jason Bergman, co-founder and CEO of NIL marketplace MarketPryce, said.

“For professional influencers, their No. 1 job is to be an influencer,” Bergman said. “A lot of them are really, really good at it, they’re amazing at creating content…but there can only be so much authenticity to what they’re doing.”

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But that same virtue can also be a vice. While student athletes “have a massive amount of influence, they are not inherently influencers,” Sam Weber, senior director of communications for NIL marketplace Opendorse, said. That means that brands might have to do “a little bit more hand-holding along the way.”

A little bit of structure and guidance can go a long way toward helping point student athletes in the right direction, according to Bergman. He suggested providing new athletes with a one-pager with a prompt or a list of unique selling points about a product as a starting point.

One sample creative brief shared with Marketing Brew by Curtis Hougland, CEO of micro-influencer marketing agency People First, which works with Bleacher Report on athlete campaigns, included suggested talking points and tips on shooting campaign-worthy photos and videos.

Another potential obstacle to working with collegiate athletes? “They don’t check email,” Hougland said. Instead, texts and DMs tend to work better, several NIL pros told us.

⚠️ Scheduling conflict ⚠️

Student athletes are also busy—really busy. Partnering with student athletes during the season can result in a more “elevated” campaign, but that also tends to be the toughest time scheduling-wise, Morrissey explained.

To alleviate some of that scheduling pressure, he advised brands to enter into partnerships with students before the season starts. Marketers might start creating content with a soccer player ahead of the season in late July or early August so that when the season kicks off, “you can then activate” with the players quickly, Morrissey told us.

Athlete-generated content like “day in the life” posts featuring students using a product have become popular for NIL deals in part because they can be easier to create given the “tight timelines and very strict practice, class, and travel schedules” that athletes face, Weber said.

Some brands seem to be embracing that kind of less-produced content: A fashion brand once specifically requested an athlete do a reshoot because the photos were “too high-quality,” Morrisey said.

Brands should also prepare to be flexible. Casey’s, the pizza brand, has found that to be especially true in its NIL work so far, Petru said.

”These athletes, they are busy, they have student commitments, they have athletic commitments, and they’re also just living life,” she said. “The more that you can be engaging with them, flexible but involved, I think you’ll be successful.”

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