Sports Marketing

How NIL experience could change the nature of brand deals with rookie athletes

With prior endorsements under their belts, rookies could start asking for more money. But rookies with NIL experience also open doors for brands.
article cover

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

· 5 min read

By definition, rookies are the newbies on their teams. But thanks to the NIL policy of 2021—which lets student athletes make money off of their name, image, and likeness—some of them aren’t so new to at least one aspect of pro sports: brand deals.

While deals between rookies and major brands have been standard for years (just watch Air), some newbie players are coming into their first pro year with prior endorsement experience, an unprecedented dynamic that marketers said could serve brands in the long run.

“Both sides are getting experience with the other party in advance in a lower-stakes environment,” Ray Katz, co-founder and COO of Collegiate Sports Management Group and a former marketing director for the NFL, told Marketing Brew. “I think there are going to be more win-win deals because, in college, the legitimate NIL deals give both parties a chance to date before they get engaged in marriage.”

While NIL opens up opportunities for brands to build longer relationships and stories with athletes, sports managers and marketers said, earlier exposure to brand deals could also create some complications.

Options open

It’s been less than two years since college athletes gained the right to make money by working with brands, so deals between athletes and brands that carry over from college to the pro leagues aren’t particularly common just yet. In one instance, pro golfer Rose Zhang had deals with Callaway and Adidas while she played in college, and both brands have reportedly continued to sponsor her in her pro debut.

Deals like this are not entirely unexpected. ESPN called it “a bit of a surprise” when Indiana Fever forward-center Aliyah Boston, the first overall pick in this year’s WNBA draft, signed with Adidas after becoming the first woman basketball player to sign an NIL deal with Under Armour while she was at the University of South Carolina last year. The Under Armour contract “specified that the agreement did not automatically carry over into Boston's professional career,” ESPN reported, which made it possible for Boston to explore other options.

It’s important for college athletes to understand the terms covered in a contract, according to Tommy Gray, chief strategy officer at Altius Sports Partners, which helps brands, schools, and athletes navigate the NIL space.

“Best practice clearly would be not to grant your rights beyond your time as a college athlete, because you don't know what's going to happen next and what contracts you're going to be asked to sign later on,” he said. “Most of the activity we're seeing with brands and athletes is more campaign-specific.”

Long-term relationship

Brands may want to consider re-signing deals with NIL partners if they go pro anyway, sports marketing experts said. For one, following an athlete’s trajectory to the big leagues can offer great storytelling options, according to Parker Cain, VP of talent marketing at Excel Sports Management.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

“Could you imagine seeing a commercial where you can literally show footage of a high school player drinking a specific brand or wearing a specific product, doing the same thing in college, and then doing the same thing 10 years later into their hall-of-fame career?” he said. “Obviously, that’s a very long-term strategy, but that potential is incredible.”

Execs also pointed out that long-term deals with athletes that start before they go pro have the potential to help build early brand loyalty among young talent, as well as consumers.

If you’re a college athlete, you’re “going to remember the first brand that proactively came to you, believed in you, gave you an opportunity, and that's going to create loyalty for you throughout your entire college career, and then professionally when you get to that level,” said Joe Caporoso, president of sports and entertainment media company Team Whistle, which also has an internal agency that pairs brands with creators.

That is, “if and only if the athlete genuinely likes/uses the product,” Jason Bergman, co-founder and CEO of NIL marketplace MarketPryce, said in an email.

Yellow card

Despite potential upsides, rookies with prior NIL experience can also present some downsides for brands. Several execs agreed that as college athletes get more experience with brands and build a portfolio of content, they may then start asking for more money in their rookie deals. Already, rookies are showing stronger business acumen, according to Sophie Gage, VP of business and legal affairs for the NFL Players Association.

“It is early, but even so, we’ve definitely seen a trend that players today have a stronger understanding of their brands and their brand power off the field,” she said. “We just wrapped up our annual rookie premier event…and it’s really evident that they are coming into their pro careers with experience under their belts.”

Conflicts of interest between different brands can also occur, experts told us. Most NIL contracts are fairly short-term, as Gray pointed out, and players are generally allowed to do their own personal endorsement deals regardless of which companies sponsor their team or league (e.g., Peyton Manning doing Mastercard commercials despite Visa’s long-standing NFL sponsorship). But brands may still hesitate to work with rookies that were known for endorsing a category competitor in college.

“It’ll be interesting to see how those kinds of situations are sorted out going forward, as things like jerseys get more and more covered in logos,” Caporoso said.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.