So, you want to work with athlete influencers?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Gear up for a wild ride.

For sports marketing brands, one of the most consequential developments we’ve seen in decades just went down

I am, of course, talking about NIL — a combination of new state laws and rules changes at the NCAA, which offers college athletes protections and the ability to make money by selling one’s own name, image and likeness rights. 

This development has led to great excitement as well as utter chaos. Digital marketers have luckily grown up in the Wild West, so we are innately comfortable on rough terrain. But the significance of NIL and its potential to unlock vast scale is different. 

There are new consultancies and cottage industries cropping up to advise athletes, new types of unsavory incentivization and all kinds of cross-fire and mad-dashing as the industry finds its legs. Don’t get caught under the wagon wheels on this prairie dust-up. Have a well-vetted strategy to operationalize and engage athlete influencers. 

Here’s what you need to know and how to get on your way.

Playing in the gray areas

Because there are no federal law changes around NIL, there are discrepancies to how it will be applied across states. It’s worthwhile to look at how athletes themselves are getting into the new game.

Many have signed deals since the July 1 rules change. Women’s Basketball players have signed with large corporations like Boost; Men’s College Football players are building their own companies; other players are partnering with local companies in the Midwest

The most successful partnerships are authnetic, regardless of scale. Let’s take the Boomin Iowa example. Local athletes are so well known that they are perfect spokespeople for local businesses. Their athletes might not be known nationwide, but Boomin’s target audience is all about Iowa.

Professional athletes have been targeted for sponsorships with local businesses for years. Their rabid fandom in a specific location is a dream for local businesses looking. Now, thanks to NIL, we’re going to see more of this at the collegiate level.

There is no need to partner with household-names off the bat. Instead, start with a smaller budget, get used to the process and scale up from there. A business looking to drive sales in Columbus, Ohio, for example, could work with any member or mix of the Ohio State University team as a test campaign, as most people in that area know many players on the team. 

This theory, however, won’t hold up if you’re looking for national exposure. You can’t expect people in Southern California to follow every player on the Ohio State team, so you may want to enlist an athlete who is more well known nationally. 

Find the right partners

So you want to add college athletes to your influencer marketing mix. Where to start?

First, define your audience and KPIs. Even if your strategy calls for working with NCAA athletes, do your research on those athletes as you would with any other influencer, carefully vetting their history and social media for brand safety and alignment, as well as looking at their audience. 

Before reaching out to an athlete, know in advance how you want to use their Name, Image and Likeness, as well as any assets they create. Understanding what you want as an output will position you better to negotiate with agents. I tell clients to come with your “best case scenario” and “have to have” list figured out, so that when you start negotiating, you can bend and flex to get what you want, within budget parameters.

Prepare for heightened scrutiny

With this new world of opportunity comes additional scrutiny. 

College athletes have, in the past, made headlines regarding misconduct, criminal activity or even bad grades. Marketers must monitor and consider past behavior when planning partnerships. Athletes looking to take advantage of NIL changes need to also consider this, on and off the field.

Navigating this new arena won’t be easy. Understanding the different sports, athlete culture, and negotiating with agents can be tricky and frustrating. Confusion about what is and isn’t allowed is common. 

There is no need to fein early expertise. This is by all accounts a wild ride. Taking a beat to get your game plan set from the beginning truly allows for the best run forward.

Crystal Duncan is SVP, Head of Influencer Marketing at Tinuiti.

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