College athletics: A new world of influencer marketing

July 9th, 2021 | Nicole Bond

On July 1, 2021, the NCAA approved policy changes that allow collegiate athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). The highly anticipated policy changes follow more than a decade of legal, political, and public pressure to let athletes in on the billions of dollars generated via college sports year-in and year-out. And while the ruling is groundbreaking, there are ample details still left to be figured out on a national level.

Now that college athletes have the NCAA’s blessing to make money from their name, image, and likeness, the question is how should brands activate this new avenue moving forward?

How it’s already playing out

As soon as the news broke on June 30, college athletes around the country opened themselves up to new business opportunities via social media. It didn’t matter if they were representing big market programs, big market sports, or had massive followings across platforms, the news broke and the desire for business blossomed.

This has been a day that college athletes have fought for, advocated for, and some would say deserved for far too long. These athletes are ready to partner with brands, promote themselves, and make some money all while doing it.

Some colleges even joined the conversation to prove the social media value of its student-athletes

When the news was made official, some colleges took to social media to celebrate the groundbreaking decision. Beyond sentiments of support and uplifting the NCAA’s updated ruling, some colleges went the extra step and began to help their athletes prove their value-add to brands everywhere.

For example, Texas Track and Field blasted a detailed graphic that shows not only its entire athletic body’s social media growth but did an individual breakdown of two athletes’ social media activity and followings.

Understanding the investment from the brand side

Brands have long allocated hefty budgets to attract the massive audiences brought together through college athletics. Brands tend to isolate national TV spend to college football and basketball, now they can do so in a hyper-targeted way by featuring specific collegiate athletes.

AT&T, a March Madness sponsor, launched basketball-themed ads for its latest smartphone deals.

Aflac tapped legendary Alabama football coach Nick Saban for its national TV campaigns that ran during the ’20-’21 NCAA season. The timing of the spot, the subtle ties back to football, and the college campus setting allow the insurer to deliver a hyper-relevant message, making it memorable.

Three things brands need to consider moving forward

With marketing budgets to execute, brands have an opportunity to think outside of the box — while making a huge difference.

Hyper-Localized Messaging
In college athletics, there are big market teams and small-market teams, but both markets come with local stars and loyal fans. Brands should not only activate prominent athletes that live on the national level but consider the influence of collegiate athletes in the communities in which they play.

There is arguably no match for the passion and commitment of college fanbases, not even at the professional level. These relationships are deeper, more emotional and they embody the individuals that support them. This immense loyalty is what creates the opportunity for brands to now hyper-localize their marketing efforts.

Social Media Influence
Social media marketing is nothing new, but the audiences in which college athletes draw on social media can be quite massive — like 6-digit massive. Brands should pursue relationships that are natural fits, while also ensuring the athlete is educated on the product. These interactions will be best served if they are authentic. The more authentic the tie, the more believable and more reliable the endorsement — tapping into your niche.

Think Beyond the “Big Dogs”
Brands will likely do what they have always done and flock to football and basketball with their marketing dollars. While these audiences may be significant, other sports, particularly women’s sports, have loyal and growing audiences. Brands should branch out because college fanbases go beyond the “big dogs.”

Yes, college football and men’s basketball garner massive audiences year-in and year-out. Those audiences are nothing to shy away from, but they are stagnant and by some measures shrinking. Where on the other side, women’s sports audiences are growing and the fans are just as passionate. For example, this year’s Women’s College World Series was the most viewed ever, averaging 1.2M viewers per game, up 10% from 2019. The NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship also saw viewership increase in 2021, breaking several standing records.

The point here is that athletes, fanbases, and viewers all exist outside of college sports’ powerhouses. These audiences are valuable and female athletes are influential, incorporating collegiate females can have an immense impact.

What we think

College athletics has been changed forever. Some will say for the good, some will say for the bad. Yet, it might be up for the brands to decide.

Why is it up to the brands to decide? Well, it’s up to the brands, brands everywhere, because the brands are the ones with the money to spend, the products to market, and the partnerships to offer. Essentially the brands will determine how this new ruling impacts collegiate athletics, now and in the future. Brands can continue doing what has always been done by pouring more and more money into college football and men’s basketball or they can spread the wealth throughout athletics to help even out the playing grounds.

The biggest impact, and possibly where we will see the most marketing spend upfront, is social media. Regardless of the sport, these athletes have already established a brand of their own and a following to match. It’s up to brands to find authentic matches, to partner with athletes that embody their products and make a difference in the world of collegiate athletics. While it may seem easy to check off college athletics by supporting a couple of football players here and there, to drive positive impact during a time as critical as this and stand out in this newly available landscape, brands should spread the wealth throughout all sports to further uplift the incredible untold stories and untapped potential of all collegiate athletes.

Nicole Bond

Nicole Bond

Nicole Bond is an Associate Director - Marketing Strategy, interpreting cross-channel marketing and consumer trends with a focus on telecom and financial services. She identifies consumer drivers and helps clients develop omnichannel marketing strategies.