The sports marketing industry will soon undergo the single most dramatic change in its history, when college athletes are finally granted the right to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness. The mission of Student Athlete NIL is to help brands seize this opportunity and capture the attention of student-athletes, identify the ones that best personify their values, and then develop value-based partnerships with those individuals to mutually reach their goals. Working hand-in-hand, we can finally democratize college athletics.
Part of a marketer’s DNA is thinking, imagining, and even inventing the next best jet fuel to drive their brand to even greater heights. You’re always on the lookout for an edge, a trend, a foresight that could elevate consumer affinity and sales for your company or client’s product or service.
Fortunately, thanks to the pivotal shift in how our society views amateur athletes, we are months away from what will arguably be the biggest brand marketing opportunity to come along in decades. The emerging landscape reveals the anticipated green light for student-athletes to use their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) to endorse commercial products and services.
Such commercialization of college athletes has long been kryptonite to NCAA eligibility rules and its “amateurism principle.” That principle is on the cusp of major reinvention. The NCAA — the governing body overseeing major college sports in the United States — is committed (if not pressured by Congress) to change its own rules—and, concurrently, co-exist with newly adopted state laws that are starting to be adopted to permit the same endorsement opportunities for college athletes.
Indeed, for the marketing world, that NCAA kryptonite is turning into future gold—through a methodical, if not protracted, road, leading toward eventual passage of NCAA rules and state and/or federal law to allow for this commercial engagement by college athletes with businesses of all shapes and sizes.
The current NCAA’s amateurism principle is defined as follows:
“Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”
The “purity” of college sports might be girded by the purported motivation for athletes to be driven by their education and physical, mental, and social benefits to training and competing in sports. And although many college athletes do receive athletic scholarships to help finance their college education, nowhere in the NCAA’s byzantine 400 page rulebook is there a mention of the economic benefit for college athletes within this principle. That principle—which in many ways was the clear line of demarcation between college sports and pro sports— is going through a renaissance and Main Street to Wall Street should be paying attention.
In our educational outreach, Student Athlete NIL (SANIL) will feature news, historical background, trends, and other headlines to keep marketing executives and c-suite up to speed on a game-changing category within the sports marketing realm.
Although there is much legislative hand-wringing still being sorted out at the NCAA, state, and federal levels before NIL policies are adopted and go live, let’s kick us off by looking forward to what a student athlete’s world might look like once permissive NIL policies are here.
Part I – A Day In The Life
“…I woke up, got out of bed, and dragged a comb across my head…” is the scene-setting line midway through the Beatles’ landmark song, “A Day in the Life.” A relatable, everyday storyline from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
In the college athletics realm, it might be revealing to think about what a day in the life of student-athletes will look like in the near future. We are on the cusp of landmark deregulation around how student-athletes may use their NIL and, in turn, what and how associated endorsement earnings fit into the NCAA’s “collegiate model” including the student-athlete’s financial aid (or pay for work performed) and competitive equity considerations. Suffice to say, the world of college sports in America will look markedly different in the next few years.
Let’s start with a few assumptions and our own scene-setting in this fictional snapshot.
The first is that student-athletes will be permitted to use their NIL in a more permissive way than ever before. This will be guided by the anticipated change in NCAA legislation and law at the state or federal levels and will bring forward a new frontier of economic opportunity for college athletes in America.
Some states (e.g., California, Florida, Nebraska) have already adopted more permissive protections for college athletes to use their NIL albeit with delayed effective dates. The arrival of these state laws and bills has created an anticipated conflict in law with NCAA rules. With the drumbeat around student-athlete NIL usage getting louder, the NCAA Board of Governors asked all three NCAA divisions to pursue modernization of NCAA rules and to make those updates to each division’s rules by no later than January 2021. Proposals were put forward this month, but the vote has been delayed as additional input and positioning from government offices (namely the Department of Justice) and congressional members prompted the NCAA to delay voting on its slate of NIL proposals.
As for the NCAA’s proposed policies, in the simplest terms, the Board of Governors outlined that updates to NCAA legislation must be tethered to higher education. The Board also outlined several other points of emphasis to guide future changes such as treating student-athletes more like any other non-athlete college student when it comes to using NIL to their brand and economic benefit.
Let’s also assume and recognize there will be several key layers to the new student-athlete NIL landscape that aren’t fully manifested to date. These anticipated layers will be crucial, inevitable, and will likely shake the traditional moorings of the traditional NCAA amateurism model.
Among the evolving layers and facets yet to be determined are:
- If and how group and individual licensing agreements for student-athletes will be procured and administered within new NCAA amateurism rules;
- How the involvement of agents, agencies, and/or brand managers helping student-athletes land paid-marketing and endorsement opportunities in exchange for use of their NIL will play within the NCAA amateurism sandbox;
- What, if any, conditions will be added on to how and when student-athletes’ earnings from use of their NIL for commercial purposes may be received; and
- How the competitive equity component, especially with recruiting, is impacted by promotional opportunities a school, coach, and/or booster might promise.
With that backdrop, set of assumptions and known-unknowns on the table, here’s A Future Student-Athlete’s Day In The Life …
A Division I basketball student-athlete, let’s call him Ringo, wakes up on a Monday morning to catch breakfast with several teammates, all who live with him in the same on-campus apartment. As he steps out of bed to get his day started, Ringo slips on a pair of his Ugg Tasman slippers, and snaps a quick photo of his feet that he posts on Instagram with the caption, “When they’re not running down the court, it’s only the finest sheepskin for these rain-makers.” In the bathroom, he captures a quick TikTok of his dance moves while brushing his pearly whites, using his tube of Crest as a microphone while lip-syncing the lyrics to the latest pop hit.
Ringo and his roommates join up with the rest of their teammates for breakfast before heading out for morning classes. This breakfast is offered as an incidental meal provided to the basketball team directly by the athletics department—basically, a means to support student-athlete nutrition that simultaneously accommodates the ever-demanding schedule of student-athletes. As he scarfs down a blueberry muffin, Ringo engages in a text conversation with his marketing agent, Jerry.
With breakfast in the rearview mirror, Ringo grabs his book bag and makes his way to his World History class across campus. Ringo doesn’t mind the 20-minute walk since he only has to do it twice a week. See, World History is Ringo’s only “brick and mortar” class—one that actually meets in a class-room, with an instructor in the flesh and blood. All of Ringo’s other classes are on-line. Rarely needs to leave his dorm or the state-of-the-art student-athlete lounge with multi-media tailored study tables found adjacent to the basketball practice facility.
Some students and faculty might say the student-athletes are ghosts—-never seen, more mythical, especially high-profile ones. That is until they appear on a court, field, track, or pool to compete. The proliferation of online courses and online degree programs has been feeding the somewhat slanted and unfair conclusion that student-athletes are not as ‘academic’ as other non-athlete students. The reality is online course offerings are trending higher across the country for all college students, and student-athletes happen to be one beneficiary. The embedded flexibility of online courses meshes well with a student-athlete’s busy schedule, especially Ringo’s when he’s in the middle of the basketball season.
Back to Ringo. On the way to class, he’s stopped by a couple of students on-campus for a selfie. After an electrifying double-double performance during Saturday night’s game, including a clutch last-second 3-pointer with time running down that made ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 and helped his team defeat their archrival, Ringo is the talk of campus, the town and the college basketball stratosphere.
Ringo was named preseason All American and has been living up to the hype halfway through the season. So when a couple of uber-sport fanatic freshmen students see Ringo on campus coming their way, they can’t pass up the chance for a quick high-five and photo op with the star guard. He’s happy to oblige, the attention makes him smile. A student capturing a picture with Ringo and posting to their social media this week will be viewed, liked and retweeted hundreds, if not thousands, of times over. Ringo’s recent play is not just good for his profile and draft stock, it’s good for everyone’s social-media branding, including the limited number of companies he’s chosen to endorse while he finishes his college career.
A Day In The Life To Be Continued…