When the NCAA changed its policy and made it permissible for student-athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL) in July 2021, few brands were prepared to launch campaigns built around NIL. As expected the earliest adopters were small to midsize brands – many with local or regional footprint – looking to hawk a product or service.
Two years later prominent brands are tapping into this dynamic marketplace to collaborate with student-athletes; and 2023-24 brings a host of new trends and approaches for such partnerships. But brands shouldn’t hook their wagon to every new trend or storyline. Consider the following strategies for a sticky and successful NIL campaign that cuts through the clutter:
1. Long-Term Collaborations: As student-athletes' personal brands continue to evolve, big brands will opt for long-term partnerships that grow alongside them. Multi-year collaborations will allow for deeper integration, more significant narrative arcs, and an authentic reflection of the athlete's journey. Look for brands to maintain their alliances with student-athletes after turning pro.
Example – This past spring, Sofia Chepenik (a former Clemson and current University of South Florida lacrosse player) became the first collegiate athlete to sign a lifetime NIL deal when she partnered with LootMogul.
2. NIL-Driven Products: Brands are moving beyond traditional endorsement deals and are in search of new collaboration formats. In 2024, expect to see more exclusive product lines and limited-edition merchandise launches co-designed by student-athletes.
Example – This summer supermarket chain Schnucks introduced a new frozen pizza variety featuring student-athletes from the University of Missouri. Throughout the 2023-24 academic year the brand will roll out a new product every two months featuring a different student-athlete.
3. Data-Driven Partnerships: Data analytics will drive smarter partnerships. Brands leveraging insights to understand the archetypes, interests, and behaviors of student-athletes' followers will be able to supercharge their efforts to connect with fans. This data will shape campaign strategies and identify key student-athlete alliances with the greatest upside and opportunity, based on particular categories.
Example – According to SponsorUnited, the top 10 categories in NIL (led by Apparel & Accessories) accounted for more than 70 percent of NIL total sponsorships in 2021 and 2022. Quick Serve Restaurants (QSR), Hotel & Restaurant, Leisure, and Business Services are opting for more NIL deals over partnerships with pro athletes – underscoring their confidence in the brand-building power of student-athletes. Watch for innovation from these growth categories.
4. Community-Centric Campaigns: Student-athletes have deeply loyal fan communities. Brands will focus on campaigns that foster a sense of belonging – encouraging these communities to engage, share, and connect around shared passions, both online and offline. Also look for brands to infuse the power of giving back into their efforts.
Example – Nike recently signed University of Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers to a multi-year NIL deal around its G.T. Hustle 2 shoe. As part of that deal, Nike will amplify Bueckers’ cause marketing efforts, with groups that "create opportunities for children and families, and promote social justice through programming focused on access to sport, the arts, cultivating economic opportunity and fighting food insecurity."
5. Evolving Platforms: According to Curastory, a whopping 75% of student-athlete creators are still waiting for their first brand deal. Now more than ever, student-athletes are using their own platforms to build their brands and expand their influence – not just in sports, but in other areas of culture such as music, fashion, and other forms of art. And it goes beyond Instagram, TikTok, and X (formerly Twitter). The savviest and most authentic student-athletes are developing their own content and using bespoke channels – YouTube, podcasts, etc. – for broad distribution. In leveraging their own platforms in the creator economy, student-athletes are becoming the drivers of their NIL deals as opposed to waiting around for brands to approach them.
Examples – To build his brand, Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders launched his own apparel line under his SS2LEGENDARY moniker and expanded his apparel presence by engaging in NIL partnerships with Actively Black and Tom Brady's TB12 clothing brand. Outside of the gym, Louisiana State University’s gymnast Livvy Dunne has built her brand as a social media star and has 7.8 million followers on TikTok and another 4.4 million on Instagram. Featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Dunne has an estimated valuation of $3.2 million trailing only Bronny James and Sanders – according to On3.
6. Hyper-Personalized Fan Engagement: Marketers will harness the power of NIL to create hyper-personalized experiences for fans. By collaborating with student-athletes on social media, brands can craft content that resonates deeply with individual fans, fostering stronger emotional connections.
Example – Earlier this year, personal care company Hally Hair launched the first of 26+ collegiate licensed color products the brand is planning over the year. The new launch includes over 100 male and female athletes across 14 sponsored sports at Baylor University.
7. Innovative Content Formats: Expect to see a surge in innovative content formats. Marketers will experiment with interactive content, virtual reality experiences, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of student-athletes' lives, enhancing engagement and building authentic connections.
Example – Wellness brand Hyperice partnered with Thomas Pritchard, a member of NYU’s swim team, who wanted to co-develop a recovery space for him and his fellow student-athletes. Hyperice helped design the space and outfitted the new facility with its recovery products and a complimentary membership for Core, the brand’s meditation trainer. While not a traditional NIL deal, the “Hyperice Champions’ Den” is a cornerstone of the brand new $1.2 billion John A. Paulsen Center, a 753,000 square-foot building that includes a host of athletics facilities for hundreds of NYU student-athletes.
The Bottom Line:
There is no fool-proof blueprint for a successful NIL campaign. However, the path towards engagement starts with being non-transactional. Brands must consider including NIL into their marketing strategy for 2024 from the beginning, versus layering it on top of an existing plan after the fact. Contact us to learn more about how Taylor can help your brand capitalize on NIL in 2024 and beyond.