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March Madness Is Great for Brands, NIL Madness Is Not

With history-making storylines including St Peter’s Cinderella run and the final games of Coach K’s legendary career, this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship has delivered almost everything fans could want, with the exception of having anything near a perfect bracket.

Broadcast and corporate partners are happy too, with viewership and attendance returning to pre-pandemic levels, as CBS and Turner Sports are easily meeting ratings guarantees to advertisers, according to Sportico.

But once the championship nets are cut down in New Orleans, many brand marketers will return to figuring out how to best take advantage of the opportunities presented by college athlete marketing rights, where the landscape remains as crazy as it was nine months ago when student-athletes first became eligible to monetize their name, image and likeness rights.

One possible development would bode well for all involved: colleges and universities acquiring and managing their athletes’ NIL rights. Andrew Donovan, vice president of collegiate partnerships for Altius Partners, laid out the case for why this could happen soon in an interview with JohnWallStreet last week.

Although far from a perfect solution, and unlikely to be a universal one, such arrangements would provide tangible benefits for each party.

As I mentioned at the start of NIL activity last summer, “real value could lie in activating sponsorship of a school’s athletic program with athlete endorsement deals.” If schools oversaw NIL rights, they—along with the companies that control their multimedia rights—could bundle those assets into their sponsorship packages and provide one-stop shopping to corporate partners.

While marquee athletes understandably may be reluctant to give up full control of their marketing rights for a lump sum, having their school in charge would take away the responsibility of having to self-manage NIL rights deals and put it in the hands of professionals at companies such as Learfield, JMI and others. Schools also could ensure an equitable distribution across athletes in both revenue and non-revenue sports.

Putting schools in the driver’s seat also could stem the tide of booster-driven consortiums and athlete “marketing” deals that look suspiciously like pay-for-play arrangements—which at least for the time being are still forbidden. It also would give colleges and universities a mechanism for compensating players without classifying them as employees, raising the specter of unions and other decidedly anti-amateurism elements.

Donovan’s remarks coincided with the big NIL news of the week, an announcement from Adidas that it will offer NIL deals to all 50,000-plus student-athletes at its 109 sponsored NCAA Division 1 schools. The company did not disclose the amounts athletes who opt-in would earn but said it would be in the form of direct payments for social posts and a percentage of the sales they drive through the company’s app and website.

Given its scale, the program is a smart brand positioning move more than a targeted marketing effort, as reflected in the company’s statements that it advances Adidas’ commitment to building inclusivity in sport, as well as the timing of the announcement near the 50th anniversary of the passage of federal Title IX legislation.

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