NIL Chaos Offers Rare Opportunities for Brand Marketers
Although the dust-up between Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher was an entertaining midweek diversion from similar squabbles in politics and more dreary news about the war in Ukraine and falling financial markets, it was a sideshow to the legitimate point that Saban was making, even if he did it in an atypically inelegant manner.
The real issue is that the severely under-regulated NIL situation is creating mass confusion and an unlevel playing field in college athletics. As another, unidentified, veteran coach said to ESPN, “There's a chaos vacuum. The vacuum is always going to fill with something. Chaos has been created. Any one of us can go on for hours about the issues it has created."
For now, let’s set aside important questions about how we got here, who’s to blame and how all this gets remedied to the satisfaction of players, schools, fans and other stakeholders, and examine what the corporate partners who rely on college sports as a powerful marketing platform might do in the near-term to quell some of the mayhem.
The dysfunction in the system currently is the result of the disparity between schools that are taking advantage of the situation to funnel NIL dollars to athletes through collectives and those that either won’t or can’t play the same game.
It’s within the second category that sponsors of those schools could help bridge the gap by making NIL deals with athletes a bigger part of their activation efforts.
Granted, the impact of this spending will not turn Vanderbilt into Texas A&M, but it will accomplish some important goals, including:
1. Jumpstart activation efforts and make the many under-activated partnerships across college sports more relevant.
The sponsor rosters of most athletic departments include plenty of brands that purchase basic rights packages and do nothing with them except run their radio spots and scoreboard mentions.
I recently worked with a major sports sponsor and when walking through its portfolio with the company’s head of partnerships, asked what the strategy and activation plan was for mid-six-figure sponsorships of two Power 5 programs in a couple of the largest markets in the U.S. “Honestly, those are legacy programs I inherited years ago,” was the response. “I don’t know the reasons why they were originally signed and with our attention focused on the larger relationships within our portfolio, we simply don’t have the human and other resources to do anything with them.”
While it would take more than doing nothing at all, adding some NIL deals as activation starters for those two sponsorships and many others like them would require a relatively small investment of time and money that would finally put those partnerships to work forging a connection with fans.
2. Reinforce the legitimacy of NIL as a powerful marketing tool that serves as a win-win-win for marketers, student-athletes and fans.
Instead of being rightfully heralded as an equitable way of finally allowing athletes to capitalize on their performance, personalities and achievements, NIL, thanks to the actions of many collectives, is fast becoming synonymous with flagrant boosterism.
Consider this comment I received from a prominent alumni of a Power 5 school in relation to establishing a potential collective: “One of our biggest challenges will be finding things to pay (athletes) for – want it to be at least in some relation to value.” Clearly the words of someone who sees NIL as a recruiting tool first and a way to fairly compensate student-athletes for helping to market products and businesses a distant second.
The more we see marketing-driven NIL deals from actual companies and brands versus the many “finding things to pay them for” examples currently dotting the landscape, the more NIL will establish itself as a viable business-building activity separate and apart from pay-to-play schemes.
3. Set all parties up well for the future.
While keeping student-athlete rights at the forefront is paramount—because a) it is the right thing to do and b) will avoid lawsuits—the fact that 90 percent of FBS athletic directors surveyed were concerned about collectives using NIL payments as improper recruiting inducements means at some point the reins around collectives will be tightened and the prohibition on boosters’ involvement in athlete recruitment will be clarified.
If NIL continues to be associated with recruiting over marketing, the potential for student-athletes to monetize their rights will be in jeopardy. If the reverse is true, then we will see a situation akin to pro sports, where athletes freely sign endorsement, appearance, advertising and other deals that are clearly related to whom they play for, but also independent of their teams and leagues.