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Over the last month, I've finalized NIL sponsorship deals with six college athletes, and am close to finalizing deals with a handful of others before the start of the fall season.
In order to close those deals, I've probably talked to three times that many athletes. I've also demo'd more than a half dozen NIL marketplaces, talked to athletic directors, compliance officers, consultants, marketplace managers, other brands buying deals, and experts who touch everything from NFT sales to camp management. These are conversations I hope to continue to have over the coming months, even if I don't actually end up signing more athletes to promote Extra Points.
Anybody who is in any way connected to the NIL marketplace has probably used the phrase "Wild West" to describe what's going on right now, and there's some truth to that. But while there's significant uncertainty from nearly every stakeholder, I've also heard a lot of the same questions and the same complaints, whether I'm talking to a 20-year-old soccer player, a P5 compliance officer, or a brand trying to figure out the best way to give money to an athlete influencer.
Based on those conversations, I think I have a few bits of advice that I'd give to any athlete I speak with, and quite frankly, to any athletic department official as well. Keeping these questions in mind should help athletes navigate these early brand conversations with more confidence and more efficiency, and help schools feel a tiny bit more peace of mind.
Quick disclaimer: I am not an NCAA official, a lawmaker, or a compliance professional. I am a sportswriter who has spent a lot of time on the phone. Just making sure we're clear about that.
Before doing anything, figure out what you actually want out of NIL
If you are a consensus NBA lottery draft pick or a Heisman Trophy contender, NIL opportunities are likely going to throw themselves at you. But for almost everybody else, it's going to take a bit of time and effort to figure out what sorts of opportunities you want, and how to best maximize those opportunities.
Since an athlete's time is finite, it's important to really understand exactly what you want up front. Do you want to simply maximize your earnings as much as possible? Do you want to focus on building professional relationships to set you up for opportunities after college? Do you want to focus on charity or non-profit work? How much time do you really want to spend on NIL?
What sorts of brands and opportunities you chase depends on what you really want to accomplish with your limited resources. If the biggest goal is to network and build towards a career in athletics management, or perhaps graduate school, maybe chasing every $50 sponsored tweet isn't the best use of your time.
Make it easy for brands to find you
The conventional wisdom is that many of the brands that will most want to take advantage of NIL are local small businesses...your pizza joint, your bookstore, your neighborhood bar, etc. We've seen this happen in some markets, and this conventional wisdom may very well be true in several months, but the problem with your local neighborhood pizza place is that it's entirely possible they've never done influencer marketing before. Maybe they've never even bought an online ad before.
So the potential buyers of your services are going to need some time to get up to speed. You'll want to make their jobs easier by making it easy for somebody to find you. That means you'll want to use your real name on your major social media platforms (Twitter and Instagram), list your school and sport, and make sure that your accounts aren't set to private (this has come up more than you might think).
But simply tweeting that you're Open For Business isn't likely going to be enough, especially if you don't have 400,000 followers. Your target market may not be as terminally online as college students and sports reporters, after all.
One of the best places to find potential NIL deals right now? An NIL marketplace. There are tons of these right now, and almost all of them are free for athletes to sign up for.
If an athlete has the time, I'd recommend signing up for several of these marketplaces. I'd also take the time to provide as much information as possible. Some markets only ask an athlete for their name, team, sport, and social media accounts. Others allow you to mention your hobbies, interests, and specific types of brands you'd like to work for. Everybody is going to have a better experience if you actually care about the product or service you're promoting, and finding not just an athlete, but the right athlete, is one of the bigger pain points for brands right now.
Don't be afraid to reach out first. And when you do, know who your people are.
This isn't an 8th grade Sadie Hawkins dance with complicated rules about who is allowed to reach out to whom. There's absolutely nothing wrong with proactively reaching out to a brand about potentially working with them. In fact, I highly encourage athletes to do so.
But before you do, the athlete ought to do a little homework. If you are pitching your social media following, you should be prepared to not just give your follower counts, but also to give information about what kinds of followers you have.
Let me give y'all an example.
I sell ads in my free newsletters. If I was to go to a national brand and say, "Buy an ad in my newsletter, I have 5,500 subscribers", not very many brands are going to call me back...they'd rather buy an ad with Google or against a much larger platform. But if I go to a brand, and I say "Buy an ad in my newsletter, I have 5,500 subscribers, including many athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners, professors, and media members from every major outlet covering college sports", then the conversation is different. If you want to reach an audience of college sports insiders, or reach readers who really care about those issues, then suddenly, I'm in a much more attractive spot.
Likewise, if you're an athlete, and you tell a brand, "I have 4,000 followers, but X number of them live in X city, or this [insert ballpark percentage] are diehard college softball fans", then that helps you. If you're part of a particular affinity group, or have fans/followers who care about something else (political issues, religious issues, a shared hobby, etc), that may make you a very valuable pitch person as well.
Figure out what you are into, then see what your fans are into, then reach out to companies that have those interests in common.
You do not need 100,000 followers to do this. Micro-influencers can be very valuable!
Case in point, I do not have 100,000 followers. I have a little over 13K Twitter followers and 5,500 free subscribers, and I make a living writing about NIL regulations, WAC realignment, and athletic department finance PDFs. If I can do it, I'm sure an enterprising women's soccer player can do it.
Don't sign anything right away, and err on the side of caution
Anybody worth doing business with isn't going to push you to sign any agreement right away. It's good business sense to ask for written confirmation of any phone or verbal agreement, and talk to other trusted people in your life (teammates, parents, coaches, partners, compliance personnel, agents, etc) before agreeing to anything.
You might not automatically need a full contract if you're selling a $50 tweet, but I recommend you still get every commitment and promise in writing. You should ask how long you need to commit to having a social media post up for, and how long the brand can tell folks they're working with you. You should know when you'll get paid, and how. You should know what tax paperwork you'll need. And if anybody pushes back on you when you ask these clarifying questions, that should be a red flag.
I tell athletes that right now, the odds that the proverbial NCAA police would actually take away their eligibility over an NIL deal are pretty small. But I also wouldn't risk my college edibility on a risk that is "pretty small", so erring on over communicating with compliance, and with brands, is a good habit to be in for now.
NIL means more than just selling some Tweets
I'd say most of the NIL deals out there right now are relating to social media influencing. Those are the easiest deals to execute, after all. But those aren't the only opportunities out there. Athletes can give lessons, sign autographs, participate in coaching clinics, or make money by doing this that have absolutely nothing to do with sports, like sell art or stream video games. Athletes and schools should look at marketplaces or vendors that can help facilitiate opportunities outside of just social media marketing.
If you do want to focus on social media influencing, while you'll find more deals if you have a massive following, again, you don't need one. You just need to find the right brand who is interested in your audience.
There will be opportunities out there for almost every athlete. You just need to decide how much time you want to spend looking.
Finally, understand the concept of Brand Safe
This goes back to the first bit of advice, about knowing your ultimate goals.
Athletes who are authentic and engaging on social media are going to be more attractive as potential brand ambassadors than ones who simply RT official school accounts. But athletes should know that certain kinds of content, or even certain kinds of other brand agreements, could close future doors, as well as open them.
If, for example, your ultimate goal is professional networking within a relatively conservative industry like corporate finance, then doing small deals with more controversial or grey-area type companies may close future doors for you. Posting highly political content may make you more marketable for some opportunities...and less so for others.
That may be an acceptable tradeoff, and that's a decision that you want to make for yourself, not one that you want made for you.
I've actually decided against continuing conversations with some athletes because they shared content that I decided wasn't really brand safe for Extra Points, and I'm sure some potential advertisers have done the same with me.
Have other questions? Just want to talk? Here's my info
I don't know if I'm going to sponsor other college athletes in the immediate future. I might! I might not.
But I'm always happy to talk to folks, because more than selling an extra subscription or two, I really want NIL to work. I want athletes to be able to take advantage of opportunities that line up with their values, and I want others to feel good about having those conversations. I've written for months about how I think this can be a real positive force in college sports.
So if you're an athletic department official and want to talk shop, chat about what you're telling your athletes, swap stories...drop me a line, I'm at Matt@ExtraPointsMB.com. I'll leave the recorder off.
If you're an athlete and you're not sure how to find opportunities, or are unsure how to best pitch somebody, or if you might to work with Extra Points, drop me an email or a Twitter DM (@MattBrownEP).
Even if I don't have a great opportunity for you, if I can introduce you to somebody who might, I'm happy to do it.
This is an uncertain market. I don't think anybody has everything truly figured out. In uncertain markets, I think transparency helps all parties get the knowledge they need to feel safe about participating. I want to share what I hear and what I see, and if we all do that, I think we'll all be in better shape over the next several months.
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