What can research tell us about how to make an effective NIL deal?
A new paper from UMass has some suggestions that could help brands and athletes
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Anybody familiar with the industry right now would tell you that the bulk of NIL activity involving elite recruits or top-level football and basketball players is not really about the name, image or likeness of the athlete. These deals are mostly talent-acquisition fees, laundered through charities, content, appearance fees or other collective activities.
But brand-centered NIL activity absolutely does exist, not just for football and basketball players, but athletes at all sports and across all levels, from the P5 to the NAIA.
While athletes are earning NIL money from starting their own businesses, giving camps or lessons, signing autographs and more, the bulk of brand-centered NIL activity right now comes from social media campaigns. A conservative estimation, from Opendorse’s latest report, suggests that nearly 2/3 of all brand-centered NIL activity are social media posts.
This makes sense. College athletes have limited free time, but almost everybody uses social media. Given the relationship many fans have with college athletes, they could be very attractive social media influencers for brands.
But just because there are lots of social media NIL deals doesn’t mean there are lots of effective social media brand deals. Many brands that might benefit from NIL influencer campaigns are new to digital or influencer marketing in general, and might not have the knowledge or experience to craft a profitable campaign. Athletes are busy, and often can’t produce content with the same professionalism and production values as a professional influencer. And since college athletes are still a relatively new type of influencer, the market is still fumbling around a bit to figure out pricing and best practices.
A new paper in the Journal of Sport Management might have some suggestions that could help
The most recent edition of the Journal of Sports Management includes a paper, “The New Wave of Influencers: Examining College Athlete Identities and the Role of Homophily and Parasocial Relationships in Leveraging Name, Image, and Likeness”, by Dr.Yiran Su of UMass Amherst, Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, Xuan Go and Dr.Thomas Baker of the University of Georgia, and Dr.Christine Wegner at the University of Florida.
This paper synthesizes previous research in influencer marketing and athlete branding, and lays out a potential framework to help athletes and brands understand what sort of campaigns and fit may lead to social media influencer campaigns that may actually impact purchasing decisions.
Dr. Su argues that effective influencer marketing is a little different from traditional advertising…it isn’t how the product is presented that dictates effectiveness, so much as how that product aligns with the projected identities of the influencer. Specifically, she says that
“To fully realize the marketability of college athletes, practitioners must better understand what makes college athletes unique as influencers and how consumers respond to them.”
The paper looks at a handful of specific identities that combine to make college athletes unique influencers…their ‘school identity’ (i.e a member of the UMass community, a member of the Wisconsin community, etc), their identity as a college student, their identity as an athlete, and their identity as an ‘influencer.’
The paper authors interviewed a wide swath of college students, both online and in person, to discuss their responses to athlete NIL campaigns (a male football player, and a female tennis player), particularly through the prism of these identities.
And what were the initial takeaways?
The authors found that school identity was a key driver of purchase intention among college students. Interview responses specifically noted that students were more likely to purchase a product endorsed by a college athlete who also attended their school. Previous marketing research suggests that 'homophily’, or the tendency to be attracted to people similar to themselves, is a major factor in impacting purchasing intention.
Interviewers also suggested that the athletic identity of the influencer was more important than the influencer identity, or their identity as students. Being an athlete, according to the research, helped separate the college athlete from other potential influencers, giving them an increased measure of credibility.
The authors also found that the multiple layers of identity (athlete, student, influencer, etc) are also interwoven….so potential deals or content that goes against the norm of being a student, athlete, etc, could undermine the credibility (and this effectiveness) of any of the other identities.
From the paper:
Okay, so I’m an athlete or a brand. What does all of this mean for me?
This research suggests that the more effective social media marketing campaigns will be campaigns that tie into the athlete’s school and athletic identity, at least as far as driving purchase intention for college students is concerned.
In practice, that means that brands that sell products that could potentially be tied to athleticism (fitness equipment, fitness apparel, fitness trackers, nutrition products, weekly planners, etc) may want to consider college athlete influencer campaigns. Products that may have a harder time tying into school or athletic identity, say, financial services, insurance, real estate, etc…might have a harder time.
Above all else though, regardless of industry, athletes (and brands) should look for opportunities that align with their credibility. Obviously, if an athlete regularly shares content about finance, business, investments, etc…they can more credibly promote those products than say, a soccer player who normally only talks about scoring goals.
Business development officials, player agents, collectives, etc may do well to focus their efforts on brand opportunities that are better aligned with an athlete-centered identity on social media.
Hopefully, more research is on the way
Business schools have studied influencer marketing for a while, but college athletes do represent a unique group that might not behave exactly the same way as other groups. This paper is quick to point out that it only studied the response on one consumer group (college students), and only studied athletes at well-known D-I institutions, so perhaps future studies could examine other athlete or consumer segments.
The paper also points out that many women athletes may be at an NIL disadvantage because they do not have the same opportunities to develop their own brands, as their games may not be televised as often, or have access to traditional media coverage. The authors suggest that schools “invest in promotional activities for women’s sports that create as many public pairings between them and their athletes as possible.” Perhaps future research opportunities could better study how promotional activities or television exposure drive brand awareness and activity.
Those working on the school, collective or agency side might benefit from checking in with business and sports management scholars though…additional research might be able to shed light on how to best craft campaigns where everybody wins.
Hey, speaking of credibility and social media campaigns,
This newsletter is brought to you in part by On EdTech, a newsletter from Phil Hill & Associates. On EdTech brings you updates and analysis on the educational technology industry, from AI to textbooks and more. If you’re looking to better understand the budgets, pressures, and products in higher education, give On EdTech a try. It’s free!
(Also, I get a small commission if you subscribe and read the newsletter)
If EdTech isn’t your thing, this newsletter is also brought to you in part by Books & Biceps, a weekly newsletter with book recommendations, fitness tips, author interviews, and more. It’s short, sweet, and a welcome addition to your inbox.
(I also get a small commission if you read this newsletter)
If you’d like to buy ads on Extra Points OR in ADS3000, good news! They’re affordable, and we have openings this season. Drop me a line at [email protected]. If you have news tips, I’m at [email protected]. Otherwise, I’m at [email protected], @MattBrownEP on Twitter, @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram, and @MattBrown on Bluesky