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I would like to (profitably) pay more college athletes. But how?

A brand perspective on the NIL market

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

This is going to be kind of an inside-baseball type of newsletter, but if you can stick with me here, I think there’s some useful information here about the current NIL world.

One of my biggest business problems that keeps me up at night is how to actually grow Extra Points. We grow from word-of-mouth, from the D1.ticker mailing lists, from Twitter, and from earned media…but I’m always looking for other ways to grow our mailing list.

The conventional marketing approach would be for me to start buying ads on Google, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, an approach I have mostly rejected for ideological reasons (Facebook is a major reason why I don’t have a stable job at a larger digital media company, after all), as well as financial ones. Hiring a PR team is mostly outside of our budget at the moment. Newsletter ad swaps have been mostly ineffective.

So when the NIL era began, I wanted to be involved as a brand. Part of that was because I thought that my actually doing deals with athletes would make it easier for me to report on and understand the NIL market, as well as improve my sourcing with actual athletes. But I also thought using college athletes for marketing purposes would be good business.

After all, dozens and dozens of athletic directors read Extra Points. Conference commissioners, national media outlets, sneaker executives, industry consultants, and major NIL companies all read Extra Points as well. My thinking was…well, if it’s good enough for all those people, maybe athletes and students would want to read it too.

So in June of 2021, I tried to sponsor some athletes

I ended up working with about a dozen or so athletes from across D-I. A handful of the athletes were FBS football players, but nobody would have been considered a star at a major program or anything. I also did deals with runners, women’s basketball players, soccer players, swimmers, and more.

Essentially, each deal paid a flat rate (~$100-$300ish) to post twice about Extra Points on a social network of their choosing, along with a $16 commission for every time somebody paid for a subscription using a promocode specific to the athlete. The athletes I worked with had social media followers under 10,000, and usually, well under 6,000. These were micro influencers.

This was absolutely worth my time from an earned media perspective. Basically every NIL deal in the summer of 2021 was new and exotic, and some of my deals were written up in blogs, newspapers, and elsewhere. It was also worth it for me to improve my sourcing…I talked to three times as many athletes as I actually paid out, and those conversations helped provide important background on a number of other topics. This is how I began to understand what sort of NIL programming athletes were getting, what their coaches were sharing, etc.

But did I make any money from this? No, not even close. The entire campaign cost well over $2,000 and probably generated about $240 in new subscription revenue. I don’t fault the athletes for that, really. I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did they. It was a good learning experience.

So in 2022, we tried a different approach

Rather than trying to buy access to micro-influencer social media accounts, in 2022, we tried to pay athletes to share their stories. After all, it’s pretty easy to get the perspective of administrators, coaches, NIL collective operators, agents, etc about NIL or college sports reform…but what the players actually think is less publicized.

So I set up postings on a variety of NIL exchanges, offering to pay $350 + commissions for anybody that wanted to share their perspective about a college sports reform issue. I spoke to dozens of athletes out of hundreds of applications. Trying to comb through the deluge of applications was a real challenge, since many marketplaces didn’t exactly make it easy for us to figure out who might have something interesting to say, but we put in the time.

In the end, we found that athletes typically weren’t super excited about writing another paper, although we did publish a few newsletters, about things like mental health support, or what an athlete schedule actually looks like. We then learned that most athletes were not going to be interested in essentially writing another paper for $350, so we then switched to paying for a few podcast interviews. We did three of these interviews, including one with Michigan offensive lineman Olu Oluwatimi, who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.

I feel good about the quality of many of these conversations, even though it took a very long time to vet interested athletes, coordinate schedules, find topics, and produce the podcast or newsletter. I’m glad we did them.

But those partnerships drove virtually no subscriptions, and they were opened and engaged with at a lower rate than newsletters that I produced.

I’d much rather give my marketing money to college athletes instead of Elon Musk, but I also need these deals actually make money, or at least point to an activity that could make money in the future.

From my perspective, as a #brand, there are still some significant NIL questions that don’t have easy answers. For example,

How do I find the right athlete?

If I was only trying to reach customers in one market, this might be an easier process…I could just reach out to the collectives, or the school-sponsored NIL marketplace, and find a directory of all the athletes in that school that are interested in opportunities.

But for a national brand, figuring out who you should work with is hard. Throwing up a posting on an Opendorse, MOGL, or MarketPryce, will give you plenty of applications, and those applications will give you information about stuff like social reach, sport, gender, etc. But they usually won’t tell you information like major, really in-depth audience data, or why that athlete may or may not be a good fit for the brand.

For somebody like me, I don’t really care where somebody plays, or what sport, or even how good they are. I am not interested in funneling my little marketing budget to help American University or Oregon State or Rice or whoever gain a competitive advantage. I care if the athlete is the sort of person who would actually read Extra Points, if they have an interest in this industry, and if they can communicate that to other people.

The best way I’ve learned to do that is by calling somebody on the phone. But I probably can’t talk to 40 athletes, and I really don’t want to talk to 40 agents.

How do I find the right audience overlap?

This is a similar question. My social media network of choice is Twitter. That’s where journalists and bloggers have been hanging out for the last decade, and it’s been an important platform for sports news and recations. I’m too ugly for Instagram, too old for TikTok, and too mentally stable for Facebook. My biggest readers, if they’re on any network, are mostly on Twitter as well.

You know who isn’t on Twitter? Most college students! Very few college athletes, even relatively high-profile ones, are heavy Twitter users. Their networks of choice are typically TikTok and Instagram. That may not be a bad thing, but since my product isn’t heavy on those platforms, I need to be more careful about finding the right audience fit…which takes time.

In my professional opinion, this is a problem not just for a niche college sports industry newsletter, but for many products and industries that might benefit from working with college athletes. The “language” that the brand manager (or hell, agent) speaks may not be the same language that the athletes speak.

What does a successful campaign look like at my price point and product type?

In 2023, it’s going to be very hard for anybody to do an NIL deal and get much in the way of earned media. NIL deals aren’t a novelty anymore, and if anything, some fans are sick of hearing about them. A deal announcement that might have lead a local news cycle for a day or two in 2021 is going to be broadly ignored in 2023.

So the deals really need to stand on their own two feet, and that’s harder. Straight affiliate deals are usually great for brands, (it cuts down on our risk) and have become very common in the newsletter industry, generally, but they’re usually not very exciting for athletes. If I put up postings offering even very healthy commissions for paid subs, I doubt I’d get many quality campaigns.

But crafting a social media campaign at a price point acceptable to an athlete (and potentially their representation) that mitigates my risks, and offers a potential ROI that’s stronger than me throwing that money into an ad on Front Office Sports or Reddit or podcasts? I’m sure it’s possible, especially for the right athlete, but I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. Maybe it’s something we have to tie to D1.classroom, instead of typical user subscriptions. I don’t know yet.

It’s also possible (probable) that the ideal campaign isn’t centered around social media at all, but additional content, longer-term partnerships, mentoring, or something completely different. 

So here’s what I think I’m going to do

A ton of people working in the agent and NIL community read this newsletter. If you think you have a good idea, shoot, I’m all ears. Drop me a line at [email protected].

I’m always happy to pay for freelance stories, athlete or not. All I ask is that freelance pitches either add original reporting or a perspective that I could not possibly reproduce myself. I’m sure your “conference realignment proposal around four SuperConferences” is great, but I’m not paying $300 bucks to publish it (unless you’re like, Tony Petitti or something…then we can talk). Those pitch suggestions can be sent to [email protected].

I actually run a few affiliate growth deals with other newsletter publishers, via Beehiiv, but if an athlete was interested in being an ambassador for Extra Points, I’d offer a much, much higher commission than I do for newsletter publishers (think 30%)…but I don’t think I can promise cash upfront without at least a sale or two. You can reach out to me at [email protected], and we’ll do a call.

If you are an AD, associate AD, collective operator, etc, and you know an athlete who you think would just want to talk about sports business stuff, send ‘em my way, I’ll talk to anybody and everybody.

But I don’t think I’m going to run any traditional NIL campaigns in 2023 unless we find the perfect athlete, the perfect opportunity, or we try something completely out of the box.

Now, I know I’m not the typical brand. I’m looking for national campaigns, I’m not exactly a DTC product, and I have to be pickier about fit. But if somebody like me is still having trouble figuring out how to make this work at a profitable level…I know I’m not the only brand.

And for this industry to move beyond being so clustered around donor-led collective efforts, that’s going to need to be addressed.

Otherwise, in an area where brands have to be very cost-conscious about marketing spending, more and more of them are going to spend it on platforms outside of college athletes.

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