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Here’s a look how it’s going… and where it’s likely headed next.
It’s March—and ’tis the season for sports. As we come off the Super Bowl and head into March Madness and the Big Dance, sports are top of mind. Heck, even nonfans emerge to bust a bracket or two.
It has been less than a year since college athletes have been able to benefit from name image and likeness (NIL) opportunities. If you’re a big sports fan, you no doubt know what NIL is—but for many, that acronym remains pretty foreign. As a quick refresh, last July 1, the NCAA made the huge, much-debated move to grant NCAA college athletes the opportunity to monetize their name, image and likeness. Translation: Just as pro athletes have long been able to financially benefit from use of their NIL—think Peyton Manning and Nationwide, among a million other examples—now, instead of universities profiting from their star athletes, the athletes themselves can be paid directly.
Said NCAA President Mark Emmert at the time: “This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities.”
Now, as we round the corner through spring and toward the one-year anniversary—and given the debate surrounding NIL—we wanted to take a look at how it’s going. While some deals have been widely publicized, like Alabama’s current Heisman winner Bryce Young—who reportedly made a cool mil in endorsement deals before ever taking a snap for the Tide—most athletes have received endorsements on a much smaller scale.
But it’s not Young-level lucrative for everyone. Think about it: With nearly half a million student athletes in the NCAA across 24 sports, there is an extremely deep pool of talent for businesses to pull from. … Yes, Bojangles picked up UNC footballer Sam Howell and NC State basketballer Cam Hayes, but large deals—especially on the local level—have been rare to date as companies slowly dip their toes into the waters of collegiate athletics.
“I definitely think there are a ton of opportunities for the community to get involved and support their athletes,” says Cameron Wells, co-CEO of OFFSZN Marketing Group, a Raleigh-based company that represents both professional and collegiate athletes, including notables like NC State football star Thayer Thomas. “Why shouldn’t businesses who already have relationships with the schools—like sponsors that contribute directly to the program—get involved directly with the athlete? If you are already noticing the benefit of seeing your sign up there, why not leverage their social media, leverage their clothing or help them connect with the fans through a meet and greet?”
Case in point—and the first to ink a local NIL deal post-policy passage—is Raleigh restaurant sports haven Amedeo’s Italian Restaurant (founded by former NC State football player Amedeo DeAngelis), which signed seven NC State student athletes right out of the gate last July.
Durham’s The Dankery also sponsored multiple athletes across various sports. “I chose to do some NIL deals to highlight athletes’ careers and boost their personal brand,” says Ian Burris, owner of The Dankery, originally a food truck that is now a Durham hot spot. “Creating relationships with the athletes has been great as well. There are some awesome athletes here in North Carolina, and it’s great to work with them and get to know them.”
One of The Dankery’s #DankAthletes is Melissa Evans, an NC State volleyball player who recently finished her last season as a college athlete. Since Evans only had less than a year of eligibility to use her NIL, she admits that she probably got less from it than athletes in the future—but it has been beneficial in growing her brand.
Now able to partner with jewelry designers and local photographers, Evans—who, with more than 11,000 followers, is considered a microinfluencer—can grow her brand in a digital world worshiped by Generation Z.
“Working with smaller brands really helps grow your following,” says Evans—“and customize what you want to do and think you should be doing… and helps get your foot in the door because that will eventually lead to you having bigger endorsements.”
“We have now seen a shift to social media marketing influencer campaigns,” adds Corey Staniscia, director of external affairs of Dreamfield, an Orlando-based company representing NIL athletes. “This tends to be due to the easiness of how these campaigns are run. As long as the athletes are contributing to the ROI of the company, companies will continue to run these marketing campaigns.”
In conversations with NC State about the NIL experience to date, the university acknowledges the policy’s fledgling status as paramount. It is, after all, not even a year in—and while we’ve seen the likes of Heisman winners’ NIL deals skyrocket, it’s only the beginning for the other 99% of NCAA athletes. Now that we’ve had some test cases and are all gaining a better understanding of how this works, the playing field will no doubt start to level—and the university fully expects more athletes to participate.
And with a nod to that imminent growth, Staniscia adds, “we have also seen an increase in how much certain athletes have continued to realize their own market price and market value, along with what companies are willing to pay.”
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