Troy Burrows posed for the camera on a leafy residential street, squinting into the sunlight with a pair of sunglasses held delicately between his fingers and a stylishly oversized button-up shirt draped over his six-foot frame.
Burrows posted the photo on Instagram. In the caption underneath, he extolled the shirt’s clean look and hemp-and-tree-fiber construction. He also included an affiliate link, plus the hashtags #ad and #NIL — signaling that it’s a sponsored post and that, as an Illinois College basketball player, he’s following the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) name, image and likeness (NIL) policy.
What Is the NIL Policy?
Speculation has been brewing since the NCAA board of directors agreed to modernize its NIL rules in October of 2019. Then, on June 30th, 2021, the board decided to adopt the temporary policy until federal lawmakers settle on a permanent solution.
Seemingly overnight, student-athletes became eligible to strike deals with brands and make money off their celebrity. Some are wasting little time to cash in.
Shortly after Burrows partnered with Allbirds for the paid shirt post, he landed a similar deal with Crafted, a London-based jewelry brand.
As a player for a Division III athletic program, he told Built In he feels fortunate to be able to take advantage of the opportunity the policy has afforded him.
“I’ve just been really excited about it,” Burrows said.
Marketers are excited too. They have a whole new class of influencers to work with.
‘It Really Changed the Landscape’
“When NIL changes went into effect, it really changed the landscape of athlete endorsements,” Sam Weber, senior director of brand marketing and communications at athlete marketing platform Opendorse, told Built In.
The rule expanded the pool from roughly 5,000 professional athletes to about 500,000 eligible student-athletes, Weber added.
Some athletes — like touted recruits and accomplished players from high-profile programs — are worth more to advertisers than others. But even so, according to Weber, the majority of deals involve local and regional brands working with college players who aren’t household names.
“They want to work with the offensive line at their local college to get them to appear at the local burrito shop,” he said. “Brands want to be associated with the schools and their locales.”
“And now, instead of buying a corporate sponsorship to get your logo on the floor of the court, you can instead directly support student-athletes to amplify your message, drive traffic,” he added.
“Instead of buying a corporate sponsorship to get your logo on the floor of the court, you can instead directly support student-athletes to amplify your message, drive traffic.”
That’s not to say the NIL policy only benefits local businesses. A couple of national brands have already made a big splash with student-athletes too.
Gopuff, the convenience-store delivery service, partnered with Opendorse to extend to every student-athlete an offer to get paid for posting the brand’s pre-approved message to their social media accounts. It made Gopuff the brand with which thousands of college athletes did their first-ever endorsement deal.
And when Degree Deodorant launched its Breaking Limits campaign, the brand partnered with a group of high-profile college athletes who shared inspiring personal stories on their social channels tying back to the campaign’s theme of overcoming adversity.
Like many influencer-type endorsements, marketers so far are asking student-athletes to create brand-approved content and testimonials to post on their social media channels, which the brands can later repurpose as assets for ads, says Jason Bergman, co-founder and CEO of MarketPryce, an online marketplace connecting athletes and brands. (It’s the platform Burrows used to land his paid partnerships.)
In Bergman’s experience, a lot of deals start off with free-product gifting and a one-off Instagram post and story to see how the student-athlete’s followers respond. From there, MarketPryce gives brands pointers on how to extend campaigns with athletes if they choose to do so.
“We’ve actually seen a lot of success there,” he told Built In.
‘The Authenticity Is Incredible’
Bergman cut his teeth as a sports agent before co-founding MarketPryce in January of this year. His pitch for why athletes make ideal influencers is the same now as it was then.
The job of influencers is to create content and promote companies. The job of athletes, however, is to win at their sports; their social media presences are of secondary importance. So when they share a paid post, the thinking goes, the endorsement has more weight behind it than that of traditional influencers.
“Like it genuinely helps [the athlete] on the field or on the court, or they really enjoy using it off the court,” Bergman said. “The authenticity is incredible.”
“Brands’ number one problem is building trust with users.”
Student-athletes whose names might not be known can still trade on the trust their school or team engenders with audiences. So ads where lesser-known players are holding a basketball or sporting their schools’ colors signal to viewers that they are associated with their beloved team.
“Brands’ number one problem is building trust with users,” Bergman said. “The more you can align with things that people are familiar with — like athletes and sports teams and leagues that you’ve heard of — the better.”
That’s not to say student-athletes are immune from inauthenticity and free to throw caution to the wind when considering their endorsement deals. Like regular influencers, they will need to be strategic about maintaining their authenticity.
“An easy red flag to avoid when gauging how authentic an influencer’s content is likely to be is whether they take on several different brand deals within a short amount of time, effectively turning their channel into a revolving door of varied sponsorships,” Emily Tabor, chief marketing officer at influencer marketing agency IMA, wrote in Forbes. “Think of it like The Bachelor; you want a committed partner who can help you become your best self — not a group date where your best qualities risk becoming overshadowed by others.”
‘There’s an Educational Component That’s Really Going to Be Necessary’
Even if athletes do have an edge authenticity-wise, there will be a learning curve for them when it comes to navigating personal brand building and sponsored content creation, said Kristina Coughlin, founder of boutique influencer marketing agency Get Hyped.
“There’s an educational component that’s really going to be necessary for some of these athletes,” she told Built In.
“Because if they do ultimately want to get those sponsorships, they have to have a growing platform with people that are following them who are genuinely engaged and are going to follow their recommendations,” Coughlin continued. And that “includes putting consistent work into it over a period of time.”
It presents a challenge for some, as athletics and academics soak up their schedules.
That’s why some athlete marketing platforms are focused on getting athletes up to speed on the basics.
Opendorse, for example, has a product that offers athletes custom assessments on how much endorsement money they can expect to make based on their social media presences. It also consults them on what they can do to improve their worth to brands and lets them access a media library for easy social sharing of pre-approved content.
Weber said there are already 50 colleges and universities around the country that use this product as an educational resource for their athletes.
As for MarketPryce, every student-athlete who joins is assigned an account manager to guide them through an onboarding process. It covers the basics on how to build a brand and gain followers, as well as navigate what can and can’t be posted based on the player’s circumstance (particular NIL requirements vary from state to state, so different players abide by different rules).
‘The More Entrepreneurial Athletes Are Going to Win’
The new era of student-athlete influencers is sure to put pressure on schools to invest in brand-building programs and top-flight content-creation teams. Athletes want to be put in the best position possible to monetize their name, image and likeness. It’s what they’ll come to expect from schools.
“Schools who don’t ... help their athletes actually build their brands will flat out miss out on recruits,” Weber said. “It will be a challenge for them to compete in this new landscape.”
And it may also put pressure on student-athletes themselves. The majority of them won’t go on to play professional sports, so they’ll need to strike while the iron is hot.
In his book Athletes Are Brands Too, brand consultant and former Adidas marketing director Jeremy Darlow encourages athletes to take advantage of their “window of influence” and do everything in their power to build up brand equity during their sports careers so that their personal brands outlast their playing days.
It’s not just the marquee football or basketball players from powerhouse conferences that have an opportunity to build a lasting, monetizable personal brand — but the ones who post consistently and authentically.
“The more entrepreneurial athletes are going to win,” Bergman said.
‘I Just Try to Keep It as Authentic as Possible’
Back on the Illinois College campus, Burrows is trying to think more carefully about his social media presence. He’s got a little more than 1,600 Instagram followers, and while he likes the paid partnerships, he doesn’t want to alienate his followers by saturating his feed with sponsored posts. And that also means doing endorsements for brands that genuinely reflect his interests — which includes fashion.
“I haven’t been posting as much,” Burrows said. “My last two posts are actually sponsored posts, but I’ll definitely get back to posting just my normal, everyday posts ... while also integrating the sponsored brand posts and being as strategic as I can with that.”
For now, he’s looking forward to the upcoming season. Success on the court will help to raise his profile and highlights from games will give him more relevant content to post and balance out his feed.
“I just try to keep it as authentic as possible,” he said.