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College Athletes Are Influencers Now. What Does That Mean for Marketers?

July 15, 2021
October 7, 2021
Kelsey Donk

It used to be that only the Nikes of the world could partner with athletes. But now nearly every business can, thanks to new NCAA rules. Here’s how to dip a toe into this new market, according to experts.

Table of Contents

Before the clock struck midnight on July 1, 2021, representatives from a Tampa-based moving company franchise, College Hunks Hauling Junk, traveled to Miami. The trip required a whiteboard session, planning with agents and precise timing. 

The goal: to sign an endorsement deal with University of Miami quarterback D’Eriq King the minute it was legal.

At 12:01 a.m. they pulled it off. King signed the deal.

A few hours later, King’s teammate Bubba Bolden signed a deal with College Hunks, too.

College Hunk CEO Omar Soliman tweeted, “Grit is what we look for in our H.U.N.K.S. and Bubba is the grittiest in college football. No brainer!” 

What made this operation possible? A modification to the NCAA’s NIL — or Name, Image and Likeness — policy. Starting on July 1, 2021, college athletes were allowed to earn money from brand partnerships for the first time. 

They could become spokespeople, star in ad campaigns, or kick off influencer careers, promoting partner brands on their social media accounts.

It was a sudden policy shift — and it took a Supreme Court ruling to make it happen. On June 21, 2021, the court ruled that the NCAA couldn’t ban student athletes from entering into business partnerships. Ten days later, the NIL update went into effect.

As soon as the rule changed, big brands jumped to partner with college athletes. Some, like College Hunks, wanted to earn press by being the first. 

Others, like Unilever, went for volume. On the first day of the NIL update, Unilever’s Degree Deodorant pledged to spend $5 million partnering with NCAA athletes in the first five years of the NIL rule change. 

Many small-to-mid sized businesses were slow to hop on the trend. Because the change came on so swiftly after the ruling, SMBs didn’t know exactly what it would look like or how to plan for it, our experts said. 

But for SMBs, partnering with college athletes is “an opportunity,” influencer marketer Stephanie Stabulis told MarketerHire.

How can SMBs make the most of it — and how much should they expect the “opportunity” to cost? We spoke to three experts to find out:

They described a changing partnership market, the scope of possibilities for small and local brands, and the five-step playbook for partnering effectively with NCAA athletes.

You can partner with a student athlete for $10. Why?

“When brands, especially on the local and regional level, think of endorsement deals, the mindset automatically goes, ‘I can’t afford that,’” Weber said.

“When brands, especially on the local and regional level, think of endorsement deals, the mindset automatically goes, ‘I can’t afford that.'"

Professional athletes make millions on sponsorships. Tennis pro Naomi Osaka recently earned a record-breaking $55 million for endorsing national brands like Levi’s, Mastercard and Google. 

But not every partnership costs millions. 

“College athletes entering this market flips that on its head,” Weber said. 

On sponsorship platform Dreamfield.co, which was co-founded by quarterbacks D’Eriq King (of College Hunks fame!) and University of Florida’s McKenzie Milton, the cost of appearances by college football players starts at $10 an hour — though it runs up to $11,000 per hour. 

There’s a price point in there most companies can afford.

Two main factors make college athletes more affordable than the pros: 

  • Student athletes outnumber the pros 100 to 1.
  • Student athletes are on a reliable churn clock. 

Student athletes compete more for sponsors. 

The sheer number of student athletes now available for brand deals drives down the cost of endorsements. Weber estimates that there are about 5,000 professional athletes in the U.S. market, and 500,000 college athletes. 

Of course, not every NCAA athlete is in direct competition with every other one. There’s a pecking order, according to data collected by Opendors, with distinct pricing tiers based on…

  • Sport: Football players earn the most money, followed by women’s volleyball players. 
  • Gender: Men in Division 1 and 3 sports earn 70% more than women, but women in Division 2 out-earn their male classmates.
  • Division: The average Division 1 student athlete makes around $500 per deal. Athletes at less competitive Division 3 schools earn around $50 per engagement.
Source: Opendorse

Brands get to make choices about what kind of fans they want to reach and how much they want to spend. But the number of student athletes at each tier drives the price down considerably. 

Student athletes have less time to build their brands.

College athletes aren’t permanent fixtures at their institutions. Most play for four seasons, then graduate — from school and fame. 

“For almost every athlete, the second they take off that jersey for the last time, they lose value to that brand’s audience,” Weber said. 

By contrast, professional athletes tend to be active for four to seven years — often on top of college careers — and they can end up playing (or at least maintaining their celebrity status) much longer. 

Take Tom Brady, who’s been active in the NFL since 2000, or Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s played soccer professionally since 2002.

Student athletes can only do that if they parlay their athletic brand and university affiliation into more standard lifestyle influencing content. (Some, like Louisiana State gymnast Olivia Dunne, are trying).

“I think there’s a lot of athletes that have a lot of potential,” Stabulis said, “but don’t have the time or the trust built up in their audiences to really do some of the things ... that other influencers can do.” 

2 impactful NCAA partnerships — and one 14-inch burrito

So far, the NCAA athlete partnerships that have earned the most press have been with big-name brands.

But college athletes are creating buzz for local businesses, too. 

“We’ve seen deals where brands have paid less than $10,000 to have upwards of 20 athletes supporting their business,” said Weber. “The storyline is supporting your local student athletes … and that really extends the lifespan of some of these programs.” 

“The storyline is supporting your local student athletes … and that really extends the lifespan of some of these programs.” 

Here’s an example of two NCAA athlete partnerships that made an impact.

A buzzy national deal: Boost Mobile and the Cavinder twins

Boost Mobile, for example, got a Times Square billboard to light up for its partnership with Fresno State basketball players (and twins) Hanna and Haley Cavinder, who have 3.6 million followers on TikTok.

@cavindertwins

ON A BILLBOARD IN TIME SQUARE 😭 WHAT IS LIFE!! Thank you @boostmobileofficial & @iconsource for making our dreams come true #fyp #foryou

♬ Empire State of Mind (Glee Cast Version) - Glee Cast

The deal got covered in Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the AP — not to mention on social media.

It got Boost a lot of earned media and top-of-funnel attention. But deals with NCAA athletes can also convert.

A deal that doubled sales WoW: Muchachos and the Nebraska offensive line

Weber’s best example of this in the wild: a local taco shop, Muchachos, that partnered with the whole offensive line of the University of Nebraska’s football team.

Muchachos invited the University of Nebraska’s offensive line to create a menu item, the “Pipeline” — a four-pound, 14-inch, chicken, pork, and brisket burrito — in exchange for a percentage of the burrito’s sales. 

At a press event about the team’s fall camp, offensive lineman Brant Banks wore a Muchachos shirt and mentioned the burrito, earning local press coverage.

According to Opendorse, Muchachos saw a 104% week-over-week jump in sales from the partnership. 

“They raved about the traffic that created,” Weber said. 

And according to Anand, there’s still room for more SMB partnerships with student athletes. “We’ve actually not done as much local[ly] as you may expect,” she said. 

Two potential reasons why:

  • Local brands are doing more in-person sponsorships with local athletes and less online influencing deals.
  • Smaller companies don’t really know how to work with influencers yet. 

As word about success stories like Muchachos spreads — and SMBs get more comfortable striking deals — the number of deals like this could grow. 

The 6-step NCAA partnership playbook for local brands

Now that college athletes are influencers and potential spokespeople, brands have to figure out how to establish strategic partnerships. 

The experts we spoke to outlined a six-step playbook to setting up successful partnerships and avoiding unforced errors (heh). 

1. Get familiar with the athletes at local schools. 

In smaller markets, or towns with one Division 3 school, it’ll be “pretty easy” to track down athletes who might be valuable for partnerships, Stabulis said. “There’s not a lot of them.” 

But in a city like Madison, WI — the best football city in the U.S. according to Bleacher Report  there will likely be tons of athletes looking for endorsement deals who could boost your brand. 

Stabulis recommends starting by finding them on social media to see who has a following — and what that following cares about. 

The OpenSponsorship team scrolls through social feeds of athletes to find out who has pets, who’s married, and who they’re posting about, Anand said. They then make searchable word clouds to teach brands about athletes’ interests.

Source: OpenSponsorship

If you want to search “who’s ever posted about a dog,” you can search that, Anand said. 

2. Run through the audience. 

In the professional sports world, agents would be the ones to help brands understand athletes’ audiences — but with a surge of 500,000 new student athletes on the market, “there simply aren’t enough agents to go around,” Weber said.

Some stars, like Olivia Dunne, the gymnast from Louisiana State, have agents; others work with platforms for NCAA athletes, like OpenDorse, OpenSponsorship or Dreamfield. 

However you find athletes, it’s important to get numbers on the gender, age and location demographics of an athlete’s audience before reaching out for a partnership.

Source: OpenSponsorship

On OpenSponsorship’s dashboard, it’s possible to see roughly how much of an athlete’s audience is in Florida, for example. (In this case, “a lot!”)  

You’d probably want to use another tool to get more granular data before offering an athlete a deal. That’s especially important if you’re targeting a local audience. “The last thing you want is somebody whose audience is not as local as you think it is,” Stabulis said.  

3. Run through the dollars. 

With help from a social media or influencer marketer, look at pricing before getting set on a certain athlete. 

On platforms like OpenSponsorship and Opendorse, it’s relatively easy to see starting prices for deals student-athletes have accepted in the past.

Source: Opendorse

Pricing could depend on three factors:

  • The size of the athlete’s online audience
  • The athlete’s local notoriety
  • The level of local NCAA fandom

While some athletes might be valued for their social media followings, others are valuable simply because of the type of sport they play or how popular that sport is locally. 

On social media, “the captain of the football team and the captain of the volleyball team may have the same size audience,” Stabulis said, “but the captain of the football team may be more expensive because they’re more well-known [locally].” 

The most expensive categories of student athletes, according to Opendorse data:

  • Men’s football players
  • Students in the Big Ten, ACC, or SEC conferences

That’s basically King and Bolden, the football players who signed with College Hunks just after midnight. 

Sure enough, King’s massive signing-bonus check suggests he’ll earn at least $10,000 from the College Hunks deal. That’s 20X the average deal for a Division 1 athlete on Opendorse. 

4. Assess the risks and make contingency plans. 

None of the experts we spoke with could think of an example of NCAA sponsorships going sour  … so far. But it’s theoretically possible, and not hard to imagine. 

Picture an athlete “who goes off on a cursing rampage and gets caught and it goes all over social media and then ruins a lot of brand partnerships,” Stabulis said. “We see it at the pro level ” — with stars like Wayne Rooney and Michael Phelps —, “and we're likely going to see it at the college level … because they're even more inexperienced.” 

Both Anand and Weber said careful vetting and lots of communication are key to maintaining brand safety. 

But Weber also said that student athletes’ age and school affiliation could actually make partnerships less risky for brands. 

“Student athletes are receiving more day-to-day support than at the professional athlete level,” he said. 

Some universities, including University of Nebraska and University of Colorado, are investing in business education for student athletes; Weber and Ananad’s platforms are making similar investments. 

“We haven’t seen it to be more risky,” Weber said. 

5. Do a lot of orientation. 

The best way to avoid the risks associated with partnerships: communicate about expectations. 

Before asking a student athlete to make a TikTok video, Stabulis recommends asking yourself: “What is it that this person has to do with their content to make it effective?” 

“What is it that this person has to do with their content to make it effective?” 

Then, set that athlete up for success. 

Set clear, granular terms before partnerships begin. 

“Athletes should know down to the fine, fine details what you expect of them,” Weber said. “Do your due diligence and everybody will...be able to sleep at night.” 

6. Make sure creative feels authentic and relatable. 

The importance of creating authentic ads transcends athletic partnerships — it’s a best practice on most social platforms. Stabulis’ two rules of thumb for creating authentic, relatable partnership content:

  • Highlight a duplicable experience. That means featuring an experience that other people want to have, and plausibly could have. You want a potential customer to be inspired by the student-athlete — not jealous of the VIP treatment they’re getting.
  • Work with athletes who make sense as customers. Partnerships work best when the influencer already enjoys the product they’re helping to sell. Before working with a student athlete, make sure they’ve tried your product — and that it makes sense for a college student demo.

Authenticity hack: Promote the athlete’s favorite meal and put it on the menu, McDonald’s (or Muchachos) style.

Then a customer can have that athlete's favorite culinary experience when they come in. Duplicable!

What’s next for college athletes and sponsorships

D’Eriq King has signed many more deals since his first one with College Hunks.

Within the first 24 hours of the NIL rule-change, King also signed with two Florida businesses: Murphy Auto Group, a new and used car dealership, and The Wharf, an event space in Miami.

He has also signed partnership deals with national trading card publisher Panini America and the Florida Panthers NHL team. King’s own store sells cleats, t-shirts, and other merch

And Dreamfield, the marketplace for student athlete partnerships that King founded with McKenzie Milton, has also auctioned off a D’Eriq King NFT playing card

King has gone from a student athlete to an influencer to a founder and entrepreneur in the blink of an eye, leaving us to wonder how many student athletes he’ll partner with — before graduating from college. 

Kelsey Donk
about the author

Kelsey Donk is a writer at MarketerHire. Before joining MarketerHire full-time, Kelsey was a freelance writer and loved working with small businesses to level up their content. When she isn't writing, Kelsey can be found gardening or walking her dogs all around Minneapolis.

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