- When the NCAA lifted its NIL restrictions in July, student-athletes began courting brands for deals.
- But most athletes who are stars on the field aren’t widely followed on social media.
- NIL campaigns on Twitter and Instagram have centered on niche audiences, primarily for local brands.
When restaurant owner Nick Maestas found out that student-athletes were available for hire after a recent NCAA policy change around name, image, and likeness, he jumped at the opportunity.
“People in this state thrive around Huskers athletics,” said Maestas, whose restaurant Muchachos is based in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. “The state goes as the athletic department goes, and it’s a great way for us to connect with our customer base.”
Muchachos set up a deal with offensive linemen from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to promote a custom burrito, giving the team free food and t-shirts and sharing a percentage of sales for every team-branded burrito sold. The athletes promoted the product on their social accounts where they each have a few thousand followers. One player opted to wear a Muchachos shirt to a post-practice press conference, sparking a wave of free media attention for the restaurant.
“That became a topic of the press conference that day, and so we were all over local news that following Saturday,” Maestas said.
Influencer marketing is often associated with splashy promos read by YouTube mega stars for direct-to-consumer brands like Honey, Chipotle, or Seatgeek. And early coverage of student-athlete campaigns has similarly focused on the athletes who have scored the biggest deals.
But there are over 460,000 college athletes across the US, and most of them have small audiences compared to social-media stars. In the influencer world, many of these athletes would be classified as “micro” (generally under 100,000 followers) or “nano” (generally under 10,000) influencers, which has been an area of increasing focus for the industry.
“You don’t have to have 40,000 followers or even 10,000, 5,000 followers to take advantage of these [NIL] rules,” said Christopher Aumueller, the CEO of the athlete-marketing and brand development upstart FanWord. “Those small deals, while they may be small in monetary value, they may go a very long ways for these student-athletes. A couple hundred dollars here and there can make a big impact for some of these young men and women.”
Like Muchachos, many local retailers are pairing in-person appearances with Instagram and Twitter posts to drive attention to their businesses. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud promoted his partnership with a local Chevrolet auto dealer on Instagram, for instance. He received a free vehicle for the season in exchange for appearing at events.
There are, of course, some college athletes with huge social followings. Michael Jaroh, a gymnast at Pennsylvania State University, has 2.1 million TikTok followers, for instance. And LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne has similarly built a fan base of millions on social media.
“We see these NCAA athletes as influencers,” said Joe Gagliese, cofounder and CEO of the influencer-marketing agency Viral Nation. “And some of the biggest athletes in the NCAA aren’t necessarily the best players, but they are great content creators.”
“I actually think that in the next year or so, you’re going to see NCAA athletes earning more per post on social media than a traditional influencer would,” Gagliese added. “The ones that are big are only going to get bigger.”
For instance, twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who play basketball at Fresno State college and have more than 3.3 million followers on TikTok, immediately announced endorsement deals with major brands like Boost Mobile and Six Star Nutrition after the policy change.
But the bulk of the student-athletes monetizing their name, image, and likeness have a few thousand social-media followers and are cashing in on the rule change by working with local brands like restaurants or car dealerships.
“A lot of our athletes’ average following is between 1,000 and 5,000,” said Ishveen Anand, who founded OpenSponsorship, a marketplace to connect athletes with brands. “Brands have bigger followings than these athletes.”
“NIL is not just for those 0.5% or 1% of athletes that have those large social followings,” Aumueller said. “It’s really not just about audience size, but the type of audience you have and brands that find value in reaching the audience you reach.”