A Brand’s Guide to NIL Success in March

Spring brings warmer weather, blooming flowers, and *checks notes*…dancing. Each year, college basketball teams across the country battle through the winter in hopes of securing a ticket to the big dance. And this year’s tournament, the 85th March Madness, is just the third in the name, image, and likeness (NIL) era. 

In this spotlight, brands have the tremendous opportunity to partner with these athletes and create one shining moment of their own. However, with a multitude of things to consider like NCAA rules, state laws, school NIL policies, athlete’s schedules, timing, taxes… the list goes on. So, where should brands begin?

Right here.

Our team has taken over a decade of campaign management experience and packaged it into a brand’s guide to NIL success for this year’s March Madness tournament.


The most important thing in an NIL activation is protecting the athlete’s eligibility and safety. Contrary to the images of the “wild west” you’ve likely heard of, there are clear rules to consider. Three main points have been constant since the era’s inception on July 1, 2021 –

  1. each deal must include quid pro quo; 
  2. the terms of the deal must avoid pay-for-play; and
  3. the terms of the deal must avoid inducement to attend a specific institution.  

From there, additional NCAA rules, state laws, school policies, and sometimes even team rules, define what is possible for a student-athlete’s NIL engagement.

Below are the three most relevant compliance concerns when activating during the tournament.

  1. Athletes can’t promote a competition they are playing in.
  • The NCAA’s October 2022 guidance deems it impermissible for college athletes to receive compensation “directly or indirectly” for promoting an athletics competition in which they participate.
    • Watch out for phrases like, “on the road to play __” or “upcoming game” and instead convey the same message with language like “when I’m on the road” or hitting the road again.
  1. Athletes can’t engage in NIL activity while “on call” for required athletically-related activities.
  • Also from the October 2022 guidance, this includes practice, pre and post-game activities, celebrations on the court, press conferences, team travel, etc. Most compliance officers are comfortable with athletes activating in their hotel during free time, but when they’re en route to a game or practice, it could be discouraged as a distraction.
    • While it’s possible to accomplish these items between games, we recommend that planning, pitching, and content creation be completed before the tournament begins if possible. Pressing send on a social post during the tournament is much easier if all the heavy lifting is done before Selection Sunday (March 17, 2024). 
  1. Athletes can’t receive compensation for athletic participation or achievement. 
  • The NCAA’s 2021 policy prohibits this. While it is obvious athletic performance enhances a student-athlete’s NIL value, athletic performance may not be the “consideration” for NIL compensation.
    • Every NIL deal requires quid pro quo to be compliant. The athlete must do something to receive the cash or in-kind compensation and that something can’t be for athletic merit. 

In addition to those policies, it’s important to remember that the following phrases are a non-exhaustive list of terms that are considered intellectual property (IP) of the NCAA and shouldn’t be utilized in NIL efforts unless the proper rights are secured.

  • March Madness
  • Sweet 16
  • Elite Eight
  • Final Four

These rules do require an additional precaution here and there, but don’t fear. The realm of opportunity associated with March Madness partnerships is both vast and exciting. Check out a few of our previous March Madness activations below:

Degree: Walk Ons

About: The 2023 Degree Walk-On campaign recognized five college basketball walk-ons with stories of resilience. Each walk-on received a $25,000 NIL deal. Four of the walk-ons (Duke’s Spencer Hubbard, UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr., Wisconsin’s Ronnie Porter, and Notre Dame’s Lauren Zwetzig) were announced when the campaign launched in early March. After a nationwide, fan-nominated search, the fifth walk-on was revealed as Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Brayden Reynolds during Final four weekend in Houston.

Pringles: March Mustache

About: Three basketball players known for their mustaches (Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Virginia’s Ben Vander Plas, and Duke’s Dariq Whitehead) were featured on limited edition Pringles cans promoting the “Show Your ‘Stache for a Stash” sweepstakes. Fans posted pictures of themselves with tournament-inspired real or fake mustaches. Twenty-five winners were selected and given the Pringles March Mustache Collection.

Cheez-It: Full Court Crunch

About: Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson and Jonas Aidoo, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, Ohio State’s Justice Sueing, and Kansas’s Dillon Wilhite took to TikTok to show off their Cheez-It-dunking skills and encourage fans to show how Cheez-It has them #FeelingTheCheeziest.

@jonasaidoo @cheezit got me #FeelingTheCheeziest ! How does cheez-it have you feeling this march? #ad ♬ Smoked out Phonk – TREVASPURA

ALLO Communications: Fiber Madness

About: ALLO partnered with in-market student-athletes to increase awareness that their high-speed fiber internet ensures fans won’t miss any of the action during the tournament. Nebraska’s Sam Hoiberg shown below:

Gopuff: Puff Johnson Activation

About: During the 2023 season, the Tar Heel faithful had been chanting “Go Puff” in support of North Carolina’s Donovan “Puff” Johnson. On Sunday, 24-hours before UNC took the court, food delivery company, GoPuff, decided to act on the opportunity. On Monday, just 2-hours before tipoff of the National Title game, Puff helped connect the dots by posting to his Instagram Story that he and Gopuff had worked out a deal. Meanwhile, Gopuff’s Twitter account (currently X) went off throughout the game.

Dunkin: Team Dunkin’

About: The March edition of Dunkin’s “Team Dunkin’” 2023 athlete roster featured nine college basketball players who posted both before and during the tournament.


Q: Can an athlete promote a previous competition they competed in?

A: Yes. The NCAA’s October 2022 guidance states an athlete cannot “receive compensation directly or indirectly for promoting an athletics competition in which they participate” – it does not prohibit an athlete from promoting a competition they’ve already played in. 

NOTE: Be cognizant of impermissible use of protected IP (e.g., “March Madness”, etc.)

Q: Can an athlete reference a game/event they are playing in if they are not actually promoting that game/event (e.g., more so just talking about their schedule)?

A: No; the NCAA’s October 2022 guidance prohibits athletes from “directly or indirectly” promoting a competition they are playing in.

Q: Can an athlete be paid to show off their athletic skills (e.g., three point shooting or dunk contests)? 

A: No. An athlete cannot receive compensation for the “demonstration of athletic ability” in a sport in which they compete in – whether in organized competition or not – as this is considered pay-for-play.

NOTE: It is permissible for athletes to host clinics and demonstrate how to do athletic drills for the purpose of teaching others. Also, while it would not be permissible for a basketball player to be paid for participation in a dunk contest, it would be permissible to compensate an athlete from a different sport to participate in that contest. E.g: A basketball player being paid to compete in a golf event.

Q: Can an athlete wear sponsored clothing or other brand products during competition?

A: No: the NCAA’s October 2022 prohibits athletes from promoting NIL activity while on call for required athletically-related activities. 

Have additional questions? Connect with us today to learn more and see how Opendorse can bring your vision to life!


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