No single sporting event has garnered more attention for athlete empowerment than the NCAA’s annual basketball tournaments. For the first time this year, both men’s and women’s tournaments are being played under a shared name and a new set of rules – including NIL rules.
In 2022, it was Sedona Prince capitalizing on the NCAA’s recent rule change allowing college athletes to be paid for endorsements, such as this partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The tournament and collegiate experience of student-athletes today is vastly different from just a year ago. Now let’s explore what an NIL journey could look like during the most chaotic four weeks of basketball.
Marked on calendars since before the season began, March is what 2,156 men’s and women’s programs across all three NCAA divisions play for. But the road to the tournament is the road less traveled.
For the blue-bloods and the Cinderella stories alike, the ones who are fortunate enough to make the tournament are on a national stage that elevates their athletes, coaches, school, and community to new heights.
As teams are gearing up for the opening round, brands are thinking likewise. Weeks in advance of the tournament, national, regional, and local brands alike have strategized to activate campaigns with student-athletes.
One example on this front is First National Bank of Omaha’s (FNBO) “Pay Loud and Proud” campaign. Launched at the start of the tournament, FNBO had a regional target audience which was reached through Twitter and Instagram activations by John Tonje of Colorado State and Ryan Hawkins of Creighton, respectively.
From the athlete’s perspective, all eyes are on what lies ahead. Coming fresh off conference tournaments, NIL positioning is not necessarily front of mind for every athlete. Nonetheless, the brands which approached athletes and connected with them in advance may have been able to set agreements in place prior to athletes departing for the first round. New this year, compliance offices, in addition to the annual sports wagering memos that go out, will reiterate NIL policy FAQs.
Hitting the Road
While fans are filling out their brackets, buses and planes of athletes are travelling across the country to host sites to catch their first glimpse of the NCAA-branded hardwood. With a “pack for both games” mentality, travel itineraries typically pull athletes away from campus from late-Tuesday to early-Wednesday until late-Sunday or early-Monday.
Potentially spending five days away from campus, the players will have a good amount of their calendar devoted to team activities, meals, and academic requirements – however, there is some down time. Depending on the school’s NIL policy, athletes may be able to engage in NIL activities in their free time outside of team commitments.
Assuming best-(NIL)-case scenario, athletes will most likely be encouraged to complete their NIL activities from their hotel rooms. Whether it is creating content in the hotel or scheduling curated posts, compliance departments across the country will be asking for disclosures.
It is also worth noting that athletes’ travel plans are detailed down to the very apparel they wear, so if a brand is looking for an athlete to create content in their free time considerations may been needed for incidental use of school marks on apparel.
The Big Moment
The game-winning shot. The iconic three-pointer. The posterizing dunk. The comeback story. Every year there is something.
(Queue “One Shining Moment”)
There is a point in an athlete’s career where they are more marketable than ever – oftentimes this happens after their biggest moment on the court. Whatever moment it is, there is an opportunity to maximize it.
Take for example, North Carolina Sophomore Donovan “Puff” Johnson.
On Sunday, 24-hours before the Tar Heels took to the court, the team at Gopuff, a food delivery company, decided they wanted to pitch an NIL deal to Puff Johnson. For background, the UNC faithful have been chanting “Go Puff” throughout the team’s run, and even held up photos of Gopuff’s logo in the student section.
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 went off throughout the game.
This effort alone is a testament to the impact a brand can have when activating with an athlete ahead of a big moment.
Much like the saying, “You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training”, it will be (and already has been) the athletes who are prepared to capitalize on the moment that will.
While many high-profile athletes have agents or marketing reps ready at a buzzer-beater’s notice to respond to NIL inquiries, even more athletes are unprepared. From the basics of being identifiable on social media to having a core process for capitalizing on the moment with a point person as a parent, roommate, or friend, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to NIL activations such as merchandise releases.
As the tournament progresses and this season moves into next, athletes and businesses alike will continue to develop a rhythm in working together on NIL deals.
Repeating the process above comes with a shorter turnaround and higher stakes. As athletes return to campus late at the end of the weekend, there are only a few short days on campus to recalibrate before hitting the road again. Round by round the stage gets larger and larger, and national brands will seek to connect with the headliners, like Buffalo Wild Wings pairing up with Saint Peter’s guard Doug Edert.
It doesn’t have to be mayhem if athletes and institutions have a plan. What are your policies? Are they well communicated? Do you have staff and tools to maximize the opportunities that might lie ahead? Being proactive can increase effectiveness and reduce distractions, bringing clarity to the madness.
If you are a brand looking to work with an athlete or an athlete looking to capitalize on your NIL opportunities, sign up for Opendorse and make a connection.