The Florida Panthers recently announced plans to become the first major pro sports franchise to align with college athletes since the rules pertaining to the monetization of their name, image and likeness changed on July 1. JohnWallStreet has since learned the club has signed University of Miami quarterback D’Eriq King to an endorsement deal.
Opendorse co-founder Blake Lawrence called the tie-up smart. College athletes often have large followings in line with the demographics of the pro sports consumer, and aligning with those individuals can be a “very approachable, affordable channel for pro teams to deliver highly targeted messaging to fans in their market,” he said. It is reasonable to believe there will other major sports franchises following suit.
Our Take: The Panthers are the first, “but they are not going to be the last [team to take advantage of changes in NIL regulations],” Lawrence said. “In fact, [pro franchises] aligning with relevant student athletes within their market is going to be a natural component of sports marketing for teams [moving forward],” he predicted.
Like Lawrence, OpenSponsorship founder Ishveen Anand “absolutely expects to see more [deals being signed].” But as she explained, several headwinds—including “confusion around what [brands] can and cannot do [as it relates to NIL]—have people sitting on the sidelines or waiting to figure things out.” The prevailing thought is once the Panthers’ FLA Athlete program is up and running, others in the NHL and across the other sports leagues will try to replicate what the club has done. Panthers’ chief commercial officer Shawn Thornton said several teams have already reached out looking to pick his brain on the team’s NIL plans.
The sheer size of the NCAA athlete population—and by proxy, the number of individuals looking to cash in on name, image and likeness—may also be overwhelming teams. “We have had brands put up an [NIL] campaign on our site and receive 150-200 applications,” Anand said. “The scale slows down [the process of getting deals done] because there is just so much [for the brand] to grapple with.”
The New York Jets introduced what was believed to be one of pro sports’ first influencer engagement programs back in 2016. Considering sports is a copycat industry, one would have assumed similar programs would be commonplace across the big five leagues a half-decade later. But Anand said many organizations are just “waking up to the power of influencer marketing [now]” and that “a lot of [their] paid marketing investment is still in more traditional [channels].” While it has been a challenge for those clubs to capitalize on the NIL opportunity, the Panthers, which had an existing social media influencer program, were able to quickly pivot and become first movers.
The Panthers’ FLA Athlete program will look a lot like the team’s social media influencer program. “There will be a content piece with the athletes on [team-owned] digital channels, social media posts from the athletes, athlete appearances at home games, merchandise [and art] collaborations and maybe a food and beverage collaboration,” Thornton said.
The Panthers did not disclose the terms of King’s deal. But it is known the star QB received a five-figure contract and that there is an opportunity to earn more money if he can successfully drive revenue (one South Florida female college athlete will receive the same package). “Anything they help with [in terms of sales], they’ll be getting a cut of,” Thornton said. It is possible the players could earn upwards of $50,000/year from their relationship with the NHL club.
The Panthers are going to find “it could be tough to [generate] a positive sales-focused ROI” (i.e. exclusive of engagement and/or awareness received) on a five-figure influencer spend, Anand said. “A lot of the [college athlete] deals we’re seeing and doing are for a couple of hundred dollars, maybe up to one or two thousand dollars. Not much higher.”
Lawrence indicated that is the range where brands are finding value on his site, too. “The buyers are seeing great return on investment [in that price range] and the athletes are getting more opportunities because of it,” he said.
The Panthers plan to be “monitoring the ROI” on their NIL deals. But Thornton indicated the club’s primary motivation for handing out a pair of sizable endorsement contracts was “to take care of [some] college athletes that maybe otherwise would not have had this help” (from both a finance and platform perspective). They see the money spent as an investment in the local community and believe the local athletes can help “grow the Panthers brand in the market.”
While ROI may not be the Panthers’ primary concern, Thornton acknowledged pro sports teams are “in the revenue game” and that the club is hopeful their investments will “help to drive revenue across multiple verticals.”
King will be the most prominent face within the Panthers’ FLA Athlete program. But he won’t be the only South Florida college athlete the team aligns with in an attempt “to reach a market we don’t touch all the time and to grow our share of voice,” Thornton said. Some 20 other local college athletes will join the franchise in an affiliate capacity (i.e. they will be compensated on a performance basis).
Expect to see a lot more affiliate deals, because they are a win-win for both the team and athlete (and because of the sheer volume of athletes at the college level looking for income opportunities tied to NIL). The pro franchise can raise the athlete’s profile, while providing some ancillary spending money and in-kind gifts (think: game tickets, team merchandise). And the team gets a financially risk-free ambassador (since they’re only compensated when a sale is made), who can help grow the team’s presence in-market in the target demo. Of course, the trick is keeping those individuals incentivized so they continue posting without the promise of an immediate payoff (as there would be with a paid post). “If there’s not a student-athlete section in every pro sports arena in the country, the industry is missing out,” Lawrence said.
Anand likes the idea of pro sports teams aligning with college athletes. But she says CPG brands, “where the product is authentic to the athlete” (because the brand can gain awareness on campus in addition to any digital marketing assets received), and companies that are official school sponsors (because they can use logos, uniforms and marks) will see the biggest lift from NIL-related partnerships. Lawrence noted that brands endemic to college-athlete majors that are willing to look past short-term ROI now have an unprecedented opportunity to “connect with future leaders in their field.”