While the NCAA is still mulling potential rules around athletes’ use of their name, image and likeness (NIL), major college athletic departments are forging ahead with NIL programs that promise to build the social media brands of their players—and put money in their pockets.
“There’s a lot of money out there that can be made, and it can help kids. We want to be able to help them find those opportunities and navigate this space the right way,” University of North Carolina Director of Basketball Operations Sean May said. “I think for a long time, even as a professional athlete, you don’t realize that you are a brand. And how early you can get that brand started can help you in the long run.”
The Tar Heels men’s and women’s basketball and football programs will announce today that they’re the first ACC teams to ink a deal to help build out their athletes’ social media efforts as part of the emerging NIL framework. The school has signed a deal with INFLCR, a data and image services firm in Birmingham, Ala., for its NIL Data Services suite—essentially a service to help athletes build out their social media accounts and increase their followers.
“There’s a minority of schools that are early adopters that are not going to wait to find out what the final regulations are for NIL to start leaning into it now,” Jim Cavale, CEO of INFLCR said. Cavale’s firm provides video and photo management services to some 100 colleges. About a dozen of those, including North Carolina, have recently signed on to use INFLCR’s Data Services, an add-on that Cavale says educates and consults with athletes over ways to improve their social media presence.
Other programs recently signing with INFLCR include West Virginia football, Marquette men’s basketball and Oklahoma State’s football and men’s and women’s basketball. One common theme with nearly all of the programs is that they can tell recruits they’ll build out their social media—and that in turn will convert into cash. “Ultimately, revenue through their social media presence is something that I think is going to be a conversation we have with every kid that we recruit here at Marquette,” basketball coach Steve Wojciechowski said in an interview on INFLCR’s website.
“While whispers have existed for years that schools have been recruiting big prospects with the promises of how much money they can put in their pocket anyway, this puts it out in the open air—the idea that a school will be able to use the promise of marketing dollars for a prospect to help sway their decision,” said Noel LaMontagne, director at Verdence Capital Advisors, a wealth advisory firm with a large athlete client base. “This will further cement the ability for the ‘rich get richer’ scenario where recruits will have even more incentive to look toward successful programs for exposure to the professional ranks and supplemental income while they are student-athletes.”
Talk of building a player’s social media presence is more than the usual silver-tongued pitch from a recruiter: There’s real money to be made. On Instagram, for example, a typical influencer fetches $100 for every 10,000 followers they have for a single sponsored post, according to Lisa Means, an Instagram influencer. On TikTok, influencers are fetching about 18 cents for every conversion—such as getting a follower to download an app—said Evan Morgenstein, CEO of The Digital Renegades, a firm that represents social media influencers. It’s not unusual for influencers to make thousands of dollars a month from such conversion payments, Morgenstein added: “There is a ton of money, an absolute ton of money in social media.”
College athletes will be appealing to marketers because upfront payments and conversion fees to popular players will be cheaper than traditional marketing programs, such as placing products at retailers and TV advertising, Morgenstein explained. “It is a fact that these kids are getting more eyeballs on their content, on a week-to-week basis, than television brings them if they’re on national network television,” he said.
Perhaps that’s why the University of Texas, which has just announced its own in-house NIL suite called Leverage, emphasizes that the athletic department has 1.6 million followers on Facebook and has “experienced extreme growth on Instagram” in recent years. Only 10.2% of Instagrammers have 10,000 or more followers, according to data from Mention, a media monitoring platform.
After years of opposing the idea, in April, NCAA’s Board of Governors supported recommendations to allow student-athletes to be paid for endorsements and promotions using their NIL. The NCAA is still trying to hammer out the rules they want to put around that.
“The name, image, likeness concept is to allow a student college athlete to have the same opportunity to monetize his or her name, image, likeness like a regular college student,” said Amy Privette Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “It’s not about turning college sports into pro sports and allowing institutions to set up licensing opportunities for their players and group licensing opportunities for their players. Because then that, in our view, does cross the line into a different kind of activity, more of an employer-employee relationship, where schools are putting together payment packages for their athletes based on name, image, likeness.”
The Knight Commission is recommending to the NCAA that rules be set up around NIL usage that: limits the use of school logos by athletes, bars colleges from arranging NIL deals for players and forbids boosters to be involved or other pay-for-play arrangements. Yet with California and Florida among the states that have already passed laws specifically allowing college players to profit from NIL, the NCAA may have dithered too long to control how NIL develops.
Cavale assures schools that his company keeps them in compliance with the best understanding of NIL right now, but emphasizes the monetary potential schools can provide to their players. For instance, Michael Pittman, Jr., a wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts who has 133,000 followers on Instagram, could have commanded more than $4,400 per post in sponsored campaigns while he attended the University of Southern California, according to a formula Cavale’s company created. Now, starting with the 2020-21 recruiting season, USC is detailing to football recruits the monetary value of their brands.
“It’s the same pitch programs have always done,” said Morgenstein, who also was a sports agent for 15 years. “It’s just now they’re not doing it in a dark corner.”