With conferences altering fall slates, truncated schedules appearing, and the possibility of completely canceled seasons still looming, it’s easy to see how far-reaching the implications of such changes might be. An adjusted fall sports calendar this year could even affect future earning potential for thousands of student-athletes, particularly as name, image and likeness legislation gets sidelined and a season of buildup is potentially lost.
In April, the NCAA’s Board of Governors supported recommendations to allow student-athletes to get paid for endorsements and promotions tied to their name, image and likeness—with certain conditions attached. The announcement came on the heels of legislation passed by a number of states, including California and Florida, explicitly giving student-athletes the right to compensation. The Sunshine State’s law takes effect July 1, 2021, which essentially gives the NCAA less than a year to codify a policy.
Conferences and institutions were given the summer to assess and respond to the recommendations. Rules are to be proposed by October and changes enacted by next January to go into effect “no later than the start of the 2021-22 academic year,” but that timeline is likely to be delayed due to COVID-19.
Fall became a key window for those figuring out how to enact and regulate NIL rules and for those hoping to benefit from the new opportunities. The season would have given athletes time to display their skills, build a personal brand or a social following before the NIL marketplace opened up. It would’ve also given potential sponsors a few months to assess value and start to plan with the proposed framework in mind.
“While the lack of a season will have a significant impact across the entire landscape of an individual athlete’s brand, a conference-only or limited schedule will have a similar effect. [Out-of]-conference games allow athletes to expand their footprint outside of their region and positions them within a more extensive national base,” said Mike Jones, founder and CEO of marketing agency J1S, which works with colleges like Georgia Tech. “A change of this magnitude will not only impact newcomers who have yet to prove themselves on the field, but also seasoned veterans.”
In the event of no fall season at all, that impact would amplify.
“The lack of traditional broadcast and a 24/7 news cycle supporting the industry will negatively impact player awareness at every level,” Jones said. “Your avid college football fan isn’t going anywhere, but the casual supporter that the marketing executive sees as crucial to justify sponsorship dollars will falter. This will ultimately result in a realignment of funds to opportunities with broader national attention.”
NIL includes more than straightforward sponsorships or endorsements, although those are likely to be hardest hit. Camps and clinics hosted by college athletes, non-sports related enterprises that are still tied to a student-athlete’s identity and other opportunities will also feel the fallout.
“It’s not good for anybody if we don’t play [fall sports],” Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of INFLCR, a startup software platform that helps teams and athletes manage their social media accounts and track content and performance, said. INFLCR currently works with 705 college teams. “But if we’re not, there’s opportunity to focus on the things that make you more than an athlete, which every athlete should be focusing on anyways so people can understand who they are as a brand beyond the game. Those are things sports fans are going to be hungrier for content-wise and the teams are going to be hungrier to amplify.”
Cavale suggests schools spend the fall educating their student-athletes on social media ahead of NIL, especially without normal exposure this year, and encouraging a focus on personal brand. While monetizing NIL opportunities is the immediate goal, the platform players can develop with support—from their programs, especially, which tend to boast bigger followings and fan bases than the individual student athletes—carries beyond the NCAA.
Cavale cites Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, a Colts’ 2020 draft pick, who was what he called “stagnant” on social media his first two years with the Badgers. In year three, he became more active on Instagram in part thanks to the partnership Wisconsin’s signed with INFLCR before the 2019 fall season. His social following grew by 41,000 users.
“If last season was canceled because of COVID, and [Taylor] decided to skip the season and go to the draft, which some people are now talking about, he would’ve gone with a following that’s 50% of what it is today,” Cavale explained. Brands that pay individuals to promote their content on social media often use follower count as part of calculations for compensation. “That would’ve hurt him. He’s done ‘NIL style deals’ already that probably wouldn’t have happened if he was coming off the season before. This year’s Jonathan Taylor might not get that growth he ended up getting before he declared for the draft.”
To attain that same growth in a non-traditional season (or an entirely canceled one, as is the case for the Ivy League and other FCS, D-II and D-III conferences), the impetus falls on the student-athletes to make themselves known without relying solely their on-field showings.
“The unique thing about working with an athlete is their credibility to an audience, which differs from brand to brand,” said Chase Garrett, a former Red Bull athlete marketing manager who founded Icon Source, an online marketplace that connects athletes to brands and endorsement opportunities. “Regardless of how you want to use [an athlete’s] influence and credibility, they’re still going to have a voice over the next 12 months. Things that help boost that, like school platforms or being televised might not happen, but brands can still research who they want to reflect whatever kind of messaging they want to get across.”
Brands can’t, however, make any decisions just yet. Specific “guardrails” around NIL will be set when the rules are voted upon, but preemptive planning could’ve begun this fall. Now, with legislation likely delayed due to the pandemic, brands will have to wait longer to learn the parameters of this new world.
They’re also waiting on potential Congressional action. Not wholly satisfied with the setup outlined by the NCAA, Congress is considering national legislation. But with COVID-19 cases continuing to spike around the country, legislative efforts were refocused.
“There’s a possibility that nothing gets done on NIL on the Hill in the near term or things get pushed back,” said Tom McMillen, president and CEO of the LEAD1 Association, which represents FBS athletic directors and programs. “No matter what, I don’t think it was going to be, ‘Bang, Jan. 1, NIL is open for business.’ It was always going to be a slow rollout, but there’s no question there’s [now] a disruption.”