Through the first month of the season, several of star college football players who inked high-profile name, image and likeness deals have under-delivered—at least on the field (see: Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler, Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei, Miami QB D’Eriq King and UNC QB Sam Howell). That has led some to think companies may take a more cautious approach to NIL moving forward. “The big brands are looking at Dr Pepper’s deal with Uiagalelei and saying, ‘I’m not sure [current college players] are worth the risk,'” Larry Mann (EVP, rEvolution) said.
But not everyone sees the name, image and likeness market taking a hit because of a few early season losses. Darren Heitner (founder, HeitnerLegal) called that narrative “absolutely wrong” and says overall spend will continue to rise. “NIL is in its infancy,” Heitner said. “Many of the large brands haven’t even dipped their toes into the water yet. They are about to.” Besides, some of the players named have generated a positive ROI on brand spend to date (based on awareness and engagement), he explained.
JWS’ Take: Dr Pepper, an official partner of the CFP, must be disappointed that Clemson is likely already out of the national championship picture. “When the face of your creative and your consumer messaging is a guy who really isn’t relevant [to the playoffs], it takes away from the national campaign’s impact,” Mann said. It will be worth watching if Dr Pepper adds a player from a playoff team at a later date. The brand did not respond to our request for comment.
Outside of Dr Pepper, nearly all of the large national brands associated with the CFP remain on the NIL sidelines. And Mann says after watching the Dr Pepper story unfurl, they are going to be “even more hesitant” to join the fold. “I would not advise a client to do an NIL alliance with any athlete at a national campaign level in football until there was more clarity on [who the standout players are] and who the playoff teams are likely to be,” he said.
Mann actually believes that most national brands would be better off forgoing deals with current players entirely—at least those that include a creative component—in favor of tie-ups with famous alumni (think: Nissan’s Heisman house commercial). Former players typically hold greater name recognition, come without the risk of poor on-field performance and will often bring a larger social following. “Earned impressions are the benchmark for everything, and many of these [college] athletes just don’t have the following yet,” he explained.
Of course, prominent alumni come with a prominent price tag, too. “You get what you pay for,” Mann said.
Heitner doesn’t deny Clemson’s track record of making the CFP was likely among the reasons why Dr Pepper chose Uiagalelei for the spot. But he says it’s misleading to suggest a pair of losses make the endorsement deal regrettable. The brand has “been able to benefit from the early association,” he said. “They’ve been able to use him in ads [throughout the first month]. And he’s still one of the more recognizable names in college football this year.”
Furthermore, any brand signing an active athlete knows subpar performance and injury are inherent risks. “Not every athlete [is going to] perform up to the level that the brand hoped when the engagement was created,” Heitner said. “But the brands will still oftentimes receive that ROI irrespective of whether the athlete is even on the field. A lot of it depends on [their] personality, engagement and followers. Notoriety and recognition helps too.”
While that may be the case with pro athletes, Mann argues it is unlikely to occur on the college level. “The difference with NIL is few of the athletes have the name recognition and marketability” needed to offset poor performance and still deliver value. “If the Clemson quarterback had a million Instagram followers, then it wouldn’t matter as much that they are out of the [postseason] equation,” he said.
On-field performance may matter to a national CFP partner investing in a multi-million-dollar campaign. But the same doesn’t hold true for regional and local brands, which tap into tribal passion for the home team, or for companies more interested in social reach than athletic achievement.