Before a single March Madness game tipped this year, a number of college basketball players made a statement on social media: They were #NotNCAAProperty. The hashtag was part of an effort to push the NCAA to change its rules on name, image and likeness, which currently prohibit college athletes from making money off their personal brands, and to raise awareness about inequities within college sports.
In the week since #NotNCAAProperty began, the hashtag has registered more than 140 million impressions (the number of times it was delivered to someone’s feed) on social media. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had been used in more than 21,000 tweets, according to social analytics firm Brandwatch.
The March Madness movement is one of several athlete-led campaigns to come about over the last year. While it became a popular talking point in the lead up to the tournament, earning more mentions than the initial #WeAreUnited movement, started last summer by a group of Pac-12 athletes, it didn’t become as mainstream as Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields’ #WeWantToPlay.
NFL players first used #WeWantToPlay in July as they raised concerns about the league’s COVID-19 plan ahead of training camp. In August, Lawrence added it to college conversations in a push to prevent widespread cancellations of the fall football season. The Clemson quarterback’s tweet sparked its own movement. In the week following his message, the hashtag registered more than 103,000 mentions—the largest spike it saw in all of 2020.
“The difference between #WeAreUnited and #NotNCAAProperty versus #WeWantToPlay is the two former hashtags are much more exclusively owned by the players themselves,” said Kellan Terry, Brandwatch’s director of communications. “#WeWantToPlay is riddled with mentions from football fans who simply want to watch football. There isn’t nearly as much emphasis on player demands within the #WeWantToPlay conversation.”
Part of the success #NotNCAAProperty did find was due to the athletes who got involved. Players from a number of other tournament teams chimed in with stories of their own in support of the movement, as did current and former athletes from other NCAA divisions and sports. They all spoke out almost immediately, too, maximizing the attention the hashtag first grabbed. The day the #NotNCAAProperty movement started, it was mentioned almost 10,000 times online.
Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, Rutgers’ Geo Baker and Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon also started the movement, just as they were about to partake in a tournament that quite literally makes the NCAA almost a billion dollars annually, one that millions of viewers would tune into over the next three weeks.
The numbers have fallen in the days since it first grabbed national attention, as happens with many social media movements.
“This is the fallout of how rapidly we share information in 2021,” Terry said. “The actual games of March Madness themselves pull attention away from the #NotNCAAProperty’s message.”
However, Terry explained, what the hashtag did was create a platform and rallying cry. “Now the work begins to perpetuate this message and cause,” he said.
Livers, one of the leaders of the movement, has continued to do just that. The senior forward sported a shirt with the hashtag as he sat on the sideline during his Wolverines first-round win over Texas Southern—a nationally televised game. With the help of the National College Players Association, a college advocacy group, the players also landed a meeting with NCAA President Mark Emmert to talk about the decision to postpone NIL decision-making indefinitely.
As the men’s tournament awaits its Sweet 16 in Indianapolis and the women’s wraps up its early rounds in San Antonio, there’s still plenty of time for the movement to find new momentum—or methods.
Sportico will be publishing one short business highlight every weekday (and on some weekend days) during the three-week NCAA tournament.
March 20: Men’s vs. Women’s NCAA Tournament Money
March 21: Indexing the NCAA’s Corporate Sponsors
March 23: As Top Seeds Lose, Sportsbooks Win