NIL Deals: The Fundamentals of Marketing Need Not Apply

A chance to rewrite the playbook

In the new world of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals, the fundamentals of marketing need not apply—and that's a good thing. This year's Super Bowl was filled with the stale sameness we've come to expect from advertising: big budgets spent on special effects and celeb cameos, paired with an unyielding penchant for risk aversion. Jon Hamm and Brie Larson shilling for Hellmann's? Don Draper would never! Ads like this focus heavily on brand benefit and return on investment. That's totally fine, but when it comes to NIL, fresh opportunities for innovation and creativity abound.

From promoting local car washes to BMW, the vast landscape of NIL challenges everything we know about marketing. Particularly because there's no evidence that brands are benefiting from these deals the way student athletes do.

Most NIL pacts fall into two categories, the first being traditional deals that benefit players in terms of cash—or cars. In 2022, college running back Bijan Robinson (Texas Longhorns) partnered with Lamborghini Austin. Typically, marketing partnerships work if there's brand alignment and crossover value. Lamborghini Austin overlooked that principle simply because Robinson was bold enough to ask marketing director Jeremy Jaramillo for a deal at a recruiting event. According to On3, the authority on NIL partnerships, this deal has upped Robinson's NIL valuation to $1.2 million, and set his social media per post value at $4,200. The benefit to Lamborghini Austin remains unclear. While more people in Robinson's network will be aware of the luxury car retailer, most of his social following can't handle those steep monthly payments.

And then there are brands like Popeyes, which are attempting to capitalize on nostalgic meme-ability. Remember the epic side-eye this kid gave to a stranger waiting for his order at Popeyes? That's Dieunerst Collins, who's now a college freshman and defensive lineman at Lake Erie College in Ohio. In traditional marketing partnerships, brands seek out someone with a strong following and stellar credentials. Collins has neither; he's at a D2 school with little to no playing time. Again, brand benefit isn't clear, but the fact that Popeyes is willing to take a risk on an athlete outside of a Power 5 school is radical.

At our agency, we've helped brands broker partnerships with student athletes by focusing on equity and the long game. For instance, BOA Nutrition, a nutraceutical company that delivers nutrients to athletes through a patented spray technology, partnered with hoop rivals Armando Bacot from North Carolina and Jeremy Roach of Duke. In one spot, we see the players bond over BOA Ignite. The key in this deal was that BOA offered the young players equity in the company, creating a partnership for success after college.

Jon Pritchett, BOA's CEO, says, "[Armando and Jeremy] are smart, business-minded individuals and we couldn't be more pleased that they not only endorse our products, but as shareholders they also see the growth potential that lies ahead for BOA." Roach and Bacot can benefit for years from having equity in the company regardless of where their athletic careers go.

When it comes to NIL deals with college golfers, Golf Pride thinks long-term by considering equity as well, although differently than BOA. For Golf Pride, it's not about giving college athletes a piece of the company, but spotlighting them to make the entire sport more equitable.

Chief commercial and marketing officer Eric Gibson told the Wall Street Journal that NIL "allows us to utilize athletes as humans instead of spokespeople." Ultimately, he sees NIL partnerships with college golfers to highlight diversity in the game. Along these lines, Golf Pride becomes the brand that advances diversity in the sport, while shedding light on each college golfer's unique experience and talents in the sport.

These are just two examples. We want to use our newfound expertise to not only leverage the opportunities that exist, but create whole new ones, at every level. Norm Bilow, founder of The Escape Pod, is energized by the Wild West landscape of NIL. "There are no rules [with NIL deals], this is an area where people are more open to creative uncertainty and taking more risk."

Marketing was built on risk. We are working to get brands to embrace NIL deals because it gives us the opportunity to not only act differently, but to think differently too. As marketers, we all should, because this uncharted territory might be our one chance to rewrite the rules.

Profile picture for user Evie Psarras and Tyler Moore
Evie Psarras and Tyler Moore
Evie Psarras is a strategist at The Escape Pod, while Tyler Moore serves as director of integrated strategy.

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