Athlete Marketing is more efficient than… well, everything

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By Blake Marts, Chief Revenue Officer at NOCAP Sports

Not every marketer is a sports person (and – dramatic understatement – not every sports person is a marketer). But regardless of their affinities or hobbies outside of work, successful marketers have a strong attraction towards solutions that efficiently accomplish their goals. They want to see proof that not only was their ad placed in front of a lot of people, but also that those people were attentive and receptive, engaged with the content, and matched the traits of the consumers their research shows are most likely to take action.

Most successful marketers also understand the role sports play in shaping culture, whether they’re the type who bellies up to a sports bar multiple nights each week to have the same Lebron vs. Jordan debate, or the type who calls it “sports ball” among friends to show their lack of interest in the topic. Among entertainment categories, sports-related events routinely take top prize in aggregate viewership – and it’s not even close. For a small snippet of the overwhelming proof available, ninety-four of the top one hundred most-watched telecasts of 2022 were sports.

Sports would, of course, be unworthy of such attention without the athletes responsible for wins, highlight reels and outside-the-lines entertainment. Fans agree with this, and prove it through millions of follows, likes and comments on athletes’ social media accounts each day. They also show it with their wallets, as, according to a 2016 Harris Poll survey, 63% of US adults who identified as sports fans said they had purchased a product because it was endorsed by an athlete they admired. This survey was, of course, conducted in a time when only professional athletes could endorse products, be paid for appearances, own their own business, etc.

With 2021’s changes to NIL rules allowing college athletes to also capitalize on their personal celebrity, one can assume sports continue to play an even larger role in the purchase decisions of fans today. According to Learfield, more sports fans identify as fans of college sports (66%) than those who identify as fans of any professional sports league, such as the NFL (64%), MLB (58%), or the NBA (52%).

NIL’s impact on advertising is argued by some as simply an infusion of additional, niche creators into the broader influencer marketing ecosystem, or as a channel that will somewhat mirror legacy professional athlete endorsement deals. However, this argument fails to account for the differentiators that make college sports and its athletes unique.

For example, compare college athletes’ average engagement rate on social media to legacy, non-athlete influencers. This is the percentage of their followers who engage with their posts, on average, in the form of likes, shares, comments, clicks, etc. Legacy influencers, with whom US marketers spent nearly $5 billion in 2022, average an engagement rate of 1.4% (RivalIQ, 2022). Collegiate student-athletes, on the other hand, average an engagement rate of 15% (NOCAP Sports internal data, 2022) – nearly eleven times the industry standard for Influencer Marketing – and they have increased this rate even after the introduction of NIL changes. More sponsored content being published by an account would typically equate to lower levels of engagement, but these athletes’ impact on fans is getting even stronger.

Regarding the number of followers actually viewing their content, college athletes also perform well beyond industry standards. Take Instagram Stories, for example, where Stories posted by business accounts (which could be brands or influencers) with 10,000 to 100,000 followers are viewed by 5.22% of their followers, on average, according to SocialInsider. For college athletes in the same follower count range, the average reach rate (impressions / followers) for Instagram Stories is 22.3%, according to NOCAP Sports internal data. For other content types like in-feed photo or video content on Instagram or videos on TikTok, these athletes’ reach rates are even higher and also outperform legacy influencers and brand accounts by 350% or greater.

Combining these metrics shows that brands – if comparing apples-to-apples on followers (e.g. comparing a non-athlete Instagram influencer with 50,000 followers to a student-athlete influencer with 50,000 followers) – would have to hire eleven non-athlete influencers to achieve the same number of fan engagements one athlete would achieve, and four non-athlete influencers to achieve the same number of impressions one athlete would achieve, on average. 

It also shows that, if achieving fan engagement is a marketer’s priority, hiring an athlete with less than 5,000 followers should realistically achieve more engagements than a non-athlete influencer with 50,000 followers. The athlete, in this instance, will likely cost much less than the other influencer, can be coached to deliver the same level of quality, and their content is much more conducive to strategic repurposing that extends its life and value.

To add to unprecedented engagement and reach metrics, Athlete Marketing also provides an opportunity to achieve greater relevance among viewers. Even when a marketer’s campaign intends to have a national footprint, it’s important for the message received to make sense in any locale it’s promoted (for example, running a BMW ad in a town three hundred miles from the closest dealership or service location leads to a lot of wasted impressions). With 59% of college sports fans living within eighty miles of their favorite college’s campus (Learfield, 2021), enlisting dozens of college athletes around the country to simultaneously create content promises to deliver a message that means more in each of their local communities. 

Lastly, fans of college sports are 1.6 times more likely to have household incomes exceeding $100,000 in comparison to the US population, meaning the audiences athletes’ content is impacting have more disposable income. Especially for luxury items, travel and tourism, restaurants, attractions, or even CPG brands battling against retailers’ less expensive private label items, athletes present a more efficient way to reach more people willing to pay extra for quality.

Speaking in terms of efficiency alone and not even accounting for sports fans’ higher propensity to purchase items their favorite athletes endorse, it’s clear Athlete Marketing – and, particularly, collaborating with college athletes – deserves to be considered more than just an extension of legacy advertising tactics. Its level of efficiency dwarfs not only the performance of Influencer Marketing campaigns, but also it’s likely to deliver less waste, greater receptiveness and higher recall than advertising vehicles like programmatic banner ads, paid search, on-site and off-site retail media ads, and many others. 

Much is made of the ‘wild west’ nature of NIL changes, and rightfully so. Between the NCAA continuously lobbying for limitations on athletes’ rights, many university-specific “collectives” being disorganized and/or dishonorable, and a (relatively) small percentage of talent agents lacking general marketing knowledge, the water surrounding NIL may seem perpetually and unfortunately muddied. These and other factors have a tendency to impurify NIL’s original intentions, and ultimately cause some brands to shy away from it altogether. 

But despite certain compartments of NIL being underdeveloped and lacking necessary standards, the elements these talented, eager athletes can actually control are going exceptionally well. Ignoring their success as brand collaborators – or allowing it to be overshadowed because a select few “sports people” mishandled its rollout – could limit brands’ opportunities to influence fans. As long as “sports ball” continues to present an attractive promotional channel, so, too, will its athletes.

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