Ready to Hire Athletes as Influencers? Here Are Three Things You Should Know

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By Blake Marts, Chief Revenue Officer at NOCAP Sports

As we approach the one-year anniversary of landmark changes to name, image and likeness (NIL) guidelines for college athletes, one might think that, by now, this new industry would have taken shape and advertisers would have clear strategies in place for athlete collaborations. However, while demand for college athlete talent continues to ascend, certain nuances unique to this new crop of creators continue to perplex current and prospective brand partners.

Today, the expected acceleration of athlete deals remains hindered by advertiser misconceptions, the unaligned expectations of both athletes and brands, and a general lack of relevant, useful tools from platforms and providers. It doesn’t require a media veteran’s microscope to acknowledge these challenges’ existence, but the general narrative around NIL doesn’t seem to cover them often – or in proper context.

With this in mind, here are the things brands and businesses should know as they explore partnering with college athletes.

Athletes are not like professional influencers, and that’s not a bad thing

Influencer Marketing transformed the advertising industry when it emerged as a key piece of marketers’ omnichannel toolkit over the past decade. It evolved from bloggers sharing their favorite home-cooked meals to trendy Instagrammers and TikTokers peddling discount codes at a relatively rapid pace.

But what has more recently been lost on the Influencer industry is the power of community that initially propelled it forward, and the restraint required to avoid audience fatigue. According to Rival IQ’s annual studies and reported by Spiralytics, the average number of posts per week among Instagram influencers has increased by 14% from 2020-2022. Meanwhile, engagement rates – which averaged 1.42% in 2021 – have decreased by 29% during the same period. While these statistics don’t indicate an absolute deterioration of the Influencer industry (and without suggesting a definitive correlation between these two statistics alone), they do indicate that – for a variety of reasons – people are less attentive to sponsored content from legacy influencers than they were in the past.

The entrance of college athletes was never intended to be the Influencer industry’s long-awaited shakeup or rebirth; instead it should be viewed as a supplemental extension to the industry, and a new method for reaching large swaths of like-minded fans. Influencer Marketing is primarily about finding trusted or expert voices among the general population, and enlisting them to create content that elicits a behavioral response from their followers. While a brand may hire an athlete with the same intentions, data shows the community they are mobilizing when activating an athlete is very different.

In contrast to recent influencer trends, student-athletes’ social media engagement rates averaged 11% as of July, 2021, and today have increased to over 13%, on average, according to NOCAP Sports internal data. That equates to a 21% increase in audience engagement after athletes were given the right to monetize their NIL and began posting sponsored content on their social media channels. Not many creators can say their audience became more engaged when they transitioned from only posting organic content to mixing in a few #ads, which highlights the glaring differentiation: fans and followers are not one and the same, and the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

These athletes present not only the opportunity for brands to influence behaviors, but also to create more resonant associations between their name and the athlete’s – alliances that supersede a simple recommendation or one-time discount from someone people find to be on-trend.

Athletes require a different level of guidance and support

Brands activating legacy influencers have grown accustomed to a set of routines and procedures that, thankfully, technology and providers serving the general Influencer market have made relatively turnkey: discover and recruit talent, negotiate and contract talent, brief and instruct talent, approve content, measure and evaluate performance, rinse, repeat.

This procedure has been accepted by most advertisers and creators as the common method for doing business with one another, and, after millions of collaborations, has become no less ordinary than household chores for either party.

Partnering with student-athletes, however, most often requires extra considerations and additional (or substituted) steps in order to be considered efficient and successful. Much is made about athletes’ busy schedules, and it’s not overblown – especially when in-season, these athletes are actually afforded very little down time in which they can review and respond to offers, work with their agent or talent manager if they have one, decipher contracts and instructions, or ultimately fulfill the content requirements of sponsoring brands and businesses. While one would think these truths should go unspoken, many advertisers have continued to treat athlete partnerships the same as they would partnerships with professional influencers: allowing little time for responses or issuing unrealistic deadlines, and expecting athletes to immediately grasp the negotiation, contracting and content creation processes to which legacy creators have become accustomed.

Without inserting a collection of predictable analogies (e.g. something about learning to ride a bike on the first try), it’s hopefully enough to suggest these athletes require an adjusted approach. Some advertisers may choose to do this by working with providers and platforms who understand the needs of athletes on a deeper level (shameless shoutout to NOCAP Sports), while others will need to remodel their playbook. Pun intended.

Athletes prefer partnerships, not cold and meaningless transactions

The influencer business has always been a mixture of longer-term, ambassador-type relationships between brands and creators, and one-off deals that are completed after a single task or small set of tasks has been completed. While the former is most coveted by creators, the latter is widely accepted as a necessity for sustaining income.

Legacy influencers developed their appetite over time for short-lived engagements, and athletes new to the sponsorship arena will ultimately do the same. In the meantime, though, it’s necessary that advertisers take extra steps to ensure they’re creating the appropriate ambiance within their interactions with athletes for one-off deals.

While it’s been mentioned professional influencers know the drill, the recency of NIL changes requires brands to create a more meaningful experience for athletes – one that allows them to understand the broader purpose of their efforts, get to know the sponsor’s brand identity, and create in a way that will feel authentic to them and their audience. As with any business arrangement of this nature, the more transactional a sponsoring brand makes the behind-the-scenes interactions feel, the more transactional athletes’ content will ultimately feel to their fans. 

Athletes are no more or less likely to turn down one-off deals than their professional predecessors, but their aforementioned busy schedules do limit the number of openings for these types of engagements. Maintaining focus on academics and athletics is paramount to both athletes and their universities, so consider this when constructing an offer to coveted candidates, as well.

Mastering the athlete activation procedure will be a team effort, and one requiring progressive adjustments from all parties involved. When exploring this exciting and rewarding new opportunity, be mindful of the circumstances of the creators being hired – many for the first time. As most veterans of the Influencer industry have learned, humans are much unlike inanimate ad inventory and deserve a delicate and personalized approach. If the advertising industry expects to capitalize on these creators’ unique ability to influence fans, it must be willing to adapt alongside the athletes.

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