How Brands can use Student-Athletes as Influencers

Yesterday, four teams were selected to compete in the College Football Playoff. Student-athletes from Louisiana State, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson will have the chance to make their mark on history. It will result in a windfall for each of the universities in merchandise sales, alumni donations, sponsorship dollars and many more sources of income.

However, those performing on the field this year will not receive any direct compensation, nor be able to make money on their name and likeness. Such are the rules of the NCAA to maintain amateur status. Fortunately, for players, starting in 2023 they will be able to benefit from their name and likeness. This decision reached by the NCAA’s top governing board was partially due to pressure from state legislatures, like California, around the country passing laws allowing student-athletes to make money from their likeness. The writing was on the wall with decisions like the Ed O’Bannon ruling — for years universities sold video games and merchandise that hinted at specific players.

There are some misconceptions of what the new rules mean for university athletic departments. I recently attended an event where a university president took questions from a sports-minded crowd. A few attendees noted that it would be not sustainable for universities to pay athletes, they simply do not have enough money to bring on “employees.” This misses the point of the latest rule change; athletic departments won’t be responsible for paying student-athletes, those individuals can simply make money by associating their name in connection with the collegiate sport they play. For example, a women’s basketball player can sign a sponsorship deal with Nike, or a men’s baseball player can host a paid clinic for Little League players.

Herein lies the opportunity for marketers, the rise of influencer marketing has been beneficial to brands trying to reach niche audiences. Student-athletes now open a new group that marketers can utilize to reach certain audiences. Many times, student-athletes are beloved state, community and campus leaders with sizable social media followings. This is especially true in cities where the college sports teams are the biggest shows in town. Much will be made about large deals that premium athletes, like Zion Williamson last year, will sign. However, there are other student-athletes in track and field, softball and volleyball, who have mirco- to mid-level influencer followings that will be useful for brands to reach a campus audience or specific sport audience.

Using my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, as an example, 3M or Target could run a micro-influencer campaign using a women’s volleyball star and men’s hockey player to help with recruiting internship or entry-level applicants. These student-athlete influencers present a great opportunity to break into niche audiences like all other influencers.

Brands should watch the development of the NCAA decision closely, as it might be a tactic in a marketing plan very soon.

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