Brands used to have all the power. This was true in just about every industry. That’s not to say individuals didn’t matter — there were celebrity spokespeople and other ‘stars’ that received acclaim, often in third-party media. But that all began to change, gradually, as the creator economy arose and social media was more about individuals than brands.
And even in college athletics, where we’re not all that far removed from team-wide social media “bans,” the convergence of the power of the individual was always an inevitability.
And, just like that, decades-old paradigms in college athletics were transformed — student-athletes on social media wasn’t a distraction or a risk, but the next big thing in the arms race we call recruiting.
“Texas (Longhorns Athletics) really got behind the opportunity for athletes to make the most of their time there and be representatives of the university,” said Marc Jordan, who worked in social media at the University of Texas Athletics before joining NIL platform INFLCR. “I think as soon as the recruiting part of it caught up where they recognized that recruits were following their athletes and that the more active and the more available and the more that their athletes were on social, the better it was for recruiting.”
There was a positive correlation between athletes posting on social media and schools getting exposure for their programs to the audience that matters most to coaches — recruits. Even while athletes were barred from monetizing their burgeoning social media brands, there was still value in growing their followers and accounts for a potential future payoff. The mutual benefits meant future recruits could be enticed by seeing not just cool content on athletes’ Stories, but also by the prospect of getting access to such cool content themselves when they played there. Water slides and barber shops only go so far for a generation that virtually worships top social media creators.
Then NIL monetization came and the floodgates appeared ready to open. For Jordan and his Texas colleagues at the time, they knew many student-athletes would be ready to dive in. But these were just kids; 18-21 year-olds that had spent their lives mastering their sport and their bodies, but with little to no experience managing a potentially professional social media presence.
“We would work with different teams and we would work with different departments to prepare their athletes, get them onto a better posting cadence, have them understand what’s good and what’s bad, the difference between editorial and commercial content, and reasons why you focus more on that editorial,” said Jordan, who now works with schools across the country that utilize the INFLCR platform. “[We were] making sure that they didn’t just become the NASCAR of Instagram where there are just logos everywhere and there’s no value behind it.”
It’s all easier said than done. There may be colleges with decades or centuries of experience teaching kids traditional academics and decades of time in teaching student-athletes about sports performance — but they never had to worry much about teaching a diverse set of hundreds of athletes of different backgrounds and experience what it meant to build, monetize, and manage their name, image, and likeness. That’s why many have turned to a number of technology and services platforms that have rapidly arisen to serve this need, most notably INFLCR and Opendorse, which together work with hundreds of colleges across the US to help athletes monetize and build their NILs. For Jordan at INFLCR, he’s found an important part of helping athletes is to create a learning system that will actually work for them.
“I think in the past I’ve been naive to think that we could give athletes, you know, here are 20 steps to NIL success. No one’s gonna go through 20 steps. No athlete is going to go through and do that,” said Jordan. “We’ve offered some online courses that are quick, that have allowed athletes to learn very quickly — but breaking it down to here are four steps that you can do, here are the things that you could do in the next five minutes that will help you down the road, and then letting them learn as they go; adding more as they do the initial steps, but not trying to overload them too quickly, because there’s one thing these athletes don’t have [is] time.”
Athletes (and, well, students in general) may not get too excited about their chemistry or English lit class (some do!), but when you start to talk about making money from their NIL, ears perk up. This is when the fun starts, when athletes go from potential pitchmen for their sports programs to start-up businesses in their own right — the business of being them. Just like they work with a team dietitian to break down their nutrition, a strength coach for muscle, and a position coach for their sport — it only makes sense for athletes to get down to the food-log and film-study level of developing a strategy to make their NIL the best it can be. This is the kind of analytical work athletes can get behind, because success can be life-changing. But it’s not easy. Jordan starts at the foundation, discussing who the athlete’s social media audience is and how that changes the day they commit to the school and step on campus.
“We talk to [the athletes] about [brand] and we also break down kind of their audience because we [approach it] for what [their audience] is that day,” Jordan explained. “So let’s say they want to build their brand in a certain area, we talk to them a little bit about, ‘Okay, well, think about your social media now.”
Jordan went on to explain the different segments that often comprise an athlete’s audience, from their childhood communities to fans of their high school team, fans of their college team, and everyone in between and beyond. But as athletes get more intentional about their soon-to-be professional brands and who they want to be, it can be a challenging balance to serve the various buckets of their social media audience while also evolving themselves as a person and a brand.
“As you are figuring out content and as you’re figuring out brand building, [you need to understand] that when you post things and when you want to get interaction, you have to at least satisfy one of those buckets or groups,” said Jordan. “But the more of them that you can get interested in that type of content, the better and higher engagement it’s gonna have.
“So as you’re adding in different things — like, if you’re interested in music in fashion — understand that those are gonna be harder things to build early on because you’re adding a new type of audience into your current following…We want to make sure that they are setting up their audience to care about them for when they aren’t competing anymore, and for when they do go in [and] enter the workforce or they retire and sail off into the sunset — we just wanna make sure that that audience sticks with them.”
As these NIL initiatives evolve — and boy are they evolving quickly — they will gain more tentacles. A water slide or a lazy lagoon or other quirky amenities constructed to woo recruits requires little upkeep, let alone department-wide integration, compared to NIL programs. There are parts of college football programs, for example, that exist in a virtual silo, almost completely removed from the rest of athletics. But NIL practices — they work best when everybody is on board, focusing on making the flowery promises of their press releases come to fruition.
“The only way for these programs and these things to work is for them to have substance,” said Jordan. “The recruit will be able to see right through any cute announcement or any branded program if there isn’t any substance behind it…
“We need this symbiosis between [INFLCR] and the athletics department.”
College athletics programs are no longer just fostering student-athletes. There’s an influencer-like, brand-building, NIL developing practice that’s part of the program, as well. And it’s only getting bigger. The recruiting pitch will be less about the novel amenities the program has and more about case studies on how they’ve helped student-athletes make money and build a valuable brand. For many student-athletes, their four years of college sports could be among the most lucrative of their lives, monetarily and otherwise. That time presents an opportunity — it’s the responsibility of their institutions to ensure they’re able to make the most of it.