top of page

Why PR FIrms Are Set To Win In Navigating The Maturing NIL Market

Many had doubts, but college sports stars are inking major endorsement deals regionally and nationally. That requires a full-funnel approach across media.

Why PR FIrms Are Set To Win In Navigating The Maturing NIL Market

When the women’s college basketball Final Four tips off on Friday night in Cleveland — the men follow on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona — the University of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and the University of Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers won’t only be ever-present on the court. 

Both superstar guards will also be major presences during commercial breaks and in fans’ social media feeds. That’s a major change from a few years ago when NCAA student athletes were prohibited from securing endorsement deals. 

Brand endorsements are particularly prominent in the NCAA women’s tournament, which is drawing record TV audiences. During the Elite Eight on April 1, the Iowa-Louisiana State University rematch of last year’s final averaged 12.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game ever, men’s or women’s, on ESPN’s platforms. It even surpassed ratings for pro sports championships, including the 2023 NBA Finals, which drew an average of 11.6 million viewers a game. 

July 21, 2024, will mark three years since college athletes in the U.S. have had the right to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), following a landmark Supreme Court ruling siding in favor of NCAA athletes. 

Initially, the NIL market was populated by one-off social media plays. It has also become dominated by so-called “NIL collectives,” which are funded by donors of a particular college or university to facilitate NIL deals for student athletes, such as autograph sessions and event appearances. 

The NIL market was worth more than $1 billion in year two, with these collectives delivering 75% of all NIL compensation. However, they have critics who argue their close ties to schools' use of NIL deals in recruitment essentially amounts to pay-for-play. 

Yet with student athletes now fronting significant campaigns, as evident during March Madness, a through line is needed across multiple media, from digital to social to earned media and paid advertising. That makes PR firms well-positioned to lead NIL campaigns, even if they are less involved with the collectives. 

Ketchum, in partnership with Postgame, a sports marketing and branding agency, worked on a NIL program for a brand — the firm declined to name the company — across products with 100 college athletes. They ranged from top-tier names in the most popular sports nationally to micro-influencers in niche athletics.

“We were able to see how college athletes resonated with their audiences with different types of content, not just during their seasons but off-season, and garnered a lot of interesting results that we’ve started to package and move forward for next year’s plan,” says Megan Garner, VP at Ketchum Sports. 

One key finding: college athletes represent a year-long partnership opportunity for brands.  “Student athletes obviously have peak moments, like March Madness with basketball, but then they go back to school and they’re still college students, and we found they’re still creating really relevant content for their followers,” explains Garner. “We also found unique regionalities, like in some markets college swimming and volleyball are huge draws.” 

Other brands are focusing on supporting thousands of college athletes instead of individual stars, says Danny Morrissey, who co-founded Postgame in 2020 and is a former basketball player at Penn State University. 

Postgame’s clients include Adidas, which has tens of thousands of college athletes in its NIL athlete ambassador program, most recently signing on gay track star Nico Young of Northern Arizona. 

“Not everyone is a Caitlin Clark or North Carolina State University basketball player D.J. Burns, and so the real value of college athletics is in these regional or state heroes who tap into a hyper-local audience, but it needs to be at scale for brands to maximize the return,” says Morrissey. “The only way to do this right is to look at a full-funnel activation.” 

FleishmanHillard is “engaged with the NIL market through numerous dimensions,” says Mitch Germann, global MD of the firm’s retail, sports and lifestyle practice. This includes working directly with a high-profile NIL collective, leading integrated campaigns for brands leaning into the market, helping clients evaluate and identify athletes that are a match for their goals and facilitating deals between brands, athletes and their agents. 

“The NIL market provides a tremendous opportunity for brands that want to connect with Gen Z and Gen A audiences through the voices of athletes that are relevant and authentic to them,” says Germann. “Based on that opportunity, combined with a lower barrier to entry, the market continues to grow in size and scope year-over-year.” 

“We’re likely to see growth for years to come,” he says.

Console, who a few years ago wasn’t as bullish about NIL for the agency sector, says the market has become very attractive to brands. 

“College athletes are not just content creators; they’ve become brands in and of themselves beyond their sport, much like the institutions that they play for,” says Console. “It has really opened this space for their voices to be heard, and for those brands that align with them to share some of their stores and messages, too.” 

Note: This release has been paraphrased in certain sections to meet our formatting requirements.

bottom of page