A new era is dawning for collegiate athletes and their programs.
Name, image, likeness — or NIL — laws take effect in six states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee) on July 1, and other states are eyeing legislation or have started moving bills through state government. As of this writing, the NCAA hadn't yet released instructions on how to tackle the changing landscape.
Lacking uniform rules, athletics administrators have turned to technology and the help of a growing field of third-party experts to approach a new era in which collegiate athletes can profit from endorsement deals.
Educate while we wait
Wyoming, a state that doesn't have legislation pending, has only one Division I school: the University of Wyoming. The school announced in May it was partnering with Virginia-based personal branding firm Firestarter to provide courses for UW student-athletes that will focus on individual branding, marketing and public relations.
"I'm not only walking the walk, I'm talking the talk," Firestarter CEO Frances Reimers says. "I'm kind of a two-for-one in that I do this every day for professional athletes and collegiate-level coaches already, so I'm in the space. These practitioners do this stuff everyday themselves, but it benefits the students to have an outside thought leader who deals with this every day."
Reimers, a University of Wyoming alumna, has been a publicist in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly two decades. Five years ago, she launched her own firm to work with collegiate and professional athletes and coaches, but it was about a year and a half ago that the NIL questions started coming.
"The schools themselves, they're really just trying to weed through: How much of a tidal wave are we looking at here? Is it going to be a tidal wave? Or is it going to be a light drizzle?" Reimers says. "They're really trying to weigh how much activity there is going to be. If you're at Ohio State, you have a pretty good idea that there's going to be a fair amount of traffic. But what if you're a smaller D-I program? How do you gauge how much interest there's going to be for your athletes either online or in person? They're really trying to answer questions and prepare themselves for the unknown."
As for the UW's approach, it's not just to balance the need for NIL education, but also to help student-athletes who simply want to put their best foot forward as they head into the job market.
"Wyoming has taken the stance of, we are going to prepare as best as we can until we know what we absolutely can do," Reimers adds. "In the meantime, they reached out to me and they made it clear that they wanted to be prepared with a suite of educational programming that would help student-athletes with their brand."
Who stands to win
One of the many unknowns in the coming months is which collegiate athletes might benefit most from the NIL change. It may not be all about star power.
A Temple University study published in February suggests athletes from non-revenue sports might have much to gain. Reimers says sports such as gymnastics, golf, tennis and lacrosse with dedicated fan bases and companies looking for fresh faces to serve as the spokespeople for products and services will likely see NIL benefits. "When we get away from football and basketball and start looking at other sports, there's pockets of money there that, unless you are a rabid fan of the sport, most Americans are not aware of," Reimers says.
The Temple study also points to women, as does Reimers. "I do think female student-athletes have the most to gain by name, image and likeness," she says. "I think these young women, if they build their brand right, if they are smart about how they use their face, how they use their name, I think some of these young women have a tremendous opportunity to tap into athleisure, cosmetic, haircare, everyday fashion, and products and services associated with the sports that they play."
Women follow women and want to see the products and services they're using, Reimers adds, and that could mean deals, especially for regionally popular programs.
"The young women on the Nebraska volleyball team, which is insanely popular in Nebraska and within the volleyball community, are immediately who come to mind," Reimers says. "The wonderful young women at UCLA on their gymnastics team. Cheerleaders. I think the earning potential for those young women is wonderful, and I hope that they capitalize on that with every penny."
There's an app for that
Two companies offering a content-creation platform to help monetize and disperse content have been scooping up deals with universities ahead of the NIL tide.
Founded in 2017, the Birmingham, Ala.-based INFLCR — pronounced "influencer" — is a platform for sports team properties to store, track and deliver content across their network of athletes, former athletes, coaches and media. The technology works by providing internal media and photography content to personalized galleries for each of a program's student-athletes, coaches and other brand ambassadors who can easily share it on social media. INFLCR says it serves more than 800 NCAA teams and is used by more than 30,000 athletes to access content from competitions, practices, travel and more. Texas A&M, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina State, Auburn and Purdue are among the schools to recently leverage the app.
Opendorse, an endorsement app launched from Lincoln, Neb., in 2012, provides technology to support athletes by connecting them with brands, helping them understand their market value, building audiences and keeping compliant. Opendorse claims more than 1,000 college clients.
This article originally appeared in the July|August 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "How colleges are helping student-athletes capitalize on the NIL opportunity ." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.