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How Your Brand Should Invest in Athletes and the Future of the NIL Movement

The dawn of marketing through blue checkmarked student-athletes is upon us.

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In the days of Michael Jordan, the process of marketing was quite simple. A brand with the most money controlled the athlete, owned the delivery and created the opportunity. Strolling out lavish marketing campaigns through print, television and radio, opportunity was limited — until now.

Fast forward to the era of Zion Williamson. Williamson just released his first signature shoe with the Jordan brand and after just being in the league a couple of years, his endorsements and popularity stem far beyond his short NBA career. You probably first heard of Williamson when he was demolishing kids in junior high. The rising youtube sensation had millions of followers and people talking, tweeting and buying into his greatness years before he would ever hear his name called in the NBA draft. 

Name, image and likeness (NIL) is here in a big way and the industry is on its head. The message is simple: Get on board, or get left behind. Athletes are only growing smarter and gaining more control of their future. This is a wake-up call for brands and truly is the future of marketing.

Williamson's rise to fame and stardom represented further a shift in the industry and quickly proved as a pivotal moment for the NIL movement. He spent only one year with one of the greatest organizations and coaches in NCAA history before he was ready to cash in on his social media-born fame and capitalize big on it. The harsh truth was, he actually wasn't ready to leave, but knew that as an athlete unable to profit off of his name, he needed to enter the NBA quickly and capture his profits before his time was up.

The true power of social media and the advantage it gives young athletes was exposed, and the conversation rapidly shifted in favor of student-athletes. More and more young athletes are finding huge success through that coveted little blue checkmark years before they ever get drafted.

The new problem is that we are now faced with a flood of athletes expecting to make it big regardless of their impact in the game. It’s not a matter of how many athletes will try to navigate their way into utilizing their name and social media platform, but it will be deciding and figuring out who is the right fit for your brand. The expectation is high on both sides of the court.

Simply put, you need to know who is the right fit, and who needs to be benched. Here are five things to understand about the new NIL world and how to connect, grow and generate revenue off of these new influencers and student-athletes: 

Do your research

The most important first step is finding the right athlete for your brand. According to the NCAA, only two percent of college athletes go pro. You’re now going to have to sift through a sea of young college athletes who are all hoping to make a quick buck on their more than likely short-lived career.

You could waste money going after any athlete. Make sure they have a strong following and a good reputation before you have them associating with your brand. Nothing is worse than signing someone with a fake following and zero results.

Related: How to Spot a Fake Influencer

Recognize they are more than an athlete

Behind every highlight reel, jersey and blue checkmark is a person. The brands that understand this and lead first with a connection to the person behind the profile will be the most successful. You might not know these athletes and most of them you’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the right fit — it means you have more of an opportunity to learn about who they truly are.

Try to connect with them offline. Grab a call, join a zoom and genuinely become a fan. Follow their team, understand their challenges and celebrate their victories. The more you can develop an authentic understanding of who they are and where your brand fits, the more successful and authentic the partnership will be.

Related: Why The Next Wave Of Influencers Are Athletes You've Never Heard Of

Collaboration is everything

Aiming for an authentic relationship means the athlete isn't just working for you. Bring them into the process, ask them for their ideas and understand their voice so you’re not just awkwardly placed in their feed. See how they view your brand and use it. How does it impact their life? Seek to understand what they think will work. There is nothing worse than seeing a random post from someone who you know is posting simply because they are paid.

The most beautiful thing about signing student-athletes is that they are your target audience. You aren’t hiring a large marketing firm and paying tons of money to try and speak to a younger demographic, hoping it will land and connect. You’re paying your target audience to market to your target audience. The sooner brands understand this, the more valuable players will become.

Related: Why Collaboration Is Essential to Entrepreneurship

Authentic content over big budgets

No matter if you are a household name or a young startup trying to get exposure, ideas are what will move the needle, not the size of your production team. Long gone are the days of massive productions and five-day shoots. Some of the most viral content will come from an iPhone and a well-thought-out call to action.

You don’t need a giant marketing team to pull off a well-thought-out post. This goes back to collaboration. Not every post and partnership needs a giant budget and a large team behind it. Every athlete will have a different look and approach to your brand. Let it be a natural discovery point to find what truly fits and spend more time on supporting that approach than pulling together all the lights, cameras, and makeup.

Related: You Don't Need a Big Budget to Get Started With Video Content

Leverage social media trends

Your brand might not be a trendy dance move or a funny meme, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t lean into what’s working and find a creative solution to stay relevant. 

Allow this to be an opportunity to stretch your brand and join in on the fun. If anything, this new era of marketing allows your brand to go where brands have never gone before. Don’t fight it, and lean into the opportunity and find a new voice. There is more than just the athletes' audience to discover in this new world.

Related: How to Use TikTok to Promote Your Business

Ashton Owens

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Ashton Owens is an entrepreneur, designer and brand manager. Owens works alongside companies, athletes and organizations to help create impactful stories and products that move people to action. He is currently the CEO and founder of Triple Threat Creative.