For Student-Athlete Partnerships, Brands Must Balance the Risks With the ROI

The signing of NIL has opened up a world of lessons to be learned for advertisers

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There’s a reason why athletes are the MVPs of both the sports world and advertising. We tune in weekly to watch them perform incredible feats, inconceivable to us mere mortals, then listen in on their post-game press conferences to hear their thoughts while scrolling their social platforms to peek into their lives.

These superhumans already come with their own engaged audience, championships won and records broken that bring in an onslaught of press coverage. They are not just sports heroes but brands in and of themselves.

Which is why in 2021, the most talked about signing in sports wasn’t actually an athlete at all, but a new law that allows student-athletes—for the first time in history—to profit off of their own name, image and likeness (NIL). According to Front Office Sports, brands are on pace to spend $579 million in this first year alone.

But what about the brands signing these athletes? Is this shiny new resource the golden egg it’s portrayed to be, or is it a gamble? What is the actual value these student-athletes bring to the table, and how can they help build brand equity?

The risks

Firstly, it needs to be mentioned that diving into this unprecedented territory is not without its risks. Yet brands took advantage of this previously untapped resource overnight, dishing out millions in contracts. Young athletes-turned-entrepreneurs quickly found themselves posting sponsored social posts, repping their favorite gear, selling merch and autographs, hosting training camps and appearing on national television.

While these fresh recruits might seem ripe for the picking, they don’t yet have the track record of professional athletes who are inherently less risky when allocating a marketing budget. Unlike the professionals who have already proven themselves, some of these student-athletes haven’t even played a minute of college athletics and are still being paid hundreds (in some cases thousands) with the expectation that they’ll perform.

Brands need to consider what happens when poor performance, serious injury or bad behavior comes into play. Case in point—Spencer Rattler.

The former Oklahoma Sooner QB and Heisman Trophy front runner in the beginning of the 2021 football season made waves for signing NIL deals with car dealerships—but was ultimately benched halfway through the season. While on-the-field performance doesn’t always dictate campaign success, having clear goals and objectives for the campaign can help reduce risk.

Why work with just one athlete? Adidas created an NIL network that encompasses all of their 109 NCAA D1 partner schools. Almost 50,000 student-athletes will be eligible to participate over the next year starting with their Power Five and HBCU partners. Multi-athlete and team-wide deals definitely help diversify and mitigate risk. They can deliver as much value, if not more, from a PR perspective.


Despite the concerns, these deals can be valuable from an ROI perspective as long as brands take the necessary steps to ensure a successful partnership. For athletes, especially women, it leads to more consistent coverage and attention to their sport.

UConn’s Paige Bueckers’ social media earning potential comes in at $62,900 per post. Female basketball players have earned 19% of all NIL deals so far, only second to football.

To start, brands can develop a narrative around an athlete’s backstory and personality off the field, like PetSmart’s deal with Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox and his inseparable husky, Blue. Or Kool Aid’s sponsorship of Alabama defensive back Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry who has gone by that nickname for years.

By picking partnerships with athletes whose interests align more with their product, brands create a more meaningful connection with their audience while mitigating the risks of poor performance and injury—especially when the athletes they choose already have an active community engaged in similar interests. These “feel good” deals are typically well received and offer an earned media boost for all parties.

Since most NIL deals are focused on social media posts, brands are seeing success with positive engagement and follower growth of Gen Z audiences on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

NIL is here to stay

Like any celebrity endorsement, brands need to create a thoughtful partnership that remains true to the brand’s narrative, rather than getting caught up in the excitement of NIL and relying on the athlete’s fame entirely to carry the ball. By doing this and being proactive in mitigating the above issues, brands and student-athletes can work together to ensure a win for all.

Marketers and brands who are willing to look for opportunities, take calculated risks and bring story to each partnership will be the ones who win.