What Do You Do?
Two months ago, I began a new position at San Diego State as their NIL Coordinator. While I haven’t done a thorough audit of institutions recently, I believe that SDSU is the 4th or 5th athletic department in the country to hire an NIL specific position – meaning someone that has no other job obligations other than developing, coordinating, and executing an NIL program. With my background in D1 coaching, fascination with NIL, love of program development, and having already lived in the beautiful city of San Diego for three years, this position was a no brainer for me.
The past two months have reinforced many of the challenges that I’ve noticed since July 1 and brought up a few new ones. However, my biggest takeaway remains the same: Transparency, sharing information, and empowering athletes (not to be confused with hand holding) is the key to a successful transition into the NIL era for all stakeholders.
To get started, let’s go over the top FAQ:
So… What Do You Do?
With the NIL role being not only brand new at SDSU but also across the country, I constantly am getting asked this question. The best part about having a new position in a new industry? You get to write the job spec! As someone who has studied this industry exclusively for the past 14 months (and non-exclusively since California passed SB206 in the fall of 2019), I couldn’t have been more excited for the challenge.
My top priority is ensuring SDSU athletes have the tools to successfully and safely navigate NIL opportunities. This includes 1-on-1 meetings, team chats, integrating NIL topics into the student-athlete development program, developing educational resources, and liaising with the university to develop a comprehensive curriculum that covers all aspects of NIL opportunities: The before, during, and after.
In particular, I’ve noticed that there seems to be one important aspect of education that has been overlooked: Given that posting content currently accounts for 82.5% of NIL activity, what are the actual steps for an athlete to secure an endorsement deal? Aside from building their brand, optimizing their social media, and knowing the various laws and policies, how do they find opportunities? Should they navigate this themselves or utilize a third party to assist them? I am definitely an advocate of utilizing a third party – whether a digital marketplace or a management agency – to get started. A third party can help an athlete understand the process, the market, and the expectations. Most will also vet contracts to ensure compliance with NCAA, state, and institutional policies and protect athletes from getting taken advantage of by brands (remember, brands are looking for the best ROI; aka they want to give the least to get the most!).
However, given that there are over 80 digital marketplaces currently catering to collegiate athletes, how in the world does an athlete decipher between them? They certainly aren’t going to make 80 profiles and then be able to check them all regularly for new opportunities. This is where being the founder of NIL Network has been incredibly useful: I’ve met with over 100 NIL companies over the past year and have a good understanding of all the different services available for athletes to utilize.
One of the most rewarding parts of my new role has been helping athletes understand what exactly they’d like to get out of their NIL (Is it a quick buck? Networking? Resume building? Or gaining life and/or entrepreneurship skills?), advising them on how to get started in finding those opportunities to fulfill their goals, providing insights about the nuances of the different service providers that they may utilize, and sending them off with confidence to navigate NIL.
Another very important piece of the NIL puzzle is educating the various stakeholders about their opportunities to now work with student-athletes. There are very different agendas and desired outcomes between donors, fans, alumni, local businesses and national brands. Donors, fans, and alumni don’t necessarily require a measurable ROI but just want to support their favorite athletes and teams. They need to be educated on a trustworthy third party who will create and facilitate compliant NIL deals.
Local businesses are most likely looking for a return: They want to reach new customers, increase sales, and/or improve brand affinity. They need to understand the rules and policies, how to structure their deals, and where they can find athletes to fulfill their campaigns. As much as we see the headlines of national brands partnering with athletes for NIL deals, the majority of brand partnership activity, in time, will be at the local level.
That being said, given the 700% growth of the social media influencer industry over the past five years, it’s possible that for the majority of local businesses, they have never partnered with influencers to promote their business before. They need guidance. And they need to understand the college athletes are fantastic candidates for them to get started: They are generally cheaper than professional athletes in the area but their audience is still specific to a localized market.
Finally, and potentially the most challenging piece for administrators across the country, is putting infrastructure in place to simplify the deal process… but doing so without crossing the line of facilitation. The craziest thing about that “line of facilitation”? Nobody knows exactly when and if it’s been crossed. What constitutes facilitation? Consulting with a third party about what you want the program to look like for your school? Recommending a particular platform to your athletes? Requiring your athletes attend a sales pitch from a company? Pushing text messages to your athletes multiple times to “opt-in” to a specific program? Every single one of these have been done across the country and I’ve heard grumbles about “crossing the line” from other NIL companies about each one.
The writing is on the wall: Having a university specific platform will increase NIL opportunities. It simplifies the process for athletes who don’t know which platform or service provider to utilize. Local businesses know where to find influencers from a particular institution that they want to partner with. And it’s a straightforward solution for donors, fans, and alumni to support their favorite athletes and teams.
At this time, there are around 30 universities that are supported by a third-party platform that is assisting their athletes in securing NIL opportunities. I expect this number to continue to rapidly grow and that every D1 school will have one (or multiple, looking at you, Florida) in three years. There are nationwide businesses devoted to the collective, university-specific model that are hoping to serve dozens of universities, in time. And then there are donor-led initiatives that have seemingly popped up overnight to support their current athletes and are vocal about having their efforts bring in top recruits in future years.
I anticipate that more and more schools will hire an NIL specific position in the coming years and that the NIL landscape may have settled a bit in that time. Until then, I think it’s so important for everyone to promote transparency, share information, and continue to empower our student-athletes.