A new marketing gold rush kicks off on July 1, when six US states will allow tens of thousands of college athletes to accept sponsorships, collaborate with brands to launch products and otherwise cash in on their on-field success.
State legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and Kentucky have passed laws allowing student-athletes to profit off their name and likeness beginning Thursday, a practice that was prohibited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs college sports.
That’s likely just the beginning: at least 12 more states have passed similar legislation that goes into effect in the next few years, or are considering changes. And earlier this month, the Supreme Court opened the door to colleges offering education-related financial incentives to student-athletes, a decision legal experts say opens the door to broader commercial opportunities. Even the NCAA, which for decades has resisted allowing students to sign commercial contracts, on Monday released guidelines for how student-athletes can earn money. The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment.
For the fashion industry, the new rules open up a massive world of brand ambassadors, influencers and sponsorship opportunities. College sports is big business in America: the average revenue for college athletic departments was $125 million in 2018, an increase of 60 percent from a decade earlier, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But the athletes themselves were governed by strict rules that, in many instances, barred them from even talking to brands, let alone getting paid to endorse products.
Now, those athletes – the vast majority squarely within the sought-after Gen Z demographic and many already experts at building personal brands on social media – are fair game. Brands are lining up to build relationships with football and basketball stars they hope will go on to international stardom when they turn pro.
If you’re a brand that wants to hit Gen Z and college kids, it gets harder to beat those that are actually in school.
But companies are also courting popular players in lower-profile sports, as well as female athletes, who in most sports have lagged men in sponsorship dollars but in college often amass bigger fan bases online. Of the 10 most followed basketball players on the teams that made the quarterfinals of the men’s and women’s NCAA tournament in March, eight were women, according to the marketing platform Opendorse.
The first fashion deal of the new order is already ready to drop: Jordan Bohannon, a men’s basketball player at the University of Iowa, is expected to release an apparel line, J3O, on July 1.
“If you’re a brand that wants to hit Gen Z and college kids, it gets harder to beat those that are actually in school,” said Ryan Detert, chief executive of Influential, an influencer marketing firm that is working with Inflcr, a software platform specialising in athletes, to connect students with brands.
Making Sense of Murky Rules
The wide-open, national market for brands and student-athletes that may come from the recent Supreme Court ruling may still be years away.
Until then, states and schools will cobble together their own rules, which means the types of deals that can be struck will vary depending on where a student plays. For example, caps around the size of brand deals may exist in some states and schools. Others may require athletes to disclose the brand deals they are planning to accept.
Marketing experts say brands are likely to start with sponsored content and product endorsements. Even there, working with college students will require a new approach. The window for working with college athletes is also short: most won’t go pro, meaning their careers max out at four years. Unlike many influencers and professional athletes, even the best-known college athletes won’t have experience working with brands, or teams of agents, managers and image consultants supporting them.
Some athletes have leveraged their school following into bona fide social media followings that compare to those of existing fashion influencers. Chloe Mitchell, a member of the volleyball team at Aquinas College in Michigan, worked with Ford Motor Co. after she went viral on TikTok for her do-it-yourself home renovations. (Aquinas is part of a separate college athletics organisation that has allowed students to sign endorsement deals since October.)
Mogl, a platform that allows athletes to accept partnership opportunities with brands that launches on July 1, has seen local labels and small brands, including the activewear line Fox & Robin, sign on.
“There’s such a major opportunity for micro-influencer plays,” said Ayden Syal, co-founder and chief executive of Mogl. “College campuses are mini-cities that drive the social fabric of those universities, representing a major opportunity for fashion brands and large national brands to tap into.”