NFL Prospects Become Social-Media Stars Long Before Draft

(Bloomberg) -- Benny Snell has grown a lot since high school.

Lightly recruited when he arrived at the University of Kentucky, Snell left three years later as the school’s all-time leader in both rushing yards (3,873) and touchdowns (48). He’s now one of the top running backs available in this week’s National Football League draft.

But there’s another metric that’s equally impressive, and might someday make him more money. Snell’s social-media following has grown 15-fold in the past few years, to over 145,000 on Instagram and Twitter. Despite rules that prevent college players from marketing themselves, Snell will enter the NFL with a large online audience, a trademark and hashtag — #SnellYeah — and his own website, SnellYeah.com.

“I knew how to work the game,” Snell, 21, said in an interview from Lexington, Kentucky, where he was visiting a horse named — you guessed it — Snell Yeah. “Any time a fan asks for a picture, I’m going to take that picture, because when they post that picture, more fans are going to see it.”

Snell is part of a growing number of college athletes capitalizing on their popularity. The NCAA prevents athletes from endorsing products or being paid by sponsors, but they’re allowed to turn themselves into online personalities. And that helps lay the groundwork for future deals.

It’s a trend that Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl, has noticed over the past few years. By building a personal brand in college, athletes “can really monetize themselves when they become professionals, rather than start from scratch in whatever NFL city they end up in,” said Nagy, a former NFL scout.

Snell’s social-media growth was aided by a partnership Kentucky signed in 2017 with INFLCR, an Alabama-based startup that provides student-athletes with custom photos and video for their social-media accounts. Pronounced “influencer,” the service aims to help college athletes become just that. It also allows schools to promote their own brand through their media-savvy athletes.

Most sports fans have seen INFLCR posts without realizing it. The company works daily with over 30 schools and thousands of athletes, including Duke University basketball phenom Zion Williamson, whose Instagram account has more than 3.2 million followers. But while Zion was a national celebrity long before his first college game, players like Snell and former University of Miami safety Jaquan Johnson have had to find their voice, and their followers.

Projected to be selected in the draft’s later rounds, Johnson has the third-biggest social following of any safety prospect. He’s built his online persona to be inspirational. “That’s just the type of guy I am, being a team captain and team leader,” said Johnson, who used INFLCR for two years at Miami. “There’s nothing that I’m making up on social media. Everyone who knows me or follows me knows that it just naturally follows my personality.”

The poster child for social-media success is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick in 2017. He has 2.5 million Instagram followers, and the most popular YouTube channel among NFL players. He endorses Pizza Hut, Adidas and Monster headphones, and is also an avid gamer. Last year, he played in a celebrity Fortnite match that shattered the Twitch record for concurrent viewers.

INFLCR was founded in 2017 by Jim Cavale, a former college baseball player who felt NCAA athletes were losing out on a golden opportunity to leverage their stardom. Schools pay between $10,000 and $50,000 per year for the service, and in return athletes receive approved content on their phones right after a game or practice. The service uses the professional cameramen that schools already employ.

“Athletic departments are often so focused on the return on investment, which to them means ticket sales or merchandise sales,” Cavale said. “Our service is a different kind of play. This is about recruiting, reaching a wider audience, and a better student-athlete experience. It’s a bit more abstract.”

Schools are coming around to the idea. Kentucky bought the Snell Yeah trademark and website, then transferred both to the running back after he left school. Guy Ramsey, who oversees the Wildcats’ website and social media, said the department’s approach has evolved over the past few years to become more collaborative. The school understands that its athletes reach an audience that the Wildcats' accounts often miss.

NFL Prospects Become Social-Media Stars Long Before Draft

“It even dips into recruiting,” Ramsey said. “It’s difficult to get a recruit to follow your brand account sometimes. But if you have an ambassador putting content out through their own personal lens, that’s then a reflection of our own brand.”

Snell’s already seeing results. At this year’s NFL combine — a showcase of college talent — he said his social-media presence came up in conversations with coaches and scouts. When he signed his first sponsorship, with Under Armour Inc., the company also mentioned it.

Snell has sold out a few signing events (promoted on social media) in Kentucky and southern Ohio, making $1,500 at each stop. He’s selling “Snell Yeah” T-shirts for $25 and wristbands for $5. He says he now has more money than his parents.

Still, he believes it hasn't made up for the sponsorship opportunities that are denied to college players. When Snell rushed for 175 yards in Kentucky’s upset of Florida last season, he was wearing a black Battle Sports mouthpiece with a gold spinner inside it. Clips went viral on social media, and the following week, he said he was taking selfies with dozens of Wildcats fans who’d purchased their own spinning mouthguards.

“I felt like I made Battle a lot of money,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything back then, but I really hope they see it, so that in the future, we can do business. That’s all I can ask.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.