Brands Prepare to Woo College Athletes After NCAA Loosens Rules

Companies that sell everything from fast food to protein powders are preparing to court student-athletes after the National Collegiate Athletic Association moved to transform the world of college sports and players’ ability to make money.

The NCAA voted on Wednesday to allow student-athletes to exploit their names, images and likenesses -- a move that will let players profit from autographs, social-media posts and commercials. With the landscape set to change after decades of strict rules, brands such as Six Star Pro Nutrition are looking to lock in deals with newly eligible athletes.

The company, part of Iovate Health Sciences International Inc.’s portfolio of nutritional brands, markets its products to young millennials and Gen Z consumers, who are more influenced by college athletes, according to Iovate Health’s chief marketing officer, Jarrod Jordan.

“Somebody who is a leader at a particular university is going to be way more influential than a professional athlete for our targeted population,” Jordan said by phone. States like Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas have college athletes who are “so front and center and are celebrities” in their towns, he said. That makes them especially marketable.

The potential for partnerships goes beyond just promoting brands and products and could result in big payouts for autographs. Fanatics Inc., a sports-licensing giant with partnerships across the college landscape, expects to connect with student-athletes to make merchandise and collectibles.

“We look forward to doing this the right way and build long-term value for the student-athletes and our campus partners,” said Derek Eiler, an executive vice president for Fanatics’ college division. “This is an evolutionary day in college athletics.”

While some brands may be choosy about which athletes they team up with, others want to maximize the number of potential deals. Food and alcohol delivery company Gopuff announced a plan to offer every student-athlete across the country their first endorsement deal through a partnership with marketing platform Opendorse. Gopuff will pay athletes for promoting the brand on social media, and players will have additional opportunities throughout the remainder of the year, the company said in a statement.

Runza, a regional restaurant, will reportedly offer deals to the first 100 student-athletes who opt in to promote its reward app on social media. The offer is for Nebraska athletes and the payment will be a single flat amount regardless of the sport or college, according to an Omaha World-Herald report.

Instagram Power

While the new rules won’t allow so-called “pay for play,” it will enable athletes to pocket cash for things like autographs, sports camps, and their TikTok or Instagram profiles.

That means athletes who compete in sports that lose money for their schools and don’t have marquee professional leagues can still profit from their social-media followings. An athlete like University of Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers could make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year given her more than 829,000 Instagram followers.

Some of the platforms that will connect student-athletes and brands have been ramping up ahead of the changes. Startup vendor Dreamfield’s website has a countdown clock until NIL legislation goes live in states such as Florida, Mississippi and Alabama on July 1. The Orlando, Florida-based company also touted the start date in a tweet, which was shared by players including Florida State University quarterback McKenzie Milton and University of Florida wide receiver Jordan Pouncey.

“It’s a transformative time and there is real opportunity with it,” said Michael Rueda, head of the sports and entertainment practice at Withers, an international law firm. “Other athletes in other sports will benefit significantly” and have an opportunity to “really capitalize on a moment in time that is really significant.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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