Customized logos for recruits, social media handles on jerseys and in-house branding programs: How schools are differentiating their approach to athlete branding
A majority of the Power 5 schools examined have signed a contract with one of a few third-party companies that offer NIL services. What can athletic departments do to differentiate their approach?
Welcome back to Out of Bounds, a free, weekly newsletter about college athletics. Feedback, tips and story ideas are always welcome at andrew [dot] wittry [at] gmail [dot] com or you can connect with me on Twitter.
Friday’s newsletter analyzed the differences at the Power 5, Group of Five and FCS levels in regards to what percent of the universities at each level have signed contracts with third-party companies that offer NIL-related services. For a Power 5 institution, retaining a third-party company alone may not be enough to materially differentiate its branding strategy and capabilities from those of its peers. However, based on the contracts obtained, a Division I athletic department whose football program competes at the Group of Five or FCS level is potentially in the minority among its peers if it has signed a contract with a third-party company that offers NIL-related services, suggesting the potential for a greater benefit for those universities.
If roughly 80 percent of Power 5 athletic departments have access to similar third-party NIL services, as the data outlined in Friday’s newsletter suggests, then they’ll likely need to pursue additional ways to differentiate their approach to NIL from their competitors. Universities such as the University of Alabama and Florida State University have announced in-house brand management programs, which could combine third-party services with existing resources on campus to potentially offer a unique approach to brand building that provides campus-wide vertical integration.
What you need to know
Here are the highlights from today’s newsletter:
Just because a university or athletic department has signed a contract with a third-party NIL company doesn’t guarantee that every athlete at the university has the same access to the company’s services. Some universities and athletic departments have only paid for accounts for athletes who compete in specific athletic programs, which are decisions that can potentially be dictated by factors such as fan interest and the amount of a revenue an athletic program generates.
Some universities are also planning in-house brand management programs, which could include participation from both third-party agencies and colleges that already exist on the university’s campus in order to help their athletes build their brands.
Just because a school has signed a contract with an agency doesn’t guarantee every athlete has access to those services
While a majority of the contracts obtained by Out of Bounds that were signed between a university and a third-party company that offers NIL-related services provide the agreed-upon services to every athlete at the university, that isn’t always the case. Some contracts – especially those that were for the initial, 12-month contract signed between a university and an agency – state that only athletes who compete in specific athletic programs will receive access to accounts or services from the third-party company.
Other contracts that do include athletic department-wide “rosters” might also include additional team-specific rosters for a university’s football or men’s basketball program, such that the chosen program(s) would “fall under the athletics umbrella, but this would allow the football point of contact to have their own account specifically for the team,” as Opendorse Director of Business Development Tim Pederson explained in an email to University of Louisville athletic department employees in 2019, according to a copy of the email, which was obtained by Out of Bounds. In its three-year contract with Opendorse that expires in September 2023, Louisville Athletics has two rosters – one for “Louisville Athletics” and one for “Louisville Basketball,” the latter of which refers to the men’s basketball team.
Given the ongoing gender equity review of the NCAA’s championships that’s being conducted by the firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, equity is on the top of mind for many stakeholders in college athletics. While impending state NIL laws will allow all college athletes in those states to monetize their NILs, not every athlete at every university will necessarily have access to the same third-party services as their peers at their respective schools. Factors such as fan interest, ticket revenue and the number of home competitions can potentially play a role in which athletic programs are selected for inclusion in these contracts, which could potentially provide fewer professional branding resources to Olympic-sport athletes and which also raises questions about to what extent universities can, should and will be involved in athletes monetizing their personal brands.
Wisconsin’s agreement with INFLCR provides accounts for each of the university’s “seven (7) ticketed NCAA varsity sports,” which are defined in the contract as football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s hockey, and “Olympic-sport coaches.” A Wisconsin athletic department spokesperson told Out of Bounds in an email, “Based on the packages made available at the time by INFLCR (single-sport, multi-sport or all sports) and in a desire to be most cost-effective, we initially focused on our sport programs for which a higher volume of content is typically produced and where a solution would be of the greatest help in streamlining the process of sharing that content for the staff members who are tasked with getting it into our student-athletes’ hands. We chose to take advantage of the seventh ‘sport’ in INFLCR’s package as a way to more consistently deliver content and materials to all of our coaches for their use in recruiting, as we were able to do for the coaching staffs with the other six sports included in our INFLCR package.”
At Wisconsin, where the athletic department’s focus on cost-effective spending extends to recruiting, athletes who don’t compete in football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s hockey, or women’s volleyball currently do not have INFLCR accounts, according to the Wisconsin spokesperson, who said the university plans to offer access to content sharing to all of its athletes during the 2021-22 academic year. The original contract between University of Wisconsin Athletics and INFLCR states that Wisconsin can add additional athletic programs at a cost of $2,000 per sport. Most contracts with third-party NIL companies state that additional athletic programs can be added for a cost in the range of $1,000 to $2,000 per program.
Wisconsin sponsored 24 sports during the 2020 fiscal year, with men’s and women’s cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field counting as six different sports, so even if the university’s other 18 sports were hypothetically added to the agreement individually, rather than at a discounted, department-wide rate, that’s a maximum of an additional and hypothetical $36,000 in annual expenses in order to provide INFLCR accounts for the entire athletic department, which reported more than $148 million in total operating revenue during the 2020 fiscal year. Almost every Power 5 athletic department reported at least $85 million in total operating revenue during the 2020 fiscal year and most reported more than $100 million, so the additional cost of adding a full complement of athletic programs to a Power 5 athletic department’s contract with an NIL agency might only represent between 0.01 and 0.03 percent of the department’s annual revenue.
A copy of California’s multi-year contract with INFLCR for access to the company’s advanced plan lists the university’s football, men’s and women’s basketball, and softball programs as part of an agreement that ends in June 2026. An athletic department spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In Bowling Green’s initial contract with INFLCR, five athletic programs were named: football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and men’s hockey. The university’s football and women’s volleyball programs were the only programs that were part of the initial contract term, but it was agreed in the contract that men’s and women’s basketball and men’s hockey would be added “at an agreed upon, appropriate time.” An addendum to the contract states that the three sports were added to the agreement a few months later. An athletic department spokesperson said that INFLCR allowed the university to add two more programs of its choosing, so the department selected men’s and women’s soccer.
The spokesperson provided the following response to questions about how the department determined which programs were included in the contract and the differences in the services available to athletes from different programs:
It's based on a variety of factors. At BGSU, we have ticketed and non-ticketed sports. So we chose to support our ticketed sports first in an attempt to continue to build their brands and footprint in social media to generate interest and revenue. INFLCR allowed us to add two more sports and we determined that men's and women's soccer (which are non-ticketed sports) allowed us the best opportunity to maximize INFLCR's platform. We tend to be able to generate more content for those two sports because they are playing in better fall weather (as opposed to many of our spring sports). As well, sports like golf have limited home opportunities and therefore we do not have as many opportunities for action photos and content creation. Finally, men's and women's soccer are fall sports that "kick off" the year. In terms of capitalizing on a new year, new students on campus, etc., men's and women's soccer is best positioned to help us do that and to help create habits for our campus and community in attending athletic events.
Our student-athletes have full access to INFLCR in the sports that are named, and for those not named, they do not have access to the INFLCR platform.
What services are universities capable of performing in-house?
On the first day of the early signing period last December, Indiana – my alma mater, for full transparency – released customized logos for each of its football program’s first 14 signees in its 2021 recruiting class. The logos, which feature some combination of the players’ jersey numbers, initials, nicknames and home states, were developed through Indiana University’s Cuban Center, which is a video, broadcasting and technology center named after alum Mark Cuban, who pledged $5 million to IU Athletics in 2015.
Personalized logos are just one example of a potential in-house service that well-resourced universities can produce to differentiate themselves from opposing schools with whom they’re competing on the field or on the recruiting trail.
While a customized logo isn’t going to decide to which university a high school recruit will commit, it could be one part of an athletic department’s larger strategy to help an athlete with his or her personal brand and earning potential, which is where a program like Indiana football could potentially differentiate itself. Historically speaking, Indiana has essentially been a four-win-a-year football program, on average, give or take a win or two in either direction. The Hoosiers have won between three and six games in 78 of the 122 seasons in which they’ve played college football.
The combination of a 6-1 conference record in 2020, combined with the university’s recent financial commitment to coach Tom Allen, recent coaching changes at division foes Maryland, Michigan State and Rutgers, and wins last season over Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, plus an embrace of impending NIL laws, could potentially and collectively provide Indiana with the opportunity to win six, seven or eight games consistently, compared to the three, four and five-win seasons that have so often been the norm in Bloomington. Plus, if there’s proper alignment between the university’s administration and the athletic department – and all of the students and support staff members in between – then everyone at the university has the chance to benefit.
“It’s something I think can help IU recruiting and support for NIL opportunities for our athletes,” Cuban told Out of Bounds in an email. “Success for athletes with NIL will most likely come down to being creative with content and branding for each individual and the school. The IUCC has the facilities and people to do both. IUCC grads are some of the most sought after job candidates in the country. Their skill sets are unparalleled. The combination of what the IUCC students and our athletes and Athletic Department can do together can be a game changer!”
As Cuban referenced, it’s not just the athletes at a university who can benefit from collaboration with other resources on campus, but so too can non-athlete students who take courses in a university’s business school or law school, for example. Just as Indiana has turned to the Cuban Center to assist with its athlete branding, social media and technological services, some universities are looking internally within their own campuses to construct programs geared toward NIL education and monetization. This week, the University of Alabama announced “The Advantage,” which is “a comprehensive program that will provide Crimson Tide student-athletes with the education and tools necessary to build and elevate their personal brands,” according to a news release.
In April, Florida State announced the launch of its Apex NIL program, which the university describes as “a comprehensive, multi-tiered program designed to empower student-athletes.” The program includes a partnership with INFLCR, as well as Florida State University’s Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship, its College of Business and Academic Center for Excellence. Florida State University will offer two for-credit courses on NIL education, with one course designed for freshmen and another on brand management and social analytics for juniors and seniors.
Given that Florida’s NIL law goes into effect July 1, much of the focus on how universities, athletes and lawmakers are preparing for the NIL era of college athletics has been on the Sunshine State.
UCF recently unveiled jerseys that feature its players’ social media handles. It’s a move that could easily be imitated, but UCF and its athletes could potentially benefit from a first-mover advantage, especially when the state of Florida will be among the first to allow athletes to profit off of their NIL rights this summer. “This is the new age of personal branding and we’re going to embrace it within the NCAA rules,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said at a recent media availability. “That’s who we are, and that’s who we’re going to be. You look at, what, 322,000 living alumni and the average age is 36. Seventy-two thousand [students attend UCF] and they’re all on Twitter, you know, some of these big schools, the average age of their alumni is 65 and they’re on Facebook, OK. So we got a big advantage. My mom’s on Facebook.”
Just imagine a future where an athlete puts his or her Twitch or YouTube username on the back of his or her jersey, which could allow the athlete to more directly monetize his or her NIL compared to simply promoting an Instagram or Twitter handle.
UCF – on the heels of its 13-0 and self-declared national championship season in 2017, with its recently hired head coach who came from the SEC, and an ever-growing alumni base thanks to its massive enrollment – could potentially cement its football program as the best in the Group of Five and one that could potentially compete for a College Football Playoff berth with some frequency when the playoff field expands. The same goes for a potential invitation to a Power 5 conference, depending on the timeline and temperature of the next round of conference realignment.
Whether legitimate or intentionally in bad faith, a fear has existed in some corners of college athletics that granting athletes their NIL rights will lead to competitive imbalance, which you can reasonably argue currently exists, prior to NIL bills becoming law and going into effect. However, granting athletes their NIL rights could also help lead to disruption, whether it’s Big Ten East afterthought Indiana potentially positioning itself to contend for top-three finishes in a competitive division, or UCF potentially competing with regional Power 5 programs, whether in recruiting or on the field. There’s a chance that granting athletes their NIL rights could also benefit smaller athletic departments in bigger markets, too.
On Monday, Duquesne announced the addition of Personal Brand Coach Jordon Rooney, who will begin by working with the university’s men’s basketball program. Duquesne’s conference records in 2019 (10-8) and 2020 (11-7) are two of the program’s five best conference winning percentages in the last 40 years and being an early adopter to NIL-related hiring practices could potentially allow the Pittsburgh-based, A-10 institution to parlay its recent, relative success into something greater, if Rooney’s hiring is a sign of the athletic department’s overall attitude and strategy toward NIL.
By themselves, the addition of personalized logos for recruits, jerseys featuring social media handles, brand coaches on coaching staffs and even for-credit NIL courses might be unlikely to change the fortunes of a program, but each element could be representative of a larger branding and marketing strategy that aligns all corners of a university’s campus around its athletes’ NIL rights, which could collectively improve a program’s outlook, especially when universities will soon be able to show future recruits the actual receipts from what their athletes have earned from their NILs.
In case you missed the last newsletter
(Click the image below to read)
“While several impending state laws that will go into effect July 1, 2021 will allow all college athletes in those states to monetize their NILs, contracts obtained by Out of Bounds suggest that athletes who attend a Power 5 institution – a university that’s a member of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC – are roughly twice as likely to have access to professional, third-party branding, social media and technology services pertaining to NIL compared to athletes who attend a university that’s a member of a Group of Five conference (the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt).”
Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew [dot] wittry [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter.