By Kyle Mechelin
On October 14, 2021, Hashtag Sports hosted a webinar titled Navigating the Next Chapter of NIL: What’s Working and What’s Ahead. This webinar featured a panel of experts and professionals in college athletics who are working daily in the name, image, and likeness (NIL) space. Tracey Allsbrook, program coordinator for Hashtag Sports, introduced the panel which consisted of Marc Jordan, Sydney Sims, and Nate Wood. Marc Jordan is the Manager of NIL Strategy at INFLCR (read as “Influencer”), a company that has taken a strong share of NIL innovation and implementation. INFLCR is a software that allows athletes, coaches, and athletic departments to quickly share and store content that can be used for social media and NIL deals. Sydney Sims is the Director of Communication and Branding for Michigan Football, a position that was created in response to changes in NCAA NIL policy. Nate Wood is the Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance at University of North Carolina, Wood mentioned that his job title will soon be updated to include NIL specific language as well. Since name, image and likeness policies are so new and in a state of flux, many athletic departments are still evaluating staffing and job responsibilities in the space. Since the policy change on July 1st, 2021, these professionals have been grappling with uncertainty and change regarding NIL policy within the frames of the NCAA, their university, and state laws. Several key themes emerged throughout the discussion including preparation, athlete empowerment, and support from the athletic department.
Preparation for NIL Changes
In the months leading up to July, athletic departments across the country educated themselves on the new guidelines established by the NCAA. A week before July 1st, when the guidelines were set to take effect, the rules were all pulled and athletic departments were left in the dark. Nate Wood explained that the athletic department at UNC spent the week prior to July 1st by planning for a number of scenarios that could have played out regarding new policies. The primary goal that both Wood and Sims mentioned during this period of preparation was to make sure that systems and support would be present to maximize the success of their student athletes. A vital step in NIL success was ensuring that the coaches within the department were on the same page and with the same mission and goal as the entire athletic department.
Athlete Empowerment Through NIL
Nate Wood said one of the most positive changes regarding NIL policy is that athletes are now free to be their own CEO. At University of Michigan, Sydney Sims works with athletes to build a brand that is true to their individual interests, goals, and personalities. Sims explained that the best brands are controlled and authentic. Sims acts as a brand coach to the athletes in the football program at Michigan, with her goal being to establish a strong foundation that will allow student athletes to reach their goals, whether it is acquiring sponsorships or professional development and career preparation through their social media pages.
Support from the Athletic Department
Support from the athletic department in the space of NIL can manifest in many different ways. At UNC, Nate Wood mentioned that tax experts were brought in to answer specific questions that athletes may have regarding the money they earn through NIL deals. At the University of Michigan, Sydney Sims has created a social hub where athletes are able to come in to take professional headshots, use a broadcasting and recording studio, and get tailored advice for their social media strategy. It is a central location that provides athletes with a handful of tools that can help them to optimize their social media platforms and create high level content.
On game days, the Michigan Football social media accounts now operate with a different goal in mind; elevating the social pages of its athletes. Sims explains that on every post on the main football account, players are all tagged and content directs fans to athlete pages. The Michigan Football accounts have also seen a higher level of engagement on their posts and greater follower accounts through this strategy.
With the increased social media presence seen across athletic departments, demand for creative services have risen. Nate Wood describes that at UNC alongside offering graphic artists, courses are offered to athletes to become proficient in graphic design on their own to streamline their process of content creation.
The last area of athletic department support that was discussed is a newly focused effort on athlete mental health. Both Sims and Wood mentioned that NIL deals and social media put extra stress on athletes who are already under tremendous pressure. A bad tweet could lead to a sponsorship being lost and strong performers on the field may see less in sponsorship deals than their teammates. Allowing athletes to have open and honest communication regarding their concerns and mental health is vital to the sustainability of NIL in college athletics. Both professionals agreed that it is an area that needs to be studied and invested in further in order to keep athletes in a good mental state.
Name, image, and likeness is still extremely new to college athletics. Change in policy and approaches will continue to occur as states pass laws regarding NIL and athletic departments establish their own standards. Nate Wood stressed the importance of flexibility in this space. He warned against athletic departments rushing to set strict guidelines and policies regarding NIL and rather focusing on maximizing the benefit of NIL policies for their student athletes.