- Student athletes are rushing to score deals with brands following recent NCAA rule changes.
- But colleges are nervous that student promos will interfere with their own sponsorship contracts.
- Some are blocking students from working with brands that compete with an existing sponsor.
On July 1st, NCAA athletes across the country added a new task to their student planners: get a sponsorship deal.
After a series of new state laws and NCAA rule changes gave athletes the right to sell their name, image, and likeness (NIL), college players could finally cash in.
Some pitched themselves directly to brands on social media. Hundreds of others signed up to get exposure via Barstool Athletics, a sports-talent offshoot of the media publisher Barstool Sports. And some turned to alternative forms of monetization, like recording videos on the shout-out app Cameo.
As students raced to get noticed by brands, many colleges publicly celebrated the rule change, issuing press releases to showcase how current students and prospective recruits could profit from joining their teams. But behind the scenes, some administrators began crafting policies to limit the types of brand deals a student could accept.
Some rules reflected universities’ religious affiliations. Gonzaga, for example, restricted NIL ads that “conflict with the University’s Catholic, Jesuit, and humanistic heritage and identity.” Brigham Young University blocked athletes from posting ads for coffee brands — after all, coffee on campus violates the honor code of the school, which is associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But at other schools, rules were written to protect university sponsorship deals.
Colleges set up partnerships with brands in a variety of categories, from stadium signage to marketing campaigns and apparel deals. And large, overall deals with the likes of Nike or Under Armour can generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for a school, according to a Portland Business Journal database of college-sports contracts.
An Insider review of dozens of NIL policies at universities across the country revealed that many schools have rules in place to prevent students from cannibalizing existing contracts with sponsors.
“Student-athletes may not engage in name, image, and/or likeness activities that requires the student-athlete to use, wear, or display a competing brand to that of a University ‘Team Contract,'” the University of Wisconsin wrote. Other schools like Michigan State, University of Arkansas, and the University of Nebraska have similar rules.
Ohio State noted that an NIL deal requiring an athlete to “wear products competitive to Nike during team activities – ex. practices, competitions, media, team travel, community service, photo sessions, team-building activities, etc.” could violate its policies. The university also said that students should not “promote beverages competitive to Coca-Cola on-campus.”
Other schools operate in states that have specific laws designed to prevent students from breaching university contracts.
“State law prohibits student-athletes from entering into NIL contracts that conflict with USC’s team contracts,” the University of Southern California wrote on its NIL policy page. “During official team activities student-athletes may be prohibited from promoting products or services that compete with Nike, Coca-Cola, Powerade, Muscle Milk, and United Airlines.”
Some colleges, including the University of Montana, are willing to offer exceptions on a case-by-case basis to students who score an NIL deal that conflicts with a university sponsorship.
But failure to comply with Montana’s non-compete rule can have real consequences. A student who sets up a deal without permission that “conflicts with a university sponsorship agreement” could be kicked off their team or lose financial aid, according to the school’s policies.
It’s still early days for NIL marketing, and brands themselves are figuring out how to navigate the strict university-level contracts.
“It is messy,” said Blake Lawrence, CEO of Opendorse, a sports-marketing platform that works with over 1,000 college teams, athletic departments, and leagues. “If a student athlete at an Adidas school that signs a deal with, let’s say, Lululemon shows up to a press conference with a Lululemon hat and shirt on, is that a violation of the team’s contract with Adidas? Those are the things that people are trying to figure out.”
As college sports seasons begin in earnest, we can expect athletes to start signing deals — and, possibly, breaking rules.
“I think it will evolve, and I think that it will become more and more of a problem as these big brands create budgets to spend individually with athletes in 2022,” said Jim Cavale, CEO at the athlete content-management platform INFLCR. “We’re 49 days into a multi-decade marathon.”