Name, Image and Likeness deals are approaching $1 billion nationwide, without a single athlete doing the one thing track & field thinks is the most important sponsorship benefit: logo placement.
Name, Image and Likeness deals opened the doors for NCAA athletes to the world of sponsorships, ad campaigns, influencering (distinct from “influencing”), the merch market and patronage pseudo-salaries.
Looking at it from the other side, NIL deals exponentiate the potential sponsees, endorsers, ambassadors and content creators available to brands and companies. Whether a brand is undertaking a hyper-focussed micro-campaign or looking for the broadest possible exposure across a key demographic, this new pool of sponsorable inventory – college athletes – increases the brand’s opportunities to amplify their message through the right person and the optimal channels to achieve the brand’s objectives.
Opendorse aggregates the deals that run through their platform into some of the most reliable macro level stats on NIL.
Social media posts are the largest form of NIL activities (i.e., what the athletes do for their money) when measured by either compensation or the volume of activities themselves. Appearances, shoutouts and autographs are the other major categories of NIL activities; although “Other” comprises about a quarter of NIL activities by volume or compensation. “Other,” in fact, is second only to social media by both metrics.
There’s one thing we know athletes are not doing as part of their NIL deals, and that heretofore unremarked absence provides an unmistakable validation of a sports sponsorship best practice that many brands and properties still need to understand and adopt.
Render unto Bevo what is Bevo’s
The removal of restrictions on college athlete endorsements affirmed the idea that each athlete’s image and likeness (and name, obvi) are their own intellectual property, to commercialize as they see fit.
One of the first significant questions that schools and states had to resolve was whether and how they would allow their athletes to use the institutions’ intellectual property – their images and likenesses, particularly their team uniforms – in NIL activities. The team uniforms represent why the athlete is attractive to brands. While some athletes have a social media following and personal brand via their athletic achievements, recruiting prospects or their personal social media usage, most become marketable within the context of their school and team. And in nearly all cases, any athlete becomes instantly likeable – at the very least recognizable – to the target audience as soon as they don their school’s kit and colors.
The schools knew this long before NIL, and they guard their intellectual property jealously. Some schools have even trademarked their color palette to prevent unlicensed use of a uniquely and exclusively identifying hue – one that has taken on a “secondary meaning,” beyond just being a color - like Carolina blue.
School and state policies cover the full spectrum of permissiveness. Some allow athletes to wear their uniforms or colors in an NIL activity, but not use the team logo beyond any of the school’s or its licensees’ uses. Others draw the line at “pajama wear”: clothing in the school colors but without the name or logo. And a few schools have licensed their IP usage to NIL agencies, whereby any athlete who handles their NIL deals through that agency can use the school’s IP under that license.
But no school allows athletes to modify their uniforms in any way.
That might be the least surprising thing you’ll read all day. What team or league does allow its players to modify their uniforms in order to make more money for themselves?
But it does mean that there’s one thing in the standard sponsorship inventory that is off the table for all NIL deals: logo placement. Not even digitally through Photoshop or filters.
MIGHT NIL GET A DOCU-SERIES BEFORE T&F? T&F CHASES THEIR LATEST SHORTCUT: THE NETFLIX SHOW
This is where people in track & field / road running are going to need to pause, read those last few sentences again and maybe go for a long walk with a bag of mushrooms to clear their heads. Because what we hear from every player in the TF/RR space is that logos are the linchpin and greatest source of value to a sponsor and, consequently, to the athlete.
London’s logo Luco-lunacy
Texbook case, just this past weekend. Eilish McColgan revealed that the London Marathon would not allow her to compete in the race if she wore her usual jersey with a Science In Sport logo, which would conflict with one of the race’s sponsors, Lucozade; and that her refusal to accede to that demand and the stress the situation created were threads in her decision to withdraw from the race.
Every party here agreed on the basic premise: the substantial value of the roughly 3” x 3” logo.
Lucozade is the London Marathon’s longest continuous sponsor. Either in the general case of requiring a “no competitor logo” clause in their contract with the marathon, or in this specific case, Lucozade feel that their 23-year relationship with the London Marathon will lose value if viewers along the course or watching at home see a competitor’s logo on an athlete for a few seconds as they run by or a few minutes of screen time. The marathon’s organizers clearly agree with this line of thought, as there is no indication that they tried to accommodate McColgan with some sort of waiver or exemption. And not only do they think Lucozade will lose “some” value. They think it will lose sufficient value to justify the negative PR of aligning themselves against a popular, world-class domestic athlete, while also forgoing the opportunity to generate positive PR by engineering a way for the almost comically British running triumvirate of the London Marathon, Lucozade and McColgan to work together.
Team McColgan and SIS are not in the clear here, either. They, too, believe that there is such value in the logo placement on McColgan’s jersey that her racing in an SIS-free jersey would be a major, if not total, L for SIS and, conversely, a win for Lucozade. That this logo on the jersey at this race is such a key part of the relationship’s value that removing it would substantially weaken SIS’s return on their sponsorship of McColgan and would hand a commercial advantage to their competitor, Lucozade.
It’s 2023. This is not OK.
None of the four parties in this drama, in their respective roles, are outside the norm for track & field and road running.
Ask any athlete what the governing bodies can do to increase financial opportunites for athletes, and no later than #2 on their wishlist is loosening the restrictions on logos on the jersey. That’s doubly cringe because those restrictions apply to negligibly few races each year.
Look at any meet or event director’s sponsor pitch deck, and not only will you see logo placement and promotion in every sponsorship tier, but the size, prominence and promotion of the logo will increase as you move up the cost structure. And if it’s not in the deck, logo exclusivity is certainly in the contract: not just category exclusivity for the event, but logo exclusivity that binds the participating athletes.
The two sides are fighting for the same premise: the primacy of logo placement.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVES ON SPONSORSHIP AND LOGOS
Power Sponsorship: Should Sports Uniforms Carry Sponsor Logos?
The Sponsorship Collective: Why Nobody Cares about Logo Placement in Sponsorship
Book: The Sponsorship Seeker's Toolkit, Fourth Edition
So how would they explain NIL deals?
Almost a billion dollars and not a logo in sight
The value of a sponsorship is not what the sponsor pays for it, but what they get for it. Sooner or later, they’ll notice any gaps between the former and the latter. To paraphrase Warren Buffet, when the tide goes out we’ll see who’s wearing nothing but a logo.
The Name, Image and Likeness industry is still in its bubble inflation phase. Within a year or two, if they haven’t already, after the novelty and gloss wears off, companies of all sizes will subject their NIL activities to the same stringest return on investment / return on objective assessments that they put all their other ad, marketing and brand campaigns through. Until these companies and the NIL industry overall can demonstrate what creates real value in NIL deals – not things like impressions and engagement, but bottom line KPIs like brand sentiment, market share, conversion and revenue – other sports properties shouldn’t rush to imitate NIL deals.
This is an easy guardrail to observe, as NIL deals are pretty conventional in what they expect of the athletes.
But while sponsors and properties can’t assume that NIL activities are worth nearly a billion dollars, it’s a straight fact that NIL activities are generating nearly a billion dollars a year without doing one thing in particular: logo placement on athletes’ uniforms.
Most athletes sign their NIL deals individually, especially the ones that aim for actual commercial purposes (as opposed to the “collectives”). Power 5 football and men’s basketball are on par with the “Big 4” pro sports in terms of viewers. But even with the numbers that the women’s Final Four put up this year, all other college sports’ spending, revenue and viewers are better compared to niche sports.
NICHE SPORT SALARIES: T&F LIKELY IN LINE WITH THE OTHERS
That makes the NIL world a fully representative, nicely delimited experimental population to see what is possible for athletes’ commercial income without the interfering effects and mindless banter of logo placements. The NIL marketplace lets us weigh and control for all sorts of factors like the advantages the school, sport and even family name give the athlete. We can parse what separates the Cavinders, Lees and Coles from the rest, and get some insights into what an athlete can do to make 3-4 figures and what they must do if they hope to make six.
We know what they are not doing: putting logos on their jerseys, nor huffing about the rules against putting logos on their jerseys. And they’re not doing those things to the tune of 5-7 figures individually, leading the way to the nearly 3 commas worth of athlete income nationwide.
Figuring out what to do might be graduate level for track & field. It’ll be a victory and a major step forward for the sport simply to see that taking logos off the table is no impediment to the kind of money track & field wants but does little to earn.
Photo credit: MGoBlog / Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0.