Among some of the questions coaches and athletic directors were asking included some basics, like, “How will it work?”…”Who is it really going to apply to?”…And, “How will it affect recruiting?”
A few months in, we are starting to see some clear signposts as to how this new layer of the college student-athlete experience is beginning to affect recruiting around the country. And what’s surprising coaches is how it’s affecting decisions across division levels, as well as beyond sports like football and basketball.
Companies of all sizes are getting creative in their approach to student-athletes. Large companies like FedEx are helping programs and coaches at Memphis, where FedEx headquarters are located, sign some of their best classes ever, as outlined in a story from the Sports Business Journal (link may require you to sign-up for a free subscription). Companies are realizing there is a double-benefit from doing business with rising college athletes: Not only do they increase a positive affiliation and brand identity for their product or service, the viral nature of early brand deals with colleges and athletes provide added buzz for their brand. Built Bar, based in Utah, generated millions of views on social media with the way they launched their NIL deal with BYU walk-on student-athletes, and build brand allegiance at the same time. This new marketplace is allowing companies to create relationships with a segment of their audience that was hard to reach before, and student-athletes are benefiting directly.
Coaches are still adapting to the new NIL realities when they are recruiting. Has the recruiting talk-track changed much for most college coaches? No. Sure, for Power 5 football and basketball programs, it’s become part of the conversation because it’s being driven by the student-athlete (and their parents). Coaches, at this point, are mostly willing to defer NIL discussions to their athletic department, many of whom have deals in place with NIL advisory consultants who help maximize opportunities in the marketplace. It’s that space in between where some coaches are finding a little bit of a sweet spot: They can talk generally about NIL, and what they or their athletic department can do when it comes to helping set-up possible deals for their recruits without having all the answers. The number of coaches doing this is small so far, but filling the void with conversations about this hot topic is drawing the attention of student-athletes.
Small colleges aren’t doing a lot to take advantage of NIL-based recruiting discussions with prospects. For the most part, this falls on the lap of college athletic directors. Non-Power 5 programs in Division I, non-revenue sports in Division I, as well as departments in Division II, Division III, and NAIA programs are waiting for their departments and athletic directors to put standards in place, but few are. NAIA sports were technically the first to be able to offer NIL benefits to their student-athletes, passing rules in favor of the new opportunities nearly a year before the NCAA did, but few schools took advantage of the head start. Early indications are that most campuses, as well as higher level non-revenue sports, are going to develop slowly when it comes to setting up opportunities for the student-athletes it applies to.
It doesn’t take much to get the attention of potential student-athletes during the recruiting process. Most athletic departments and athletic directors, lacking marketing and sales experience, don’t have good starting points when it comes to where to begin setting up relationships with the local or regional business community – especially when those same departments rely on donations and sponsorships to help fund their athletic departments. That tension – having a business either fund traditional athletic department budgetary needs or let those funds be siphoned-off to student-athletes under the new NIL rules – will continue for the foreseeable future. One thing athletic directors should keep in mind: Most smaller school and smaller sport athletes aren’t looking for much, they just want to be in on the new trend of getting some money or products or services as a college student-athlete. Some free food, spending money for road trips, or other small financial rewards – heck, even just getting some publicity on local billboard or TV commercial – are proving to be a boon for those selected programs who have worked out NIL arrangements with local supporters of their school’s athletic departments and athletes.
One things coaches are failing to ask: “What are you hearing about NIL, and how are you hoping it would benefit you?” Simple question, but coaches who are asking it – especially those from schools, sports and division levels where it’s not a foregone conclusion that they could benefit from this growing NIL trend – are hearing some interesting feedback. What they’re finding is that those athletes are aware of NIL, wonder if they could benefit from it somehow, and appreciate those coaches leading the conversation. In other words, coaches can take the lead versus their competitors on the topic of NIL merely by talking about it with a prospect, and showing that you’re engaged as a coach who recognizes the potential it could bring that prospective student-athlete. That’s how low the bar is right now when it comes to basic recruiting, and a basic conversation coaches can have with their recruits (and who knows, you may even be able to take that feedback from prospects and give your athletic director ideas on how to start a real NIL strategy within your department).
We’re still at the front end of determining how NIL affects recruiting decisions, but we’re starting to see indicators of what matters to prospects, how to attract their attention on the topic, and the probable long-term benefits to the health and success of individual sports programs and athletic departments who approach it during the recruiting process.
Looking for more insights on what prospects want, what research reveals moves the needle in favor of your program, and how things like social media and NIL are influencing decisions during the recruiting process? Bring Dan Tudor and his staff to campus to conduct high level recruiting and communication training to your coaches. Click here for all the details.