Brand Marketing and the Fair Pay to Play Act

AJ Green and Donald De La Haye get suspended

Headlines like this may soon be a thing of the past

September 30, 2019 will be the date that changed NCAA athletics forever. Maybe. Or Not. Who knows at this point?

That’s the date California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act. California’s Senate Bill 206 made it the first state to mandate deep reforms over how college athletes are compensated for their efforts. Right now, the NCAA rules bar players from hiring agents or receiving compensation from outside sources related to their sport. But the Fair Pay for Play Act would change that. College athletes wouldn’t be paid by the school as employees, but they would be allowed to earn money related to their “name, likeness, or image.” That obviously opens the door to everything from paid endorsement deals to social media “influencer” relationships.

Travis Knobbe, who also happens to be an attorney and a sportswriter has started a series of blog posts on this topic over at the Last Word on College Football. In those posts, he’s covering issues like who is going to pay the athletes, recruiting, transfers, and competitive balance. Those are fundamental issues that will be discussed ad nauseam among dozens of teams of lawyers and NCAA officials over the next 13 months (the NCAA Board of Governors has set a deadline of January 2021 to modify its rules to permit student-athletes to benefit from the “use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”).

No matter what happens between now and then, there are also going to be some fundamental PR, communications, and marketing issues that need to be ironed out. And colleges and universities are incredibly naive if they think this is only going to impact a small % of their student-athletes. This isn’t just about the Tuas and the Zions of the world. It’s for the Ohashis and the Tituses too.

Think about the junior four-star football recruit from a small town in the middle of nowhere who hasn’t quite lived up to his potential. He may be a third-stringer now at his university, but he’s still one of the biggest names to ever graduate from his high school. You mean to tell me there’s not a car dealership in his hometown who would gladly give him a free car to drive around town in exchange for using his face in their ads?

As a PR and communications professional has worked with everyone from local small businesses to big global brands, my head is spinning with the possibilities that exist not only for the student-athletes, their schools, and the NCAA, but for brands, big and small.

  • Oregon’s ties to Nike are well-established. The obvious conclusion is that close school-brand relationships like this could become even more popular. But what about smaller-scale partnerships? “George Foreman Grills, the official grill of the LSU Tigers.” Or “the Southwest Airlines locker room at the University of Texas.”
  • As a brand, is it better to sponsor the school or the individual athlete? What’s Zion Williamson without the Duke logo? Still a mega star. But would you know who Kenny Pickett is without the Pitt jersey? If you’re a brand looking to partner with a student athlete, are you more interested in the person or the school he or she plays for?
  • Remember what you were like in college? Now think about how a brand paying you thousands of dollars would feel about those photos of you at that fraternity party at 2am appearing on Instagram. These are college athletes acting like college kids. As a brand, are you comfortable entrusting your reputation to an 18-year-old college kid? The rewards are high, but the risks may be even higher.
  • Brands are going to fall all over themselves trying to get to the star athletes. But the real opportunity for brands lie further down the depth chart. Established stars like Baker Mayfield, JJ Watt, and Scottie Pippen were all walk-ons in college who worked their butts off and became huge household names commanding millions in endorsement deals. A brand could have signed them for beer money when they were freshmen. Could brands sign dozens of these players to four year contracts in the hopes that one or two strike it big?
  • What if as a brand, you could personally keep a player at your preferred school for an extra year? Every year, you read about a player who left college chasing a payday only to not get drafted. They’ve now burned their college eligibility and don’t have a team. They’re worse off than they were before. Now, what if you got wind that the best player on your favorite team may be entering the draft early because they wanted to get paid? Maybe you decide to make college worth his while and give him a five or six figure endorsement deal if he stays in school another year.
  • From energy drinks to beauty products to Amazon, brands have infiltrated college campuses via “social media influencers.” Due to NCAA rules, student-athletes have been unable to participate in this trend, but pending the outcome of the Fair Pay to Play Act, these doors will be opened to them too. How long do you think it would take Head & Shoulders to reach out to Trevor Lawrence and his 393,000 Instagram followers?
  • What about the athlete from a second or third tier sport who rockets to viral fame? Had this law been in place last year, we would have seen Katelyn Ohashi’s face everywhere, from leotards to toothpaste to beauty products. But what does that do to her teammates? To the school? NCAA football and basketball teams are much more prepared to handle stars that get the media attention (and soon, the endorsements). How would that play on a gymnastics team? Or a field hockey team? Brands have the potential to create rifts within the very teams they’re purportedly interested in helping.

At the end of the day, no one knows how this is going to play out. It could be the end of collegiate sports as we know it. Or maybe nothing really changes. The NCAA did, after all, did drop this nugget into its announcement – “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” What does that mean? No one knows. But it’s going to be a very interesting 13 months, potentially followed by a 21st century gold rush as brands, schools, and athletes navigate an entirely new era of college sports.

If you’re a collegiate student-athlete or college administrator, I’d love to talk more with you about this. What are you telling your student-athletes about this? What rumors are you hearing? What questions do you have? Hit me up on Twitter at @sradick or Travis (@travisknobbe) and let’s talk.

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