The Sports Marketer's Guide To Monetizing And Protecting Athletic Imagery

Nothing tells or sells the story of the blood, sweat and tears of athletes better than imagery — but the rules regarding displaying, distributing, and selling images of athletes can be confusing. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when considering the use of athletic images for your organization.

1. Verify you have rights before using a photo
Many organizations have primitive methods for storing and tracking photos. You might have hired a photographer to take a portrait of an athlete for a magazine, but that doesn’t give you the right to reproduce that image in any other context, unless previously negotiated. A digital asset management solution can help you track licenses (e.g., allowed usage, duration of license, etc.) and facilitate legal distribution of images. Be aware that larger photo organizations (e.g., Getty Images) have photographic contracts with most major pro sports teams, and aren’t afraid to slap you with a collections notice for illegal usage.

2. You can’t use an athlete’s image for commercial purposes without permission
In the U.S. and many common law jurisdictions, individuals benefit from the concept of “Rights of Publicity.” This gives an individual the ability to control how their likeness is used commercially. Using an image of an athlete, team, or team logo to promote a company or brand without permission is likely to get you served with a lawsuit.

3. Social media (e.g. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) is often commercial usage
Unless you are solely a news organization, you need to think twice before posting an image of an athlete, team or team logo to social media. The appearance of the photo might imply an endorsement of your product, even if it’s a casual photo taken on a smartphone. The ability for social media posts to go viral could add to financial damages claims against you. 

4. Editorial usage is almost always allowed in the U.S.
Rights of Publicity don’t extend to editorial/news coverage in the United States (this can vary significantly by country). Using a photo of Lebron James attending an event you hosted to illustrate a story about that particular occasion is permitted. Subsequently using that photo as a part of a school fundraising campaign isn’t. Many sports organizations have strict language that includes editorial usage when it comes to championship games so just make sure to read the fine print.

5. The use of animated GIFs and Vine videos is untested
Because the leagues don’t allow reproduction of game video without permission, many news organizations and blogs have resorted to creating animated GIFs and Vines to skirt the rules. This will probably work for another year before the leagues start to crack down, or make a licensed tool to assist in the creation of these clips.

6. You can probably license that image you saw online or in a magazine/newspaper
Many news-related images have been licensed for commercial use, and many of the large wire services (e.g. AP, Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images) have the ability to negotiate commercial usage for you.

7. Improper use of a photo of an NCAA athlete could lead to their ineligibility
The NCAA has relatively scant language regarding photography, but they are very clear that using the likeness of its student athletes on something like a mug could jeopardize their eligibility. This holds true even if the student athlete’s images are used for non-sports-related activity (e.g., hiring a student athlete to model for your sportswear line).

8. Monetizing athletic imagery can come from unexpected places
Some of the most popular athletic imagery isn’t of the athletes, but the venues. At universities, for example, alumni might not know the current team, but they will have an affinity for the stadium, ballpark or gym that they visited. An overhead shot of a football game could strike a chord with your audience, and encourage them to open their wallet. Some pro league teams are also experimenting with roving photographers to capture fans and make them available for sale, or for free, in hopes that fans will push them into social media.

To make sales easier, use an automated platform that lets you build a site to showcase what you’re selling, plug in your merchant account to collect payments and automatically fulfill on orders. As long as you’re following the legal guidelines for selling the images, it’s a great hands-off way to bring in additional revenue for content you’ve already produced.

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