Marketers who take advantage of new NCAA rules allowing college athletes to cash in on their name, image, and likeness (NIL) will not only grab fans’ attention, but also their respect, according to a new survey released by Horizon Media and Scout Sports and Entertainment.
The survey revealed that almost 60% of “avid” fans said they were more likely to respect marketers who sponsor college athletes, and they were more inclined to purchase brands that sponsored their favorite college athletes.
Respondents to the study included more than 500 fans who were identified as either “college sports fans” or “avid college sports fans.” “Fans” were defined as those who rated their levels of interest as 3-plus on a 10-point scale, while “avid fans” indicated an interest level of 8-plus.
“Fans understand that sponsorships can be a huge opportunity for student-athletes, and they appreciate this show of support from brands,” said Marnie Heard, SVP, Managing Director, WHY. “This respect and admiration can also lead to further brand preference and engagement down the line, with many fans willing to open their wallets for brands sponsoring college athletes.”
The NCAA ruled this summer that college athletes could be paid for sponsorships and other marketing opportunities, a practice that was previously prohibited. The decision is likely to lead to millions of dollars in endorsement deals from companies eager to sign up top stars in collegiate athletics to serve as spokespersons and influencers.
“Marketers correctly anticipated that the new NCAA rules would be a significant game changer for college sports, and this report reveals that the fans are solidly behind the move,” said Michael Neuman, Managing Partner, Scout Sports and Entertainment.
The study also revealed:
College sports fans are almost twice as likely to support the new NIL rules than oppose (47% vs 25%), and the support grows stronger among avid college sports fans who are nearly three times more likely to support than oppose.
Almost 60% of avid fans and 41% of fans said they would “take notice” of brands that support athletes from their alma mater.
Sponsorship may shine more light on sports that aren’t followed as widely as football and basketball, per the study.
While there is strong support for the new rules, 70% of those who oppose the ruling warned that an influx of sponsorships could be distracting for students. Additionally, 72% said sponsorships could make college sports feel too much like pro sports, creating the perception that athletes were playing for money over school pride.
The study concludes that given the support among college sports fans, and particularly avid fans, brands who haven’t already jumped into the space should begin negotiating deals with student-athletes.
Also, brands breaking into college sponsorships should consider linking sponsorship deals to academic performance – should the NCAA allow this connection – to reassure fans that work on the field isn’t interfering with work in the classroom. This could help draw a definitive line in the sand between pro and college sports, as fans worry that the boundaries between the two could be blurred.
The study also found that while big-name football and basketball stars will provide the most visibility for brands, partnerships in lesser-known, niche sports and local markets may provide a more grassroots and meaningful way to connect with fans.
Brands hoping to establish customer loyalty in specific markets could leverage partnerships with local student-athletes as a starting point to build familiarity and connection with the broader community. This is also an opportunity for brands to partner with local athletes from diverse backgrounds and a way to demonstrate support and a corporate commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.