College Athletes Must Get in Condition for Commercialism

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Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org  

College students enjoy talking about ads, especially ones that feature top athletes like Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Lebron James.  The NCAA’s momentous decision to allow college athletes to become paid spokespeople has leveled the promotional playing field, but are young, soon-to-be endorsers ready for the pressures they’ll face in a different kind of game?

In a landmark decision on June 30, the NCAA lifted its long-standing rules prohibiting organizations from paying student athletes to endorse their products.  Now athletes in all three divisions can profit by leasing their names, images, and likenesses (N.I.L.) to the highest, first, or only bidder.

The rationale behind the NCAA’s prior rulings was to preserve amateurism and the purity of competition, uncontaminated by commercialism.  The point of this piece is not to debate the pros and cons of paying student athletes, which many others have already done.  Instead, it’s past time to ask if these young people are prepared for the new opportunities and challenges that come with being paid endorsers.

Already, many of the same college athletes who had simply enjoyed watching professional spokespeople now find that they are professional spokespeople, but is paid promotion a game they’re ready to play?

The clock had barely turned midnight on June 30, when several college athletes began to monetize their new marketability.  The first was apparently Auburn University quarterback Bo Nix who signed a deal with Milo’s sweet tea at 12:02 am, July 1.  Two others who quickly followed suit were twin sisters Haley and Hanna Cavinder,  basketball players at Fresno State University, who inked an agreement with Boost Mobile.

For the Cavinders, the leap to professional endorsers should be a fairly smooth one.  They are business marketing majors, but even more, they are already social media stars with over 3 million followers on TikTok and about 4 million across all platforms.

However, for other newly minted marketers with less knowledge and experience, the transition will likely be more challenging.  Here are five things college athletes should understand in order to do well and good in their new commercial competition:1) Marketing:  One wouldn’t jump into a serious game of basketball, football, etc. without knowing the sport.  Similarly, one shouldn’t enter paid endorsement without understanding marketing.  Beyond an appreciation of the discipline as a whole (e.g., the four Ps), two concepts that every paid endorser should comprehend are target market and branding.

The sponsoring organization and its advertising agent should be aware of the target market they’re trying to reach in terms of its demographics, psychographics, and any other identifying criteria.  Endorsers should have the same understanding so they can make their own assessment of personality-audience fit and use that knowledge to tailor their communication.

Closely related, an endorser should have a clear picture of the unique identity, or brand, they’re building for themselves and the branding of the sponsoring company.  Although these personal and organizational brands will never be identical, they should be complementary.  For instance, individuals trying to build their brands as ‘sophisticated and exclusive,’ probably shouldn’t endorse brands that are seen as ‘low-budget and casual.’

2) Contracts:  Sponsorship deals are typically bound by contracts that specify the rights and duties of all parties, including those of the spokespeople.  As such, college athletes should understand basic contract terms like offer, acceptance, breach, indemnification, and exclusivity.  The last term is especially important in that contract terms might prohibit an athlete from signing sponsorship deals with other organizations, particularly competitors.

Another special provision often found in endorsement contacts is a character or morals clause, which “allows the sponsor either to suspend or terminate a sponsorship agreement in the event that the athlete, celebrity or other endorser violates the clause [because of] behavior that is criminal, that is scandalous, or that might tarnish the advertiser’s brand.”  Most people have better sense than Ryan Lochte showed after the 2016 Rio Olympics; still, it behooves every college athlete to understand that by signing an endorsement contract they become more accountable for their actions, including their social media posts, than they ever were  before.

3) Personal finance:  Although those who feel they don’t have enough money may disagree, research study results support the premise that more money can mean more problems, at least in terms of added stress.  A former NCAA athlete who now works in banking, believes that newly earned endorsement income can become a burden for college athletes who lack sufficient financial acumen and discipline.

A little over a year ago, Hunter Brindle was captain of Messiah University’s baseball team while he completed majors in economics and marketing.  Now an investment advisor, he expresses concern that college-age spokespeople may not manage their endorsement money wisely, leading to unsustainable spending habits they’ll regret later in life unless they are financially informed:

“When your housing, utilities, and meals are all covered by a scholarship, loan, or your parents in one large payment, you develop the mindset that every dollar that enters your bank account is there for spending. Therefore, I believe it will be very common to see many college athletes spending any endorsement dollars as fast as they are coming in without realizing the potential future benefit those dollars could provide when they are someday trying to figure out how to put a down payment on a house. Because of this, I believe it could be extremely beneficial for athletes to participate in some sort of financial counseling as they enter college where the reality of real-life expenses is laid out before them.”

4) Time-management:  College places time pressure on every student, but regular practices, workouts, and games, mean that athletes must work even harder to balance their schedules.  Messiah University’s men’s soccer coach Brad McCarty, who has led his teams to five NCAA Division III Championships, believes the addition of endorsements makes athletes’ time management all-the-more critical:

“One of the biggest challenges student-athletes face is the balance of time and resources.  Regardless of the level—D1, D2, or D3—NCAA athletes are having to juggle homework, exams, study groups, practice, games, lifting, fitness, nutrition, sleep, relationships with teammates, dating relationships, spiritual development, social media, jobs, etc.  College athletes interested in finding ways to be a paid endorser takes time/energy, but they already don’t have a lot of margin in their lives.”

McCarty goes on to say that athletic departments will be important players in helping their athletes navigate the new commercial environment.

5)  Respect for others:  The first four items college athletes need to understand are squarely in their own self-interest.  However, they also should be cognizant of the impact their endorsement decisions may have on others, including some already inferred above:

  • Teams:  Athletes who are good enough to receive sponsorship deals are naturally among the best on their teams, which means their coaches and fellow players must depend on them to avoid distractions and perform at high levels in order to help the team succeed.
  • Universities:  Any organization’s brand is partly a function of the personal brands of its leaders and other members, e.g., Apple and Steve Jobs; Tesla and Elon Musk.  College athletes must realize, therefore, that their endorsement decisions reflect on their institutions, which is why Brigham Young University has  adopted an N.I.L. policy that prohibits its athletes from endorsing products like alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and adult entertainment.
  • Society:  College athletes already serve as role models for many people, especially young fans.  As they evolve into multimedia influencers, athletes should be aware that many more people will emulate their words and actions in ways that can produce broad positive or negative impact in areas such as physical health, mental well-being, interpersonal relationships, and environmental sustainability.

The five preceding prescriptions can challenge anyone, including young athletes who lack certain life experience and who need to focus on their sports and their education.  As such, these new endorsers will require the guidance of many others, including their coaches, athletic departments, and institutions, as well as other individuals who can offer them informed and unbiased perspectives on personal branding and integrated marketing communication.

College athletes are some of the most gifted individuals in the world.  With the support of others and their own self-discipline, they can continue to excel in their sports and in the classroom will also becoming producers of “Mindful Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org