By Heather Burgess, Senior Partner, Marketing Practice Lead, and Proud Basketball Mom

Last June, my 6’11” son, Raleigh, and I formally began the Division 1 Basketball recruiting process. He inherited his height and his mad skills on the court from my late husband, Todd. It’s been one of the most humbling and exhilarating experiences of my life on many levels and I will be excited to see which school he selects (the Purdue “who wore it best” photo is just for laughs)! Beyond the fun of watching games courtside and touring state-of-the-art facilities, the timing for my immersion into college athletics could not be better for a Marketing and Brand Building junkie, given the unfolding world of “NIL.”

What is NIL? The acronym is shorthand for “Name, Image and Likeness” and references the groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling 2 years ago that paved the way for collegiate athletes to make money off their personal Name, Image, and Likeness.

Pragmatically, what does the NIL ruling mean? Until this Supreme Court ruling, student-athletes were expected to build collegiate athletic brands in return for scholarship money only. Brands, for-profit, and not-for-profit organizations can now borrow the Names, Images, and Likenesses of student-athletes – and to tap into their followers for marketing and innovation purposes. Some US-born college athletes could make considerable money while in college. This money cannot come directly from schools or coaches but can come from outside donors, directly from brands, or from other 3rd party sources. In the past 2 years, access to NIL opportunities has become a key consideration for prospects, especially in high-viewership sports like football and basketball.

Why should Marketers and Retailers pay attention? This isn’t just about a new crop of self-made YouTube or TikTok influencers. This is about the emergence of a new set of influencers who are digitally native and connected to collegiate athletic brands that, according to the NCAA, generated $19 billion in revenues in 2019. These collegiate brands have some of the highest levels of brand engagement and loyalty – and these athletes have reach amongst current Gen Z students, alumni, regional, and national fans. Their back-stories are literally unfolding, and earning a starting spot on a widely streamed, broadcasted or talked-about team can create the conditions for instant recognition and significant influence.

Why are Brands Likely to Play a Key Role? I sat down with Greg Lazaroff, Vice President of G3| ProCamps to get insight on where NIL is likely headed. Greg and his team have been connecting blue blood schools (like UNC, UK and Kansas), athletes, fans, and brands through memorable sports experiences (like fan days, VIP camp experiences, etc.) for the past 20 years. In his words, “Social media will continue to enable the influencer model, and experience marketing is becoming more sophisticated. It remains to be seen whether the donor “collective” model is both sustainable over time, given the requirements for continuing large donations, and whether it can withstand possible Title Nine challenges, given the focus on male-dominated football programs. That said, Marketers are just beginning to tap into this exciting new source of consumer influence. Brands with clear strategies who understand the potential for student-athlete influencers and sports marketing should give rise to new endorsement, experience, and product programs through 3rd party platforms and agencies like ours.”

So, what are the interesting opportunities for Brands and Marketers? NIL opportunities are not limited to college-town pizza joints or, conversely, to billion-dollar brands. NIL marketing offers the ability for brands of all sizes to partner with athletes at every level of every sport. While the biggest deals tend to get the most attention, brands can tap into the influence of nearly half a million NCAA student-athletes who compete in 24 different sports. Simpactful’s team of Insight, Brand, Marketing, Retail, and Innovation experts have put together a few thought-starters:

  • Be Purposeful: Does your brand champion women? Consider using NIL to level the playing field by hiring female student-athletes.
  • Drive Retail or eCommerce Traffic: Create limited edition team tentpoles or partner with Retailers to drive store traffic and conversion.
  • Consider Co-ed Collabs: Tap into collegiate athletes (and their followers) to elevate products or commercial innovation. Leverage influencers to finesse design elements, test products in use, and then incent them to help make them big!
  • Go Experiential: Create irresistible and memorable in-person or virtual experiences.
  • Harness Rivalries (or School Spirit): Sports offer the unique opportunity to tap into team rivalries and the relatively low cost of NIL can make this possible at scale.
  • Skip the Small Ideas: Done right, NIL can be a powerful tool in your regional or even national Marketing and Merchandising plans. For example, Reese’s chocolate signed 12 lucky athletes named Reese to drive sales of sports-inspired seasonal confections under the Reese’s University umbrella.

What brands should consider NIL Marketing? Our Simpactful Marketers agree that most categories should consider NIL – and the key is finding an authentic fit between your brand’s purpose, equity benefit or executional assets and the influencer – their sport, life-stage, habits, favorite retailer, needs and/or passions can all create the fit. Categories ranging from food, fitness equipment, travel, automobiles, and fem care to deodorant, gaming, OTC pain medication, pet food, golf equipment, and home furnishings could easily play here.

Can investing in NIL do more than just grow your brand? While the big deals and the largest collectives are garnering a lot of attention, most athletes are simply grateful for any opportunity to earn money in school. Raleigh and I have met dozens of hard-working players who have sacrificed school breaks, weekends with friends, proms, and more. Most will never have the chance to play professionally and would use NIL influencer earnings to help family back home, to pay off debts incurred from national travel and unofficial school visits during high school, or to enable family and friends to come see games. Some, aspire to do even more. Many Americans will not forget Indiana basketball forward, Anthony Leal, who captured the heartstrings of millions (and every news media outlet) when he tweeted that he had saved his NIL money for 2 years to surprise his sister this Christmas by paying off her undergrad school loans so that she could pursue her dream of attending grad school. Looking ahead, brands can be a part of stories like Anthony’s while also driving sales.

Let Simpactful help you take your NIL game to the next level. Our team of experienced Marketing, Retail, Digital, and Communications practitioners have experience in sharpening brand strategies, identifying meaningful insights, and developing briefs to identifying Big Ideas. We are skilled in best practices and can also help to shape retail and digital amplification partnership opportunities – or connect you to experts like Greg! Contact the Simpactful team today at or 925-234-6394. Visit