Athlete Branding: Pro vs. College Athletes

Back in 2019, LeBron James rallied behind early NIL legislation efforts when the California state senate introduced the Fair Pay to Play Act. LeBron tweeted the hashtag #morethananathlete to advocate for the rights of college athletes to receive compensation for the billions of dollars they generate. 

The pros like LeBron know that rigorous training and athletic performance distinguish athletes from one another on the field, but a public figure is much more than just an athlete. Values, personality, public presence, and online engagement make one athlete’s brand stand out from the next. Now, in 2022, is there a difference between the ways professional athletes and college athletes create a brand for themselves? 

With recent NIL legislation opening up doors for college athletes to secure brand partnerships, many college athletes are taking notes from the pros on how to secure and build a lasting online brand. As NIL deals are leveling the pro vs. college athlete branding playing field, how does student-athlete branding differ from pro branding? Let’s take a look at some of the differences between pro vs. college athlete branding and ways students can learn from the pros in this new era of NIL. 

Student-Athlete Branding

Student-athletes stand at an important decision-making point in their careers as they begin to build a personal brand. Student-athlete branding is quickly becoming a key part of successful players’ careers as both athletes and public figures. As a student-athlete, you get the chance to ask yourself questions like: who do you want to be, and what do you want to be known for? 

Being digital natives, most student-athletes are at an advantage in building a social media presence. Sponsors are looking for credible and influential athletes with engaged social media followings that will best represent their brand.

In the last year since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing college athletes to receive compensation for their name, image, and likeness, we’ve seen several changes in the way student-athletes are spearheading their personal branding efforts. 

Can college athletes be brand ambassadors? Several college athletes have already benefited tremendously from NIL and are securing opportunities for brand ambassadorships left and right. Two of the first student-athletes to take advantage of NIL are twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder, Fresno State basketball players. Icon Source helped the Cavinder twins secure a number of sponsorship deals, and they now stand at the top of NIL earning across all college sports.

UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s recent NIL contract with McDonald’s not only created sponsorship opportunities for the athlete, but the partnership also includes a collaboration with Charlottesville’s Ronald McDonald House. And Trinity Thomas, University of Florida Gymnastics, has taken advantage of NIL opportunities as the official athlete of Honey Stinger

So what do student-athletes bring to the table? A more authentic connection with fans, fellow students, and alumni of their universities, as well as greater visibility and influence with younger athletes and peers. The opportunities for brand activation with student-athletes are starting to take off, so now it’s time to hone in on athlete branding best practices the pros have been executing for years.

Pro Athlete Branding 

So how do NIL opportunities differ in college sports vs. pro sports? One study found that from a licensing standpoint, the average NIL value per student-athlete could range from $1,000–$10,000, while the average NIL value per professional athlete could range from $50,000–$400,000. 

The NIL marketplace is flooded with over 480,000 student-athletes. With fewer than 2% of NCAA athletes going pro, it has traditionally been easier for pro athletes to stand out and create a distinct brand for themselves. However, securing athletic endorsements is a great way for college athletes to prepare themselves for what’s next. 

Tips from the Pros

What are some of the best practices when building a lasting self-brand as an athlete? Student-athletes can take strides to build their own self-image with these tips that have made professional athletes into successful brands. 

Be Authentic

For both pro and student-athlete branding, authenticity is one of the most valuable tools an athlete has at their disposal. Create a brand that is true to yourself as a person, and allow that authenticity to resonate with your followers. One of the best ways to build an authentic brand is through long-term partnerships. 

LeBron James, arguably one of the most iconic athletes of all time, has secured a number of sponsorship deals throughout his career, amassing millions of dollars on top of his NBA salary. Not only is LeBron sponsored by Crypto.com, but he has used that partnership to support a non-profit focused on workforce and educational development. 

Be Consistent

Any social media specialist will tell you that consistency in content, posting schedule, and community engagement are some of the best ways to maintain and grow a social media following. While many pro athletes have entire teams dedicated to maintaining their online accounts, college athletes can still practice consistent engagement with their social media followers to build their brand online.

Don’t Be Afraid of Vulnerability

Athletes are no strangers to experiencing highs and lows, both on the field and off. Sharing all experiences, the good and the bad, is a great way to connect with your audience and create relatability and connection with followers. 

Use the Right Goals and Metrics

Student-athletes may be avid social media users, but they often rely on vanity metrics like followers and likes to determine social media success. Instead, successful athlete marketing looks at metrics like social media ROI, reach, and click-through-rates.

Find a partnership with Icon Source

The one thing all of these athletes have in common is that they put themselves out there. The opportunities for fruitful brand partnerships are out there; all that’s left to do is find one that aligns with your personality and values. With Icon Source, finding the right partnership is easy and stress-free.

Drew Butler

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