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Inside NFL’s pitch to include NIL talent in its collegiate marketing program

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To boost viewership around NFL games, events, and content, the league is expanding its formal program to recruit colleges to help as marketers.

The program — dubbed its collegiate marketing program — aims to create a relationship between the colleges and the NFL. The NFL’s collegiate program’s expansion follows the NCAA’s adoption of a policy back in 2021 that allowed college students to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).

All 32 NFL teams, along with over 100 universities from across the nation, are actively participating in this year’s initiative, up from 60 participating universities last year. A summit took place on July 26 honoring those who were part of the program featuring notable speakers, including University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders and NFL CMO Tim Ellis. The financial agreements were not disclosed.

The NFL has worked with colleges before the NIL rule change, in which students created programmatic content around alumni who were recruited to the NFL, said Sana Merchant, NFL’s senior director of club social strategy.

“The strategies and ideas come from both directions, ensuring that we’re covering everything from key collegiate matchups and storylines to combine performance, draft, rookies’ first games and so much more,” said Merchant, adding that the NFL and the colleges are always in communication when planning the marketing strategies for this program. “And when I say constant, I [mean] very constant.”

Under this program, college and pro football players are featured on social content on The Checkdown, an ongoing series featuring NFL players who were drafted.

The NFL has guidelines to where its content can be used, regardless of who makes it on their behalf, and will work with students’ schools to determine specific policies, Merchant said. This is a similar approach to NFL granting access to its archival content to content creators.

“We work with our partner schools to highlight key on and off-field moments that we think will resonate with our target demos,” said Merchant. “Though the game action is a core tenant of our strategy, our coverage goes much beyond that and a lot of the content we collaborate on focuses on moments where the helmets are off.”

It is unclear how much of the NFL’s advertising budget is allocated to these efforts as Merchant declined to share budget specifics. According to Vivvix, with paid social from Pathmatics, the NFL spent a little over $44 million on advertising so far in 2023, up from $31 million in 2022.

Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, an influencer marketing agency, emphasized that the key to expanding fanbases lies in targeting younger audiences, particularly Gen Z and Gen Alpha. NIL athletes, with their dedicated local followings, offer an ideal avenue to reach this demographic.

“Through its college marketing program, the NFL is able to lean into popular NIL talent to simultaneously engage with all audiences and gain interest from new fans outside of traditional key demographics,” he said. “Looking ahead, we should expect to see brands of all sizes lean into NIL talent to further tap into younger fanbases and drive home brand loyalty.”

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