The start of the new academic year means the return of college sports. According to the NCAA, more than 520,000 student-athletes competed in an NCAA championship sport during the 2021-22 season. That’s a lot of athletes. That’s also a lot of opportunity for credit unions.
That’s because the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed in June of 2021 to permit student-athletes to profit from the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL) in commercial partnerships. This decision has not only transformed what it means to be a college athlete but also disrupted the marketing practices of organizations across the country.
Inconsistent reporting from student athletes and schools makes it difficult to pinpoint the number and value of NIL agreements, but NIL platform Opendorse estimates endorsement deals exceeded $900 million in 2022. Credit unions have slowly embraced this opportunity, and a handful of cooperatives have built NIL campaigns with local student-athletes during the past two years.
Effective student-athlete and credit union partnerships have the potential to reach college students, collegiate staff, and the broader community alike, but social media strategy and the increasingly crowded world of NIL can be tricky to navigate. As a student athlete — I play volleyball at Williams College in Massachusetts — and a lifelong credit union member, I have observed three practices I see as essential in creating a successful, compelling NIL partnership.
1. Find The Right Student-Athlete
The first step in forming an effective NIL partnership is to find the right student-athlete. Think about the target audience for the campaign and who is best suited to reach that audience. Partnering with the biggest star on a team doesn’t always guarantee an NIL campaign will have a tangible influence on audiences.
When looking to build social media promotion, don’t conflate the number of followers with influence. There are effective metrics of engagement outside followers for social media campaigns. Cooperatives should prioritize finding athletes who have a clear, recognizable personal brand on social media and a consistent number of likes and comments on their content. Micro-influencers, for example, are popular targets for NIL deals because their smaller networks often correlate to better engagement. Followers feel they have a closer personal relationship with the creator and are more likely to take their advice on products or services.
Other things to consider are how long the athlete will remain in the community and the desired length of the partnership. Many student-athletes transfer or enter professional leagues before completing their college career. This is important to consider if a credit union wants to build a lasting NIL partnership. Longer partnerships have a higher likelihood than short-term deals of reaching students and building deeper relationships with members.
2. Form A Clear Message And Purpose
Forming a clear message and purpose for the partnership is another important practice for effective NIL campaigns.
Michigan State University Federal Credit Union ($7.5B, East Lansing, MI) and Summit Credit Union ($6.4B, Cottage Grove, WI) recently partnered with female athletes at local universities to promote financial literacy and female empowerment. The partnerships with strong, female athletes competing in a field commercially dominated by men positioned these credit unions as organizations that care about uplifting and empowering women in the community. Ultimately, partnering with female college athletes can be an effective way to reach younger women who are getting first jobs, taking out loans, and spending — and budgeting — their own money for the first time.
For TDECU’s ($4.7B, Lake Jackson, TX) Spring 2023 Random Acts of Kindness NIL campaign, student-athlete partners at the University of Houston surprised students with gifts and good deeds. The campaign positioned TDECU as a service-oriented organization focused on giving back to the community. As college students flock to new cities to attend school, they’ll be looking for a financial institution, and campaigns like this can set credit unions apart as having a positive presence on campus as well as a generous relationship with students.
3. Reach Out In-Person
Finally, if a credit union wants to create a compelling NIL campaign, it should look for ways to integrate the partnership into the community and encourage in-person interactions between the student-athlete and prospective members. Many NIL partnerships play out primarily through social media. Making the effort to connect offline, too, reminds members and the community that there are real people behind the credit union brand.
Alongside its in-person gift giving, TDECU announced plans to host in-person watch parties for basketball games to support its student-athletes. MSUFCU launched its NIL partnership live at a local high school with women’s high school basketball players. Events like these bring the community into the student-athlete-credit union partnership, create memorable moments, and help build lasting relationships.
The world of NIL partnerships is expanding, presenting plenty of opportunity for credit unions to enter the space and take advantage of this new marketing channel. When doing so, keeping these three practices in mind will help them construct the most impactful partnerships. Finding student-athletes with influence, communicating a clear campaign message, and meeting people offline are solid ways to build meaningful, memorable relationships within their communities.
Marit Hoyem is a senior at Williams College and a second-year intern at Callahan & Associates.