Sports marketing

Inside sports marketing giant Learfield’s strategy for NIL deals with college athletes

Jennifer Davis, Marketing Director of Learfield.
  • Student-athletes monetized their names, images and likenesses after a rule change in July.
  • They are now active players in the lucrative world of NCAA sports marketing.
  • Insider spoke with the CMO of sports marketing giant Learfield to learn more about its NIL strategy.

For decades, colleges and universities have made millions selling the rights to their sports team logos and other intellectual property, and affixing corporate branding to corporate signs and apparel. stadiums under multimedia rights contracts.

But six months ago, the college sports marketing game changed when the NCAA revised its policies regarding the marketing of student-athletes. Players can now leverage their own intellectual property – their names, images and likenesses (NIL) – opening up a new way for brands to spend on college sports.

A wave of new startups have sprung up to help players and brands take advantage of the new rule, while college sports marketing incumbents are launching their own products to avoid missing out. One such company is Learfield, the nearly 50-year-old sports marketing company that works with schools to help them monetize their intellectual property in categories like digital media and merchandising.

Over the past few months, the company has released a slew of new features focused on student-athletes.

It created a compliance and education product called Compass to help players at its partner schools disclose their NIL activities to athletic departments, and another program with athlete marketing firm OneTeam Partners that allows students and schools to participate in group licensing efforts, such as putting athlete names on official merchandise like jerseys and trading cards.

He also created a tool, called Allied, to make it easier for brands to integrate university intellectual property into student-athlete campaigns. Many universities have rules prohibiting student-athletes from using a school’s logo or mascot in campaigns without permission, which can create friction for some brand programs.

“We fundamentally believe that the school’s intellectual property – their school colors, their brands, their logos, their mascots, their fight songs, their uniforms – all those things that make up their kind of intellectual property assets, have a lot of value,” said Jennifer Davis, chief marketing officer of Learfield. “And when used in combination with student-athletes, they actually make the student-athlete more recognizable and they help build the brand of the student-athlete.”

University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young struck NIL deals with brands like Cash App following the July 1 NCAA policy change.

Learfield does not directly represent student-athletes and its primary loyalty remains to its college and university clients. Protecting the interests of schools was a theme at the start of NIL, as some universities took action to prevent students from working with brands that conflict with their own sponsorship contracts, which can generate tens of millions. dollars in revenue for universities, according to a Portland Business Journal database.

“We have no intention of watering down school grades and making them meaningless in the marketplace,” Davis said. “There are long-standing relationships and deep fan loyalty for some of the brands that have been associated with a particular school for a long time. It is wise to think about it.

Some state laws and university policies explicitly prohibit student-athletes from entering into agreements with brands that interfere with a school’s existing sponsors.

Ohio State, for example, said a NIL agreement required a player to “wear products competitive with Nike during team activities – eg practices, competitions, media, travel, etc. teamwork, community service, photo shoots, team-building activities, etc. could violate its policies.The university also said that students should not “promote beverages that compete with Coca-Cola on campus.”

Davis said a use case for Learfield’s Allied product could create opportunities for student-athletes to more easily work with existing college brand partners.

“There’s a great symbiotic partnership emerging between the school and the brand who have been ingrained and know there’s a lot of fan loyalty there,” she said. “How can the student-athlete tap into that fan loyalty that already exists?”

In addition to avoiding trademark disputes, helping schools and athletes overcome NIL regulatory hurdles is one of Learfield’s goals, Davis said.

“Right now there’s a lot of fragmentation because not even half the states have formal legislation,” she said. “Everyone I talk to in the industry is hoping that national standards will emerge.”