Sept. 3, 2021 – by Reporter DeArbea Walker – Online Version

How Brands Like Denny’s and United Airlines are Using College Football Stars in ‘NIL’ Era

College Football is first big marketing test for NIL rules

Since 2018, Dr Pepper has marked the beginning of the college football season by rolling out its “Fansville” campaign, a parody of episodic TV dramas that depicts a fictional pigskin-obsessed town. But this year there is a real-life college star in the national ads—Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei.

His inclusion is made possible by new regulations approved earlier this year that allow university athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness for the first time. Some brands immediately pounced on the opportunity when the rules were loosened in July. But the arrival of the college football season, which kicks into full gear this weekend, provides a better view of how marketers will deploy their new endorsers, including during nationally televised games that draw large audiences.

United Airlines is among the big brands capitalizing on the new rule in time for the season. The airline last month rolled out sponsorships with University of Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis, Louisiana State University cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., and University of Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to promote 74 direct flights between college towns.

“The NIL ruling was incredibly timely,” says Maggie Schmerin, United Airlines’ managing director of advertising and social media. “We see this partnership as a great way to supplement our own marketing and our own communication efforts by being able to hyper-target those specific fan bases.”

Other brands rolling out new programs as football arrives include Beats by Dre, which on Wednesday announced it had inked Jackson State University quarterback Shedeur Sanders to a deal the brand says will include efforts to advance historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Denny’s on Thursday revealed its All-Pancaker Team sponsorship and marketing campaign with four football players: Jalen McKenzie of University of Southern California, Mark Evans II with University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (an HBCU), Nicholas Petit-Frere of Ohio State University and Tristan Leigh of Clemson.

The campaign from Anomaly includes various social content posts.

Even pro sports brands are signing up college stars: After asking for submissions on Instagram, the Atlanta Braves signed Georgia gymnast Rachel Baumann and Georgia Tech quarterback Jordan Yates to NIL deals to help the club promote the team. The Braves said last week it selected Baumann and Yates out of a 500 applicant pool but it’s unclear exactly what the deal entails.

Still, many big brands remain on the sidelines. Darren Heitner, an attorney that helped shape the NIL legislation in Florida, says marketers are still playing the wait-and-see game until things become a bit more clear on the rules, which can vary from state to state.

“It’s not at all surprising that we haven’t seen many of the Fortune 500 companies get involved, ” says Heitner, who is also the attorney of Fresno State athletes Haley and Hannah Cavinder, who signed a sponsorship deal with Boost Mobile last month.

“Brands have been and will continue to do a lot of diligence to figure out which of the athletes that really fit with their mission and goals and with their stories?” Heitner says. “Which are the best markets for them to associate with those athletes? And I also think many brands want to see how the season begins—whether certain athletes are more marketable than others, particularly those who have not yet played in their given sport.”

It also takes time to put deals together, says Jennifer Davis, chief marketing officer of Learfield, a collegiate sports marketing company. She predicts more campaigns to arrive later in the season. “For both the brands and the schools, all of this is about time,” Davis says. “There is a lead time for developing and activating campaigns, so even conversations in the works before July 1st take time to implement.” 

United began its promotion on social media, but plans to follow it up with a full-scale ad campaign timed with rivalry games. The airline is already using Slovis to plug roundtrip flights between Los Angeles and South Bend, Indiana timed with the University of Southern California-Notre Dame game in October.

Dr Pepper’s Fansville campaign, which is from Deutsch Los Angeles, includes four ads during the season starring both current and retired college players. Uiagalelei is the first active star to be featured.

The campaigns come as brand execs bank on a more normal season compared with last year, when COVID caused schedule complications, forcing advertisers to rejigger spending, including shifting some dollars to the NFL.

Brad Griffiths, senior director for sports marketing at Omnicom-owned agency The Marketing Arm, says he expects the NIL deals to lead to more spending around college football this year. “The timing of the NIL being passed works out pretty well, hopefully coming out of a pandemic, and brands will be looking to increase their ad spending going into football season,” he says.