NCAA can embrace logic of NIL, take progressive action

By Vince Thompson

Rarely do I agree with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, but I will give him credit for opening the floodgates of a long-overdue conversation in college athletics — the usage of student athletes’ name, image and likeness, or NIL in our vernacular.

There is a lot of wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, some justified and some not, from many in college athletics leadership, but today, let’s focus on what could be a positive and watershed moment for current and future student athletes, especially non-revenue sports and athletics at all Division I, II and III schools.

Let’s start by unraveling the hypocrisy in the court of public opinion.

The NCAA could do itself a lot of favors there by embracing this logic instead of denying it. Most of the general public (and polling will reinforce this) agree: Student athletes should be able to monetize their NIL no differently than any other college student who does not play college athletics. For instance, my son, who attends the University of Georgia as a student, can monetize his content on platforms such as YouTube or Instagram, but a student athlete cannot.

In a world where the NCAA wants to level the playing field (pun intended) for all student athletes, why not allow what I call the “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” rule. The NCAA is a billion-dollar-per-year organization, with 90% of its revenue being made during the three weeks of March Madness. It is run by very intelligent, diligent executives with relationships with major media companies, including CBS, Turner and ESPN. Surely these smart people can help figure out a solution that is a win-win for all!

There are serious First Amendment issues here and let’s make a distinction between monetization and compensation. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but if student athletes want to monetize their NIL and they’re not violating the usage of trademarks of the university, what is the harm in this?

I understand a scholarship is a contract between the student athlete and the university, but it is not an indentured servant agreement. The First Amendment grants broad latitude in free speech, and so I suspect if and when this is ever challenged in court, I believe the student athlete would prevail.

But why let it get that far, especially when you consider all of the time, legal fees and response from the court of public opinion who would weigh in on this? Why not use those resources for a better and more positive outcome? The NCAA could certainly receive a positive image boost by embracing this and figuring it out. Why not evolve from an enforcement institution to an enhancement institution?

This clarity and epiphany came to me as I was on the sidelines pregame of the Auburn-Mississippi State football game in late September. The contrast could have not been starker: The Auburn men’s basketball team was being honored for its Final Four run (full disclosure, I am an Auburn graduate), and the Auburn women’s equestrian team was being honored for its national championship as well. But the contrast in crowd response could not have been clearer, and it didn’t have anything to do with the level of respect given to each team, but rather the level of exposure.

Let’s use the equestrian team as an example of how an NIL rule could work. Let’s also not forget this generation of student athletes is the most sophisticated yet because of the rise of technology and social media. Most of the women on the team aren’t even full scholarship student athletes, but they work as hard as those who are. So why not let them supplement what they get through their scholarship and student aid, especially since they have no time to pursue a part-time job? Here are several ideas:

Allow the team to be featured in sponsored posts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The sponsorship fees could be split as a percentage to the coach, the team, the student athlete and the program. Don’t forget football and men’s basketball generate 95% of the revenue, so the biggest impact would be the new revenue to a non-revenue sport.

Allow school sponsors to feature the teams in television, radio, digital and social adverts. For instance, Under Armour could underwrite, produce and distribute a spot where the performance fees would go directly to the women’s program and a fee to each student athlete. Right now there is a five-year waiting period that makes no sense.

Allow the ladies to get small “endemic” sponsorships, such as saddles, bits, reins, feed or even the Auburn Veterinary School. Many times, these sponsors cannot afford a big-ticket sponsorship, so in effect money is being left on the table for programs that need it, as well as taking pressure off athletic department funds and resources.

Allow the women to get local or hometown sponsorships that celebrate their success, supplement their income and feed funds back into the program. These could be from a local bank, equestrian center, or even a cause near to their hearts. Let’s not forget the $1 million an Iowa State fan raised for a local children’s hospital during ESPN GameDay for holding up a sign asking for beer money! Why not use the “non-revenue” athletes to raise funds and increase awareness for the common good?

So, how about it, NCAA? Let’s embrace change for the common good, fairness and keep elevating the profile of so many deserving student athletes. What do we have to lose?

Vince Thompson is founder, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based agency MELT.


About MELT 

Founded by CEO Vince Thompson in 2000, MELT, LLC, is an Atlanta based fully-integrated sports, esports, entertainment culinary and lifestyle marketing agency offering clients advertising, original content development, digital, social media, event and experiential marketing, retail and consumer promotions, brand strategy and sports property evaluation and activation. MELT has won or has been nominated for the following industry awards since 2017:

  • 2019 BizBash Top 1,000 People in the U.S. Event Industry
  • 2019 Bronze Stevie Award (American Business Awards) – Company of the Year: Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations
  • 2019 Drum Marketing Awards USA Finalist- Best Event/Experiential Strategy: MELT & IHG’s Avid Hotels Pop-Up Tour
  • 2019 Interactive Marketing Awards – Shortlist
  • Best Social Media Campaign: MELT & Coca-Cola College Gameday Snapchat
  • Best Influencer/ Outreach Campaign: MELT & Coca-Cola Company Valser Influencer Strategy
  • 2019 Atlanta Magazine – Top 500 Business Leaders: Vince Thompson
  • 2018 BizBash500 List – Top 500 People in Events: Vince Thompson
  • 2018 Event Marketer Top 100 “It List”- Top 100 Agencies
  • 2018 Atlanta Business Chronicle Most Admired CEO: Vince Thompson
  • 2018 Silver Stevie Award- Brand Experience of the Year- Consumer: Taste of the Tournament for Kroger, Hershey’s, Mondelez & The Coca-Cola Company
  • 2018 PR News and Social Media Award- Best Use of Filter (Snapchat): Coca-Cola ESPN College Gameday
  • 2018 Social Good Influencers- Honorable Mention: MELT University
  • 2018 Cynopsis Sports Media Award – Honorable Mention for Use of Snapchat: Coca-Cola ESPN College Gameday
  • 2018 Shopper Marketing Effie Award – Multi-Brand/Manufacturer Shopper Solution: Taste of the Tournament for Kroger, Hershey’s, Mondelez, & The Coca-Cola Company
  • 2017 Experience Design and Technology Awards- Best Permanent or Pop-Up Retail Experience: The Coca-Cola Kitchen
  • 2017 Stevie (American Business Awards) – Marketing/Advertising Agency of the Year