Influencer marketing is often associated with splashy promos read by YouTube mega stars for direct-to-consumer brands like Honey, Chipotle, or Seatgeek. And early coverage of student-athlete campaigns has similarly focused on the athletes who have scored the biggest deals.
But there are over 460,000 college athletes across the US, and most of them have small audiences compared to social-media stars. In the influencer world, many of these athletes would be classified as "micro" (generally under 100,000 followers) or "nano" (generally under 10,000) influencers, which has been an area of increasing focus for the industry.
"You don't have to have 40,000 followers or even 10,000, 5,000 followers to take advantage of these [NIL] rules," said Christopher Aumueller, the CEO of the athlete-marketing and brand development upstart FanWord. "Those small deals, while they may be small in monetary value, they may go a very long ways for these student-athletes. A couple hundred dollars here and there can make a big impact for some of these young men and women."
When restaurant owner Nick Maestas found out that student-athletes were available for hire after a recent NCAA policy change around name, image, and likeness, he jumped at the opportunity.
"People in this state thrive around Huskers athletics," said Maestas, whose restaurant Muchachos is based in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. "The state goes as the athletic department goes, and it's a great way for us to connect with our customer base."
Muchachos set up a deal with offensive linemen from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to promote a custom burrito, giving the team free food and t-shirts and sharing a percentage of sales for every team-branded burrito sold. The athletes promoted the product on their social accounts where they each have a few thousand followers. One player opted to wear a Muchachos shirt to a post-practice press conference, sparking a wave of free media attention for the restaurant.
Like Muchachos, many local retailers are pairing in-person appearances with Instagram and Twitter posts to drive attention to their businesses. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud promoted his partnership with a local Chevrolet auto dealer on Instagram, for instance. He received a free vehicle for the season in exchange for appearing at events.