NIL Messaging Strategies: Filling Big Gaps Could Unlock New Opportunities

Name, Image, and Likeness. Collectively known as “NIL,” these three words have a lot of pull in the sports community lately. College athletes can take sponsorship deals, participate in marketing campaigns, and more. However, a recent study conducted by Digital Sports by Hot Paper Lantern shows big gaps in how NIL rules and structures are communicated.

I chatted with Mike Adorno, Senior Vice President of Communications at Digital Sport by Hot Paper Lantern, about the findings and how the NIL world can improve.

By the Numbers

The study found that communication is severely lacking in a few key areas regarding NIL, affecting talent acquisition and squandering potential revenue.

  • Half of NIL-focused media don’t know how collective funds are distributed or allocated to the athletes or sports within their universities.
  • More than 85% of NIL-focused media cite that collectives don’t do a good job of communicating why athletes should sign or stay with a university.
  • 92% of collegiate sports reporters said collectives provide inconsistent communications about their goals, missions, and wins.
  • Collectives aim to prioritize fundraising and sustainable capital, but 75% of NIL-focused media believe fans and donors lack an understanding of the business model.
  • Choosing between supporting a booster club, a collective, or a specific team is confusing. 59% of NIL-focused media find communication on this issue inconsistent.

With those findings in mind, let’s dive deeper into the issues. How do NIL agreements and collectives work, and what can they do better?

What Is a Collective?

The term “collective” pops up in any discussion about NIL, including this one. However, the term is nebulous, and agreeing on a definition is hard. Here’s Mike Adorno shedding some light on the issue, starting with a story:

“In February, I attended the NIL Summit in Orlando. And it was a fantastic conference. There was a panel with four of the biggest heads of collectives across four schools. The moderator asked that very question: what is a collective? And each of the four heads of those collectives had a different answer.

“Nebulous answer? Sure, but collectives are inherently nebulous. However, a collective is a person or group outside the university that has banded together to raise funds to provide that capital to teams and athletes within a selected university. That’s our understanding of what a collective is at the moment.”

In its most basic form, a collective is how a college athlete can get paid through marketing deals or sponsorships. Say a local Jersey Mike’s wants to partner with an athlete, asking for a few social media posts per month. A collective would help negotiate that sponsorship.

Even if we could all agree on a definition, other elements of confusion emerge concerning collectives. Adorno continued, “Say you’re a fan of a particular school, and they say via email or social media, ‘Donate to a collective.’

“What does that mean? Where’s the money going? A lot of that necessary communication is simply not happening.”

Other factors further muddle the big picture. Some schools have multiple collectives, and it’s hard to parse what they do or which sports they support. There are opportunities to do better, and Adorno has a few good places to start.

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Filling the Gaps

The overarching need to make sense of the confusing world of NIL and collectives boils down to one goal: better communication. It can happen on a granular level, with something as simple as a brief overview of what a specific collective does, said Adorno.

“It would behoove collectives to state what they cover clearly. ‘Our collective handles the baseball and softball teams.’ It’s as simple as that.”

There’s also a big miss in terms of mission. Adorno continues, “Understanding the mission, where the money is going, and how a donation impacts a particular sport…it’s paramount.”

A cohesive message and mission become more critical when considering how rules and regulations differ by state. The NIL world is similar to sports betting in that way. Piecemeal regulation makes it even harder to understand.

Historically and currently, NIL opportunities have been used as recruitment tools. It’s a good start, but Adorno said there’s another key element that goes largely ignored:

“If you’re a high school senior, you’re looking at where you want to go to school, and you’re probably thinking about opportunities on and off the field, including NIL possibilities. There’s a lot to consider about recruitment. But what we found is collectives miss the mark in terms of communication on why an athlete should stay at a school.”

Transfers are a rampant issue among schools these days, and NIL deals can, if properly communicated, contribute to retention rates among athletes. Adorno compared it to any other business model.

“Why would you want to buy my good or service? It’s the same idea for collegiate athletics, but it’s not always happening.”

If and when collectives, schools, and other NIL stakeholders can get their ducks in a proverbial row and unify their messaging, the next step is to inform, educate, and protect players.

How to Help College Athletes Understand NIL Agreements

If a college player wants to agree to a NIL deal, no matter the size or scope, the question arises: what’s next?

“The players are thinking, ‘Hey, I would love to do this sponsorship,'” Adorno said. “But they’re not considering insurance, wealth management, or their taxes.”

Some players might have those things in mind, but for the most part, they’re 18-22 years old, and finances aren’t exactly top of mind. Adorno suggests that collectives and schools better prepare players for these aspects of NIL agreements, including wealth managers, tax assistance, mental health services, and insurance providers. Having such resources on hand or easily accessible via partnerships can keep players safe and secure in the long run.

Additionally, external marketing firms can help maximize the value of these deals for players.

“There are influencer firms that provide athletes and schools with tools,” Adorno said. “Verticals like this are now intertwined with college athletics in a way they weren’t before, and they stand to benefit players if Implemented properly.”

The Great Equalizer

In its current state, NIL can benefit players at schools of all sizes. If the above issues are buttoned up and organizations can unite to better their communications, the sky is the limit.

“NIL creates an opportunity for the smaller or mid-tier schools and mid-level managers to create unique strategies to fundraise, attract talent, and communicate with their base differently. And while they probably don’t have the brand equity that the big names do, they can—through strategic communications—employ these strategies to outperform their rivals.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Responses provided have been edited for style and clarity.


About the Author
Cole Rush

Cole Rush

Writer and Contributor
Cole Rush is an industry writer and contributor at Gaming Today. He is a Chicago-based writer in the gambling and media spaces. His work has been showcased in various gaming industry magazines and online columns. Rush also covers pop culture and books for Reactor Mag (formerly and, a sci-fi and fantasy book review site. He has more than eight years of experience writing about gambling and entertainment.

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