Aliyah Boston recalls her parents prodding her to be more active on social media, to extend her brand as her basketball prowess began to draw national attention.
She said she would be more active – and then post just one photo in two months, which is no way for an athlete influencer to earn big money in the era of name, image, and likeness (NIL) compensation.
Eventually, the South Carolina superstar saw the light – and the green.
“With the NIL, my mom and my dad were like: This is the time for social media to continue to brand yourself,” Ms. Boston said. “That’s when I really started to post more.”
The NIL age has opened a vast new world of earning potential for athletes. Social media platforms, once solely windows into smaller worlds, are now heavily trafficked gateways to wider audiences and revenue streams. Social media also turbocharged March Madness, an event that already had communal elements – think bracket and office pool – before the internet even existed.
Taking advantage of this chaotic social media explosion to cash in requires a bit of savvy, discernment, and engagement – lots of engagement.
“Some things you think will go viral and it goes nowhere,” said Jeffrey Weiner, senior vice president of sports marketing firm GSE Worldwide. “Some things you think are silly, and no one’s going to care about, and it goes viral. You never know. You shouldn’t worry about the ‘like’ numbers and things like that. Just post, post, post.”
Finding the right fit is key when it comes to NIL deals.
If an athlete hawks something they don’t believe in, it will show in their posts. No one is going to buy a product or solicit a business if the person promoting it appears to be going through the motions or comes off as a used car salesman – unless that’s the schtick they’re going for.
“I don’t want my page to turn into full of advertisements and me shoving things down people’s throats,” said Nebraska pole vaulter Jess Gardner, who has partnered with about 15 different brands and has more than 300,000 combined followers on TikTok and Instagram.
“That’s not why people are coming to my page,” she said. “I make fun and lighthearted content, and so I can do that if I’m working with brands I actually love. That’s where I want to take the NIL route.”
The tendency when promoting a product is to switch personalities, like a TV anchorperson shifting to an on-air persona. Many of the most successful influencers find a balance, staying true to their identity while still promoting the product.
Authenticity with a dash of amusement is the best bet.
“End of the day it’s a video distribution platform, and it allows athletes to showcase their personality however they see fit,” said Julian Valentin, head of customer success for NIL platform Opendorse. “I always say with student athletes to only do what you’re comfortable with.”
That’s the way Shaylee Gonzales approaches it.
The Texas guard has 206,000 TikTok followers and 93,000 more on Instagram. Her posts are a mix of basketball, fashion, personal life, and products she has deals with.
“The more you are yourself, the more people will like to follow you and feel like they know you,” she said. “I love posting things that I enjoy doing or hobbies I like to do.”
Find the right balance of business and whimsiness, and social media will open the NIL revenue stream.
Miami twin basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder are social media sensations who have cashed in on their online fame. Hanna noted that the twins carefully choose what they post online.
“Everybody thinks they know you, but they only know the things you want to show them,” she said. “Obviously, I love connecting with my audience and my fans and being organic. They love the twin thing, so we love sharing that. But honestly, I live a more private life than people think.”
“You pick and choose what you want people to see,” she added. “And that’s just kind of how I go about it. Now, social media is more of my business, not more of my life.”
With more than 4.4 million followers on their shared TikTok account alone, they have become millionaires through NIL deals.
Those deals will likely increase during March Madness, especially after the Hurricanes upset No. 1 seed Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think what I love the most is it’s setting me up so much for the future,” Haley said. “And name, image, and likeness, all athletes, especially female athletes, if you use it the right way and to your advantage and you remain consistent, it’ll help you in the future.”
That’s what got Ms. Boston’s attention – well, after her parents noticed first.
The All-American has promoted Buick, Crocs, Orange Theory, Under Armour, and Six Star Nutrition, among other brands. She will likely be one of the WNBA’s top draft picks and could have a lucrative overseas career as well, but has already set a firm financial foundation.
“I have people in my corner who help me be able to work with brands, agencies,” she said. “It’s been smooth.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP National Writer Eddie Pells, AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds, and AP Sports Writer Eric Olson contributed.
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