The Nike Air Jordan 1 is the shoe that started a revolution in athlete influencer marketing, earning $3 billion annually.

But it wasn’t always like this. 

In 1984, Nike was a struggling company and a scrappy underdog. Adidas was 50% higher in revenue, Converse was becoming the brand of choice for major athletes like Julius Erving, and Reebok was about to surpass Nike in profits. 

Running behind the game, Nike wanted to sign a deal with an athlete — Adidas and Converse had already entered into a partnership with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. 

Enter: Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan
Source: Republic World

The Chicago Bulls player hadn’t become a basketball legend yet. But Nike was ready to give him his own signature brand, ‘Air Jordan.’ The brand and athlete signed a deal at $500,000 per year, which was a huge hit. In the first year alone, the Air Jordan sneakers racked up more than $100 million in sales.

The Secret Power of Athlete Influencers: Authenticity & Credibility

Today, an athlete’s influence extends far beyond the field. 26% of fans who turn to social media for sports news say athletes are a great way for brands to connect with them, according to Nielson’s Fan Insights Report

Source: Nielsen’s Fan Insights Report

The best part about athlete influencers is they haven’t become popular via social media, but due to their sport. Their fans and followers — aka your target customers — know being where they are takes a lot of hard work and dedication. This lends itself to why athletes have copious amounts of trust within their community. 

But it isn’t just the household names like Messi and Ronaldo with celebrity status who make a difference. Nano and micro athlete influencers have fewer followers, but a stronger personal connection within their communities— making their impact on driving purchasing behaviors more powerful.

Student-athletes perform a whopping 12x better than standard influencers on social media. Their engagement rate on TikTok is six times more than traditional influencers. And on Instagram, they have an engagement rate of 6.58%— twice as high as other types of influencers.

Read also: Your Actionable Guide to Mastering TikTok Creator Marketplace

Speaking of student-athletes, let’s talk about how NCAA’s endorsement policy change has somersaulted the landscape of athlete influencer marketing.

Oh, How the Times Have Changed: How NCAA’s NIL Policy Shifted the Game

When Kynship founders— Cody and Taylor— were in college, paying student-athletes to endorse your products was illegal. But players would still receive merchandise slipped into their cubbies from time to time. It was a risky game, but sneaky brands took their shot. 

The result? Athletes would get pumped and go crazy over the free products. It was like influencer seeding, but under the table.

But in July 2021, the game shifted when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rolled out the interim name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy. 

What is the NIL policy? Basically, the NCAA allowed student-athletes to do brand partnerships, endorsements, and sponsorship deals using their name, image, and likeness. Previously, this was illegal — an athlete had to leave school before they could collaborate with companies.

The Cavinder twins were the first college athletes in NIL history to strike a brand deal. 

Source: Haley Cavinder on Instagram

Thanks to the NIL policy, 480,000 student-athletes entered the influencer marketplace overnight with their loyal and large pre-built audiences. 

While this marks a momentous moment for student-athletes and influencer marketing, brands are still worried. 67% of respondents in a survey said hiring student-athlete influencers is riskier than collaborating with traditional influencers because of the uncertainties surrounding campaign outcomes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way when you have the right influencer marketing strategy

How to Work With Athlete Influencers: A Step-By-Step Gameplan

We get it: Partnering with athlete influencers can be a tricky sport. You need to account for many factors— like how good of a content creator your ideal athlete influencer needs to be, what kind of social media presence they need to have, and even what time of year it is. 

Here’s a point-by-point blueprint to get all your ducks in a row: 

Step 1: Find Your Hero Inside the Locker Room

To get your product to the athletes, find someone already inside the locker room who has direct access to the players. We call it finding your hero. 

For example, if you’re targeting football or basketball student-athletes, find Graduate Assistants (GAs) who’ll eventually become full-time coaches for the college teams. These people have influence among the athletes and can help you get your foot in the door. 

In the NFL training camp, your point-of-contact (POC) should be one of the training staff members. Similarly, you can also target equipment managers and practice squad players. 

And if you know a player inside the team who already uses your product, it’s a no-brainer to reach out and market through them. 

⚠️ Remember: If you choose to make an athlete your hero (instead of staff members), don’t directly shoot for the Tom Brady of every team. Instead of chasing the big names, do some research and pick a lesser-tier player— hopefully a wide receiver with impact and influence. 

Why? As a micro-influencer, they’re much more likely to be responsive to your request, have a higher engagement rate, and be budget-friendly to partner with. 

How to find the contact details of your hero? Most of the time, it’s as simple as Googling “Arkansas State Staff Directory Graduate Assistant” and finding the email address (and phone number!) of the person you’re looking for.

Source: Arkansas Staff Directory

If this information isn’t readily available for your target college, you can always find your hero by searching for them on social media. 

Pro-tip: Find POCs who want to be liked by the student-athletes and have some skin in the game. For example, GAs wish to work their way up to become coaches so they want the players to take a liking to them. 

When they get to be the person who drops your products into the lockers, they become the Santa Claus who gifts helpful merchandise. They become the ‘hero’ for you and the team while advancing their own careers — a win-win. 

Step 2: Build a Relationship With Your Hero via Product Seeding

You don’t want to simply send the product to your POC, ask them to deliver it to the athletes, and pay-per-post for each content a player shares online. That kind of transactional relationship never works. You don’t build a genuine partnership with your athlete influencers, and it reflects in the content they produce. 

Besides, you leave money on the table by forming one-off relationships, especially with your heroes. They are your entryway into locker rooms and can open doors for many other significant places (like the NFL) by allowing you to tap into their network. 

How do you form a partnership without being salesy? Product seeding — or sending your products to athlete influencers, no strings attached. In your cold outreach to the hero: 

  • Make a quick introduction 
  • Explain why you’re reaching out in one sentence 
  • Reassure them that this is a no-strings-attached product — they’re not under any obligation to post about you or give you anything in return 
Psssst … does the thought of cold emailing make your palms sweaty? Use our influencer outreach guide to grab customizable templates and begin with no stress, fast.

Product seeding goes a long way in building solid relationships with heroes and influencers alike. The nothing-in-return element ensures any content an athlete influencer posts about you is genuine, and you start the collaboration on the right foot — based on giving, not asking. 

According to our data, if you seed 100 influencers, at least 30% will post about you for free. Even better: We predict more than 30% of student-athlete influencers would post about your brand after seeding. Why? The younger demographic is much more active on social media, want to position themselves as creators, and build their personal brand. 

For example, take Paris Johnson Jr., the offensive tackler at Ohio State University. The athlete influencer often posts about his brand partnerships, his game, and his daily life — making his sponsored posts much more authentic and in line with the online persona he embodies. 

Source: Paris Johnson Jr. on Instagram

College athlete influencers also need brand partnerships more than traditional influencers — 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line. In such a case, even making a few hundred bucks per month via brand sponsorships positively shifts the lives of these students. 

The best part? Product seeding also helps you assess the influencer’s content production capabilities before entering into a partnership with them. You can check if you like how they talk about your brand, if they’re confident on camera, and if they can hit your product’s essential features.

The catch: Product seeding can get cumbersome to scale. It’s easy to ship your products to five, 10, or even 20 heroes, but seeding can get out of hand quickly when you want to reach 100s of GAs (which we recommend). We’ve been there. The solution below...

The solution? Our Shopify app streamlines the product seeding process — you can add all influencer data, ship products, and monitor your shipment under one roof with no backend frustration.

Source: The Influencer Seeding App on Shopify

⚠️ Remember: Timing is crucial when it comes to athlete influencer marketing. A good litmus check is monitoring when the summer camp is beginning for each college you’re targeting and sending your products a week or two after the camp starts. Why? At the beginning of training camp, companies bombard athletes with products. You’ll likely get lost in the shuffle. It’s better to wait till things quieten down a bit. 

How do you find out when the summer camp starts? Most colleges have it listed publicly on their website. Simply Google, “[college name] summer camp [year],” and you’ll get the exact dates. 

Step 3: Personalize Your Packaging by Sending a Handwritten Note

Send a handwritten note with every package you send and personalize the text as much as possible. Why? Personalizing your packaging is the easiest way to create a post-worthy moment. It also makes the athlete influencer receiving the package feel more special and adds a nice, human touch to your product seeding efforts. 

Another reason to customize your packaging is because student-athlete influencers receive tons of products every week. In one week alone, Olivia Smith— a track athlete at Utah State University— received PR packages from four companies

Source: Olivia Smith on TikTok

Personalizing your packaging is the easiest way to stand out from the crowd (and maybe even get an influencer-generated video content of just your product alone). Use services like Handwrytten to create a memorable unboxing experience at scale without burning hours. 

Pro-tip: Always send additional merchandise to your heroes to distribute among other athletes on the team. For example, when Cody was running the influencer marketing at QALO, they sent out five rings of each size A through 16 to each seeded influencer.

Understandably, you can’t do this if you have an expensive product — like high-class sports shoes. But we’d still recommend sending at least one extra pair in a different size to boost word-of-mouth among other athletes on the team. 

Step 4: Collate and Leverage Influencer-Generated Content

Hopefully you have tons of social posts from the seeded athlete influencers by now. The biggest mistake you can do is never let this organic content see the light of the day again. Why? Influencer-generated content (IGC) is an asset that appreciates when repurposed: 36% of marketers say influencer-generated content outperforms branded content. 

Source: Linqia’s State of Influencer Marketing Report 2021

So, how do you maximize your paid media success with influencer-generated content

  • First things first: Keep track of all the IGC using MightyScout. Use the platform to monitor all organic posts about your brand and download any content worth reposting.

  • Next, ask the athlete influencer for content rights. Don’t post any IGC without getting the influencer’s permission — it’s against the law, and copyright infringement will come to bite you in the ass. Either ask permission to use the IGC for a limited time or offer compensation if you want to own and use the content perpetually. 
Pro-tip: Ask for usage rights for influencer content for just 30 days in the beginning. That gives you enough time to test how the content is performing if you run it as an ad and help you make a data-driven decision about owning its rights.
  • Lastly, use Kapwing to repurpose your influencer content into different formats for all distribution channels without dampening its organic feel.   

Step 5: Shortlist the Best Athlete Influencers & Formalize Your Partnership With Them

Half-time is over. The next part of the game involves making your athlete influencer relationships official. 

Examine the seeded IGC and spot the athlete influencers who fit your brand perfectly — who can embody your brand voice well? Who looks like a natural in your product? Who has solid content creation abilities? 

Draft a compelling outreach message (thanks to product seeding, you’re no stranger), and fingers crossed the athletes say yes. 🤞

When they do, don’t forget to make things formal (and legal!) by sending over your influencer contract.

Continue the collaboration on different social media channels and content formats. You can even make athlete influencers a part of your brand ambassador family, as Crocs did with University of Connecticut’s basketball player, Paige Bueckers

Source: Paige Bueckers on Instagram

How’s that for a game, huh? 

Preparing for the Next Season

While the five steps above lay the groundwork for beginning your athlete influencer marketing efforts, the season has only just begun.

What you need next: 

It can be overwhelming to keep all the stoves running simultaneously. Hiring an internal team just for athlete influencer marketing can be an expensive and risky bet. Third-party tools are often heavy on the pocket and don’t help streamline your processes as much.

The right answer might be working with experts at an influencer marketing agency (like us!) who have played the game far too long to understand the trade and tricks of the field. If that’s the strategy you go after, we’re a call away.