Authenticity can lead to NIL success

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With name, image, and likeness (NIL) in full swing, college athletes are receiving advice about how to market themselves for success. Much emphasis is appropriately placed on the brand of the athlete; however, what does the brand portray about the athlete? An athlete’s brand can differ from their identities; however, content creation that aligns athlete brand and identity can lead to success in the NIL marketplace.

Scholars examining athlete brands have noted that the most engaging content (e.g., highest number of likes and interactions) is related to athletic performance. In other words, posting content related to athletic pursuits attracts more engagement than content pertaining to out-of-sport pursuits. However, this research has focused on professional athletes. When thinking of college athletes, increasing content related to athletic performance may not directly translate to more NIL opportunities.

While athletic performance is important, and top-performing athletes are garnering significant NIL opportunities, college athletes are a unique population to consider. With close to 500,000 college athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only a handful garner widespread national attention. Ultimately, companies are not solely interested in household-name athletes.

In an article by Kristi Dosh, Boost Mobile CEO Steven Stokols stated, “We care more about authenticity than notoriety. We have seen some of our more nationally recognized athletes actually deliver less than the local heroes who are more engaged.” Additionally, while announcing a deal with soccer player Reilyn Turner, Nike noted they have “always been honored to partner with athletes who share its belief that sport can break barriers, push limits, spark change and contribute to creating a more equitable future.” For Turner, she promoted not only her identity as an athlete, but as being a Black and Mexican woman with a drive to create positive change within her communities. Turner stated, “I hope to be a role model for those around me and those after me, and I’m so excited to be a part of what Nike is bringing to the future of women’s sport.” Thus, there was ultimately alignment with Turner’s brand, Turner’s identities, and Nike’s values.

Another example that illustrates alignment between athlete brand and identity is RayQuan Smith, who has amassed over 50 NIL deals to date. While his following may not be that of the top football or basketball athletes, he has adopted a genuine approach that has ultimately led to his success. When asked about this success, Smith indicated, “I just be myself… just be yourself.” Ultimately, college athletes who have been authentic and engaged with their identities have found success.

Being active on social media and increasing your brand is essential – likely one of the most critical factors. However, it is not always about the numbers. I pose three questions to consider when thinking about cohesion and NIL success: (1) what content are you creating and establishing as your brand, (2) how does that content align with who you are as an individual, and (3) how does that content align with organizational values? Every college athlete has a unique story to tell based on identities and lived experiences. Success will follow when the athlete’s brand aligns with who they are as individuals and the values of organizations providing NIL opportunities. To achieve this, authenticity must drive brand and content creation.

Dr. Jonathan Howe is an assistant professor in the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University. His research focuses on the intersections of race, sport, and education with a keen interest in examining Black male college athlete experiences and identity. You can follow his work on Twitter (@dr_howe25) and his website (