t’s a new day for student-athletes, and this could also mean more opportunities for your decorated apparel business.
Until now, student-athletes couldn’t legally sell anything related to their personal branding as a member of a college team, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently changed the rules that apply to NIL (Name, Image, Likeness). That means, savvy print shops can now build out profitable merch lines for all of these athletes, around the country.
“There’s a good chance your shop already prints merch for college sports teams and retail stores,” says JP Hunt, co-founder and president of InkSoft. “But until this new ruling, most of what you print is generally teamwear purchased by the school or fanwear purchased by the store. With the changes to NIL, now you’ve got a whole other sector of the team apparel world to print for—the student-athlete!”
Let’s take a look at how this change to the NCAA NIL ruling could positively impact your print shop.
So, What's the Importance of NIL for Athletes?
The NCAA ruling on NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) has made major news lately. In the past, NCAA athletes were heavily restricted in what they could sell in terms of merchandise. In most cases, the athlete would be considered in violation of NCAA rules and could be suspended and/or lose their scholarships from their respective athletic programs. This was controversial, in that the NCAA made millions of dollars selling merchandise including the athlete’s names and likenesses, without compensating them.
Now, college athletes have NIL rights, which allows them to take money from businesses in return for using their name, image or likeness to promote that business. This means print shops have a potential new avenue for sports merchandise that you can sell to your customers. “NIL rights are also known as an individual’s ‘right to publicity,” Hunt says. “That means socks, hats, shirts, banners and anything your shop can print can carry a customized branding, logo and student-athlete name.” Now, a custom-branded store is the student-athlete’s store.
“The same stores used for team apparel are also the perfect spot for student-athletes to sell their custom merch. Set them up with an exclusive merchandise shop through your platform.”
- JP Hunt, co-founder and president of InkSoft
How Does NIL Affect Your Print Shop?
There are lots of opportunities for your print shop. Just as you’d sell athletic apparel for top professional athletes, you can now sell for NCAA athletes. “The recent rule changes in regard to NCAA players being able to monetize their likeness and merch is certainly an opportunity on a lot of levels,” says Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO of Rowboat Creative.
“If you’re a newer school decorator who’s willing to commit to e-commerce driven sales, pre-sale launches, and fulfillment programs, this could be amazing for your shop. In our experience, a lot of the athletes don’t have a history of sales and some have never considered branding themselves until now. There can be a lot involved in scaling up these programs to help drive healthy sales, so be prepared.”
- Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO of Rowboat Creative
Most of the athletes we follow today in pro sports started out in the NCAA. Think of some of your most loyal customers. They purchase products all the time in support of their favorite athletes, and with this new wave of student-athletes enjoying the same “arena-style” fashion, this can lead to many more opportunities for your shop.
“Certain shops will take advantage of this and potentially facilities that produce via DTG,” Guariglia says. “We know a couple facilities already doing great things with these programs.”
How Can You Find NCAA NIL Opportunities?
1. Offer support to a local NCAA athlete.
Help parents and students celebrate their local star athletes by creating an apparel line for students in your state. You can do this in a couple of ways:
- Create mockups of some merch options, that you can pitch to athletes, for their approval.
- Go the extra mile and develop an entire line of apparel and complementary items, such as tumblers, visors and other goods for local athletes.
“Certainly, athletes might actively seek out shops to work with, but at the end of the day a lot, if not all, of their focus is on their performance,” Guariglia says. “This doesn’t mean athletes won’t put focus on it but, their performance comes first, so it makes sense for you to reach out to them.”
2. Reach out to colleges with an intent to support student-athletes, for their NIL needs.
NCAA athletes are in uncharted territory. Schools can’t directly help with the negotiations they’ll have with vendors. However, colleges can direct student-athletes to those companies (like your print shop) who want to strike deals, especially if they believe they’re directing those students to reputable and reliable opportunities/businesses.
“While schools can’t be directly involved in any sort of NIL merchandise program for students, think about how many parents out there with budding athletes might want to take advantage of this change. Make sure you’re promoting NIL services on all your marketing channels.”
- JP Hunt, co-founder and president of InkSoft
Athletes, as well as colleges, will welcome opportunities laid out for them presenting lucrative passive income opportunities, while also being managed by the pros in their industry—that’s you! This means you need to bring your expertise to those athletes.
However, again, be proactive. “In many cases, these athletes, who want merch, aren’t waiting for the deals to come to them,” Hunt says. “They’re getting out and exploring opportunities to score big with branded merch. For example, Illinois Guard, Brandin Podziemski, stopped by Campus Ink recently to sign an exclusive partnership with the apparel decorator.”
Explain to them how the branded merch industry works. Give these young athletes the opportunity to learn more about what you do. Demonstrate with custom mockups how you can create an apparel line, that’s high quality, with relevant graphics and intriguing. Show them how to offer staple items that every fan would love to wear in the stands and around town.
Showcase a whole line of clothing and accessories you’d recommend. Offer to set up the store, promote the line, and fulfill the orders, with minimal input from the athlete. This means you can focus on sales and printing, while the athlete focuses on their performance—which ensures both of you enjoy reliable sales.
3. Create a ‘web’ of promotion for your brand.
If you haven’t already, create a web presence. The athletes you intend to work with need to know who you are and what your print shop brand is about, before wanting to work with you to handle their merch.
Here are some steps you can take to increase awareness of your shop’s high-quality products, great customer service, and e-commerce smarts:
- Use social media and email marketing to attract athletes to your company. “On social media, share the news that you’re excited about the NCAA’s change with your followers, and let them know you’re there to help, since some may not even know about this development yet,” Hunt says. “Send an email to your client list. Even if you don’t know someone directly involved with college athletes, there’s a good chance your customers know collegiate athletes.”
- Update your website. “Ensure you have a landing page or at least a banner announcing your NIL services as a new addition,” Hunt says. “The easier it is to spot, the better chance you’ll have at catching these athletes’ attention.”
- Create a dynamic marketing strategy for your brand, ensuring that both you and the athletes you work with will benefit each other. That could include events, online and off, for the athlete to promote the products and create excitement.
4. Create an agreement with the athlete to ensure you get exclusive rights to decorate apparel and any other lines of promotional items based on their NIL.
Determine what you want from the partnership, recognizing that the athlete will have minimal time or interest in a lot of promotions. Athletes will look to you to provide most of the promotion, while they’ll still be focused mainly on their classes, sports and training.
Keep in mind the athlete’s limited-participation, but remember it’s their NIL that you’re getting exclusive rights to use. Develop a compensation plan that will fairly address what both sides bring to the table. Again, this is new territory, so there aren’t going to be a lot of comparisons. You may be setting precedents in this area. Plan to know exactly how far you can go with negotiations.
“Your relationships need to feel genuine. There’s certainly money to be made on both sides, but the approach should not be a money grab. Make sure you aren’t operating in a predatory manner. This can be a blurry line, but for Rowboat Creative, we always want to ensure that our partnerships feel successful on both sides.”
- Lucas Guariglia, co-founder and CEO of Rowboat Creative
5. Create a dedicated website for the athlete so orders can come through automatically 24/7.
This can be a great tool to convince the athlete to want to work with you. It also can make sales easier for both you and the athlete, as your customers can simply head to the site to make purchases.
“Make multiple stores, since limited-edition apparel is something that’s popular way beyond college sports,” Hunt says. “If a student-athlete wants to print a limited-time merch line alongside their standard product line, you can use online store software to run more than one shop. That FOMO can generate a lot of buzz for the athlete’s campaign and help you land more jobs with them.”
Your goal is to work with multiple athletes, so ease and flow need to be the name of this game. Sending buyers to one link makes the whole process easier for your business and the athlete.
That way, you can focus on your messaging, while allowing the website to hold different promotional campaigns based on upcoming games and seasonality. Changing décor for a website can be much easier than printing promotional materials and putting them up in your physical shop.
Don’t Miss This New Opportunity
If you’re truly interested in growing your business, stay on top of all the exciting options available to you.Be on the lookout for any potential merchandise that can interest your customers.
“There’s plenty of promise with the changes in NIL licensing, even though it’s in the early stages,” Hunt says. “But, make sure you check your state’s laws on NIL, since the fine print varies state-by-state. Right now, the NCAA’s rule changes are a temporary solution, while they try to sort out a long-term, nationwide plan.”
The granting of NIL rights to NCAA athletes is a massive game-changer that you should take advantage of, so you can capitalize on these potential sales, before your competitors do.