How Brands Are Using The NCAA Tournament To Strike New NIL Deals

Last Updated on April 3, 2023

Brands are taking advantage of the national attention on both men’s and women’s basketball athletes during March Madness, but their strategies differ. Some had campaigns ready to go before the tournaments began, while others have been sitting on the sidelines waiting to see which programs and athletes emerge as this year’s biggest stories.

Last year, Doug Edert and his signature mustache cashed in when Saint Peter’s made history by becoming the first 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight. Entering March 2022, Edert had around 1,500 followers on Instagram and was rarely posting. A year later, he has more than 148,000 followers and has worked with national brands like Buffalo Wild Wings and Barstool Sports.

The March Madness mustache was again a focus this year with Pringles creating special edition cans for its “March Mustache Collection,” which features Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, Duke’s Dariq Whitehead and Virginia’s Ben Vander Plas. Fans are asked to show off their mustaches on Instagram with the hashtag #PringlesMarchMustacheEntry through April 4th for a chance at winning the chip can collection.

“My mustache has always been part of my identity and it’s amazing to see the facial fuzz trend catch the attention of one of the most beloved ‘stache’d sporting brands, Pringles,” said Timme.

“Pringles has a deep bench of ingenious flavors and ‘staches of all flavors are having a moment on college basketball courts,” said Mauricio Jenkins, Pringles US marketing lead. “We’re thrilled to celebrate the sensational players whose unique ‘stache flavor have captured the hearts of fans everywhere and give fans nationwide a chance to join in the ‘stache fun.”

Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, says athletes are better prepared this year to take advantage of NIL opportunities during March Madness.

“The accessibility of these student-athletes is greater during this second March Madness of NIL than it was last year. Corporate sponsors have also taken advantage of utilizing athletes playing in the tournament for national campaigns. The tournaments bring a much longer viewing period and continued conversation than around other key tentpole moments across the different college sports seasons. St. Peter’s run last year along with Doug Edert signing a Buffalo Wild Wings deal showed that anything is possible.”

Buffalo Wild Wings, which signed both Edert and Belmont guard Nikki Baird last season in celebration of their overtime heroics, says its plan this year is to celebrate more inspiring overtime efforts. The brand has already signed three athletes through the early rounds of the tournament in connection with their “Overtime Wingtime” campaign, which rewards fans with six free boneless wings each time a game goes into overtime in the men’s or women’s tournaments.

Jaylyn Sherrod with Buffalo Wild Wings meal
Jaylyn Sherrod signed with Buffalo Wild Wings after an overtime win@JAYSHERROD ON INSTAGRAM

University of Colorado guard, Jaylyn Sherrod, was signed after leading the Buffaloes to their first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years with a game-changing free throw shot that sent her team into overtime with Duke.

“Jaylyn has an unbelievable story of belief, grit and loyalty,” said Carri Martin, founder of Elevate Athlete Group who represented Jaylyn in the deal. “She was told her whole life she was too small and wouldn’t hack it at the Power Five level. And here she is, leading her team to new heights and making history. Jaylyn has turned a lot of heads this year with her raw emotion and athleticism, especially during March Madness, and she hopes to capitalize on her success by engaging with brands and being able to tell her story.”

Asked how a deal like this comes together in the midst of the tournament, Martin said it was a whirlwind.

“It was a lot of very timely coordination. There was such a small window from the time Jaylyn returned home from the Duke game to the time she set foot on the next plane for the Sweet Sixteen. It was a wild 24 hours and we couldn’t be happier the deal came together for her justjust in time.”

University of Southern California’s Destiny Littleton and Marquette’s Mackenzie Hare similarly signed deals with Buffalo Wild Wings after sending their teams into overtime during this year’s women’s tournament.

“This March, brands are really attaching themselves to different themes, both fun and inspiring,” said Detert. “We’re seeing major brands partner with both male and female student-athletes on the same campaign, creating the exposure amongst both tournaments going on simultaneously.”

Detert says several early campaigns stood out to him.

“Buick came in strong with their #SeeHerGreatness spot, a national TV campaign featuring female student-athletes and their love of the game, which also happens to fall within Women’s History Month and was launched around International Women’s Day. Goldman Sachs combined male and female student-athletes to call for the modernization of the Small Business Administration, and LG focused on mental health and #LoveTheGame.”

Asked whether he expects the NIL deals we see during March Madness to have a measurable impact on a brand’s return on investment, Detert says if they’re not already, they will be soon.

“The intention of any brand is to get a return on investment, whether it be a traditional ad or an NIL deal,” said Detert. “We’re still at the stage where brands are experimenting in NIL, but I don’t believe it will be long before the deals that brands sign with athletes will be significant and have an impact on a company’s bottom line.”

Although athletes have their attention focused primarily on the games, Detert says sharing their journey can translate into dollar signs.

“This is a rare and golden opportunity for these student-athletes to take advantage of the spotlight and make the most of the cultural moment. Though they are in the midst of what is likely the craziest week of their young lives, they should be documenting their journey on their social media channels and letting brands see who they are, both on and off the court. March Madness makes instant folk heroes and brands want to be able to align themselves with these athletes and their feel-good stories.”

Cavinder Twins Leaf Trading Cards
Leaf released special edition trading cards featuring the Cavinder twins during March Madness as Miami advanced to the Sweet 16.LEAF TRADING CARDS

The Cavinder twins took advantage of the increased spotlight during March Madness to announce a new deal with Leaf, which released special edition trading cards featuring Hanna and Haley as Miami advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1992.

Although the deal was reportedly negotiated previously, the parties agreed to wait until March to release the cards, which ended up being a smart decision with Miami’s performance in the tournament. The dual autograph card is printed to order through the end of March and retails for $79.99.

As both the men’s and women’s tournaments enter their final rounds, it’s not just a championship on the line for the athletes involved. Making a name for themselves on the court can also translate into making bank off the court for those who capitalize on their moment in the spotlight.

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  • Kristi Dosh

    Kristi A. Dosh is the founder of and has served as a sports business analyst and contributor for outlets such as Forbes, ESPN, SportsBusiness Journal, Bleacher Report, SB Nation and more. She is also the author of a book on the business of college football, Saturday Millionaires. Kristi is a sought-after consultant and speaker on topics related to the business of college sports and a former practicing attorney. Click to learn more

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