NBC Sports running NIL pilot program focused on lower profile athletes

In the year since the NCAA allowed college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, a handful of stars — including Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Connecticut point guard Paige Bueckers — have signed deals said to be worth about seven digits. On the other end of the NIL spectrum are athletes such as Riley McGowan, a forward on the Temple women’s lacrosse team, who recently earned $100 for using her Instagram account to promote a Philadelphia Phillies-Washington broadcast Nationals at Peacock.

McGowan’s opportunity was arranged through Athlete Direct, a NIL market launched in April as a pilot program by NBC Sports at Temple, as well as Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. The platform, which connects NBC Sports advertisers with athletes, was developed from conversations between network representatives and school presidents, athletic directors, compliance officers, coaches and parents after the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved the new NIL rules.

“Inclusion is a big part of what we want to do,” Damon Phillips, NBC Sports’ senior vice president of strategic initiatives, said in a telephone interview. “A lot of the offers you’re seeing are for that top 1 percent. What we’re focusing on is the other 99 percent. We think there’s an opportunity to bring deals to those student-athletes.”

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The schools in the pilot program were not randomly selected. NBC Sports has a long relationship with Notre Dame, broadcasting Fighting Irish football games for 31 years. Temple made sense because NBC has a local affiliate, a regional sports network and a Telemundo station in Philadelphia. Officials at Vanderbilt, Phillips said, shared what he called NBC Sports’ vision of approaching the NIL “in a responsible way.” In addition to being notified of offers, athletes who sign up with Athlete Direct are given access to personal finance resources from CNBC.

Atleti Direct’s first offering arrived last month — a tune-in campaign for the weekly Sunday morning MLB broadcast on NBC-owned streaming service Peacock. To qualify for the promotion, athletes were asked to share a post and story on Instagram before the June 19 game between the Phillies and Nationals, with specific information included for tracking purposes. Given the match, athletes from the Philadelphia and D.C. areas were targeted first, but the bid, which was limited to 75 participants, was open to anyone.

McGowan, who is from the Philadelphia suburb of Souderton, Pa., received an email and a DM on Instagram about the promotion and decided it was a good fit.

“I was born and raised here, so the Phillies are a team I’ve always rooted for,” McGowan said. “I think if it was two random teams or I wasn’t interested in watching sports, it would be a weird thing for me to post, so I wouldn’t.”

NBC Sports provided some recommended headlines and a chart for athletes to post. McGowan was one of the few participants who used a personal photo — of herself as a child at a Class AA Reading Phillies game — so it “didn’t look so robotic.” She said she received $70 for her Instagram post, $20 for her story, and $10 for providing an analytics view of her posts.

McGowan, a rising senior, said the NIL rules have made it easier for her to grow her brand and personal training business.

“It was like walking on eggshells with what I was allowed to post before,” she said. “I couldn’t post any photos in temple attire because it might have made me inappropriate. It was hard to promote myself and grow what I was trying to do when I wasn’t allowed to do many things. … I know $100 doesn’t sound like a ton, but it’s definitely something.”

Among the other athletes participating in the pilot campaign were Temple volleyball and track athlete Jaaliyah Evans, Vanderbilt football teammates Brayden Bapst and Justin Ball, Notre Dame tennis player Matt Che and basketball alum of Notre Dame and former Gonzaga College standout Prentiss Hubb. Then there was Notre Dame pitcher Gerry Peacock — who, in addition to sharing a name with the streaming service being paid to promote him while his team was in the College World Series, happens to be a huge Phillies fan.

NBC Sports plans to add more schools in the fall and offer additional ways for athletes to monetize their social media accounts through partnerships with local and national brands, including promoting discount codes for NBC-owned products such as GolfPass and GolfNow.

“One of the goals here is to reach a younger audience and build a Gen Z network of student-athletes,” Phillips said. “We’re learning from the pilot and our goal is to pour rocket fuel into this fall and be able to expand to student-athletes from all schools.”

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