A few weeks back, Electronic Arts announced its beloved college football video game series will make a triumphant return to the shelves. Go back a few weeks earlier this month, and you’ll find athletic departments’ social media teams working tirelessly to produce creative graphics to usher in new recruiting classes on National Signing Day.
Branding is a massive aspect of college sports, and its significance has only skyrocketed in the social media era. Especially with NIL (name, image, likeness) legislation inevitably in the works, student-athletes’ brands are now able to go beyond the rushing yards they achieved on Saturdays or the number of tackles for loss they racked up on Thursday night.
Emphasizing the importance of promoting brands of its individual athletes, the Ohio University athletic department became the first Mid-American Conference program to sign a department-wide contract with INFLCR (pronounced “influencer”). INFLCR is an application utilized by over 850 teams across the country to provide athletes with personalized branding content to post on their social media channels — an investment in which Ohio sees unlimited potential.
“We are committed to providing an experience that allows student-athletes to build their personal brands in the evolving digital market,” Ohio athletic director Julie Cromer said in a statement to INFLCR. “We look forward to amplifying their individual stories as we expand digital strategies for Ohio Athletics.”
INFLCR builds its culture around serving athletes as storytellers, according to CEO Jim Cavale. Ranging from the engineering group to the product team to sales, most employees at INFLCR are former student-athletes, focused on promoting the current generation from a branding perspective.
The application congregates photo and video content into one place, stemming from the university athletics department, national media, and local media. INFLCR servers utilize artificial intelligence such as facial recognition and jersey number recognition to sort the content into personalized galleries for each athlete on the application. When a game is finished, the athletes receive a text that new content is located in their INFLCR app. In addition to providing organized content to athletes, INFLCR provides video lecture series to prepare athletes for digital networking in order to bolster their personal brands.
While partnering with INFLCR primarily focuses on student-athletes’ images, Ohio also hopes to seek long-term benefits for its brand as an athletics department. Improved recruiting, boosted attendance, and entrance into the national spotlight are several effects Ohio aims to accomplish from this deal.
“The messaging, the branding, the content production, the education and equipping of athletes — these are all things which can help Ohio U stand out, and they need to make sure as a communications staff and creative team that they are documenting the journey of their teams, documenting the standout stories of student athletes, and ultimately equipping student-athletes with the content they need to tell their stories,” said Jim Cavale, the CEO of INFLCR.
The Bobcats have enjoyed their share of viral moments over the past few years. During the 2019 season, Ohio was the forefront of college football Twitter when offensive guard Hagen Meservy performed a cartwheel in the middle of a successful passing play against Western Michigan. To cap off the season, the Bobcats defeated Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and celebrated by dumping a bucket of French fries onto head coach Frank Solich. Cavale explains how players and universities can capitalize off these viral moments.
“Ohio U can now look at themselves on social media as a national media network — NBC, if you will. And each of those athletes is an affiliate — NBC Boston, NBC Detroit, NBC Atlanta,” Cavale explained. “Tapping into these affiliate channels and giving them personalized content in a big moment to be able to share from their perspective, to talk about that same moment from all these different angles provides reach that goes into each of the individual followings that these individuals have, but creates a collective reach that allows Ohio U to reach more folks in a much higher quality manner.”
All of this branding power only augments when NIL legislation is passed. Should a time come when athletes are capable of profiting off their image, driving up engagements will be of utmost importance. When the Ohio University bookstore is looking for an athlete to promote its products, it will look no further than hiring one with an engaged social media following. The INFLCR app already allows student athletes to see the fair market value of their social media metrics, but NIL laws open doors to an ocean of opportunities.
“When NIL legislation is launched, our app will have a new set of features geared around monetization,” Cavale said. “Student athletes will be able to build a profile to attract opportunities that are out there to make money off their name, image, and likeness. They’ll be able to transact with those opportunities. Once they process those opportunities, they’ll be able to have reports around many of their transactions in order to use for compliance purposes and for tax and business purposes.”
Ohio is the first department-wide MAC program to partner with INFLCR, but some sport-specific partnerships are already in place including a deal with Toledo’s basketball programs. As the age of social media continues to progress, athletes’ brands become more valuable with each passing year. In order to maintain afloat in the competitive branding arms race, programs like Ohio are betting on branding platforms to shape the future of its athletes.