The NIL game changer? Personal branding

GSE Money in the Making

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In the era of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals, college athletes have entered a new playing field. Suddenly, they can profit from their popularity, and that means personal branding has taken center stage. Success is no longer just about your skills on the field or stage; it's about crafting a powerful personal brand that captures the hearts and minds of your audience. Whether you want to drive social media influencer campaigns, make personal appearances, launch your own merchandise line, coach the next generation of athletes, or endorse products, your personal brand is the fuel that will drive it all.

Now, “personal branding” doesn’t mean riding the hype wave or creating a false persona. And it goes deeper than the surface-level impact of having a catchy logo, a clever tagline, or an impressive following on social media. Your personal brand is the sum of people's perceptions of you: your background, achievements, values, and the authentic essence of who you are. It's about presenting the real you, unfiltered but finely tuned to strike a chord with your audience. As you can imagine, it’s not always easy to achieve.

So let's dive deeper into the process of building your personal brand and discover how it can be the ultimate game-changer in the NIL era.


Step 1: what are your personal values?

There’s a misconception out there that personal branding is all about figuring out what your audience wants to hear and then feeding it to them. However, that's a recipe for creating a brand that screams "fake.” So what’s the secret sauce? You need to start by discovering what truly matters to you. After all, for anyone else to care about what you have to say, you have to genuinely care first.

How do you figure that out? Try jotting down three things that get you fired up and make you talk nonstop. Maybe it's mental health, nutrition, leadership, or hey, even perfecting that killer crossover dribble. Whatever your gut says, write it down. These are the topics that fuel your passion and set you apart from the rest.

Next up, envision your future. In the next five years, what do you want to be known for as both an athlete and a person? Write it down, record a voice memo, whatever works. Then take the question even further and fast forward fifteen years. What kind of legacy do you want for your dream career? Dream big. Picture yourself out there making waves, inspiring others with your incredible journey, and becoming a role model for the next generation. What does that impact look like to you? Take a moment to visualize it and get those ideas flowing.

Remember, it’s the authentic you that will capture the hearts and minds of your audience. So embrace what you genuinely care about. It’ll set the foundation for a personal brand that's as real and remarkable as you are.

Step 2: study the playing field

If someone were to ask you to participate in an on-stage conversation, you’d probably want to know two things: who you’re talking with, and what type of audience you’re talking to. It’s the same for your personal brand. You need to identify the key players  your audience and your NIL "competitors."

First up, your competition. With over 190,000 NCAA Division I student-athletes1 and half a million student-athletes across all college sports2, not every athlete will be a direct competitor. But inevitably there will be others in your NIL playing field: people playing your sport, gunning for the same endorsements and sponsorships as you. Don’t dismiss these folks. Study them. What are they saying? How are they saying it? Who are they saying it to? By getting a handle on what sets them apart, you’ll uncover what sets you apart, too. And that differentiation can be the key to getting noticed, and getting paid.

Likewise, studying your audience is just as important in building your brand. Because trying to cater to everyone will leave you with a diluted message that resonates deeply with no one. That's why it's crucial to narrow down your target audience. You need to understand their interests, aspirations, and challenges. Let's say you're an NCAA Division 1 soccer player who’s passionate about running summer camps for youth soccer kids. In this case, your target audience would be the young players and their parents in the communities you want to serve. By being specific and focused on defining your audience, you enhance your ability to connect with them on a deeper level.

Pitfall #3: even legends have to retire

When it comes to personal branding, you are your message. That’s why you need to take the time to get it right. This might take a few brainstorming sessions, or a few rounds of tweaking. But in the long run, it’ll be time well spent because your message is the engine that’ll make your brand go.

You can craft your message any number of ways. But here’s some structure for the process.

  1. Start with a concise and compelling statement; maybe a one or two-sentence summary that captures the essence of your personal brand and what you stand for. This statement should be clear, impactful, and memorable.
  2. Describe who your ideal audience is and what they care about. Your whole message should be tailored to resonate with their interests and aspirations.
  3. Define your “unique selling proposition” (USP). In other words, what sets your offering apart? Clearly communicate the value and benefits you offer to your audience. How can you solve their problems, fulfill their desires, or enrich their lives? Emphasize the positive impact you can make.
  4. Write a story that communicates your own journey. Share the experiences, challenges, and triumphs that have shaped you to this point. Showcase your authenticity. Storytelling will help your audience connect emotionally with you.
  5. Clarify your mission and values. What do you want to achieve? What principles and beliefs guide your actions and decisions? Ensure your message reflects these foundational elements.
  6. Get Feedback and Revise. Have you said what you set out to say? Have you eschewed euphuistic prose used simple words? Did you choose phrases that evoke emotion, inspire action, and create a strong impression? These are questions that trusted friends, mentors, or advisors can help answer. Get their feedback and make adjustments as needed.

Step 4: build your online presence

Once you've perfected your message, it's time to get the word out by developing your digital presence. And yes, in the fast-paced world of NIL, having a strong online presence is a must. Social media is just the start. To make heads turn and sponsors swoon, you need to be on top of your game with a strong website and NIL marketplace profile, too.

Social media. Your social media profiles are like your digital calling cards. Choose platforms that resonate with your target audience, align with your brand message, and allow you to showcase your skills. whether you're an Instagram aficionado, a TikTok sensation, or a Twitter wordsmith, be intentional with your content. The key is to be authentic, share your journey, and sprinkle in a healthy dose of personality. With a solid profile, you can do outreach for deals through the platforms.

Personal website. Think of your personal website as your online HQ. It's where you can curate your best social media posts, videos, articles, merchandise, services, and upcoming events. Visitors should get a comprehensive view of your brand: your achievements, values, and story. Don’t worry if you're not a web design pro, there are plenty of user-friendly tools out there to help make you look like a coding wiz.

NIL marketplaces. These are online platforms that provide opportunities for student-athletes to connect with brands and secure endorsements and sponsorships. On most of these platforms, you’ll have to develop a profile that shows you're a brand worth betting on. It can also be smart to create profiles for all the marketplaces relevant to you, prioritizing any that are specifically affiliated with your school. And in terms of tone, the key here is to be authentic AND professional. After all, an athlete looking for an NIL deal is really an entrepreneur looking for a business partnership.

Now remember, consistency is the key to your online presence. It helps build trust and credibility — and really, it’s what makes a brand a brand. So keep your tone on point, your visuals polished, and your brand message aligned across all your digital channels.

Step 5: other ways to market yourself

While the digital world offers numerous opportunities for finding NIL deals, it's important not to overlook the power of face-to-face connections. So when your eyes start to burn from the blue light of your computer screen, here are a few IRL strategies to consider:

Local outreach. Reach out to local businesses and community organizations who might be interested in using your brand for a promotion. Distribute marketing materials that outline your sponsorship opportunities within the community. This proactive approach can open doors to exciting collaborations and sponsorships right in your own backyard.

NIL collectives. Often, universities will partner with an NIL collective (often run by alumni or prominent donor) who’s passionate about funding NIL opportunities for student-athletes. Check with your school to see if it has local boosters. At the very least, they may be able to provide valuable insights, connections, and resources to help you navigate the world of NIL deals.

NIL clubs: More and more these days, student athletes are banding together and creating their own clubs focused on navigating the NIL landscape together. If your team or school doesn’t already have one, consider starting one. By joining forces with others who share similar goals and ambitions, you can share the labor and leverage the power of collaboration to your benefit.


In the era of NIL deals, personal branding is a student-athlete’s ultimate game-changer. The key is to craft an authentic, compelling message that makes you stand out. To start, reflect on your values and goals, study your competition as deeply as your target audience, and craft a brand message that shares your journey and your mission. Then build a consistent online presence with social media, a personal website, and NIL marketplaces. And don't forget about the real world too, with local outreach, NIL collectives, and NIL clubs at your university.

If all goes accordingly to plan, those NIL deals will start rolling in. (Woohoo!) So if you need a little guidance on how to determine if an NIL deal is right for you, check out this article on NIL Deal Literacy. And you might also want to give some thought on turning your brand into a business, too.

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