Scroll through Athletic Brewing’s official Instagram page and, throughout its profile, the familiar faces of some of the nation’s top college athletes.
The non-alcoholic beer brand has partnerships with Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson, Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud and South Carolina women’s basketball guard Brea Beal. On Instagram, some of these college athletes can be seen holding a can of Athletic with “paid partnership” written under their usernames.
Less than a year ago, partnerships like this that would allow college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL) were not possible for any brand. A mix of new state laws and an NCAA policy change that went into effect in July allowed those deals to take place. Athletic Brewing was one of the brands that jumped at the opportunity early on, allowing it to strike influencer-type deals with top college athletes to promote the brand and drive engagement.
“We always want to try to be first,” said Andrew Katz, Athletic Brewing’s marketing director. “We’re not afraid to try things out and stop them from participating. But the thing we don’t like to do is sit on the sidelines.
Founded in 2017 as a company for people who maintain an active lifestyle, the company sells a variety of non-alcoholic beers, including Athletic Lite, Trailblazer Hoppy Helles and Cerveza Atletica. The company declined to disclose 2021 revenue, but Athletic’s 2020 sales were up 500% from a year earlier for about 15 million dollars revenue, according to Bloomberg. Athletic has raised $67.5 million in funding to date.
Athletic began working with varsity athletes en masse in the fall, starting with football players like Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Bredan Galloway and Darien Rencher. Then the company started recruiting both male and female basketball players. Athletic had NIL agreements with at least a dozen varsity athletes and 50 professional athletes.
Katz said the contractual arrangements for each player can vary, but generally Athletic does photo shoots and video shoots with the players. The company has made promotional videos with Stroud and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, for example, showing them training and explaining why consumers would be interested in Athletic beers.
Other times, Athletic will invite these college athletes to its podcast, titled Without Compromise, where guests can share intimate personal stories. For example, Beal from South Carolina shared how she discovered her talent in basketball in a podcast episode in March.
When looking for varsity athletes to partner with, Katz said Athletic is looking for student-athletes whose values align with the brand in addition to having broad social reach and influence. “We’re a very mission-driven company, and they have to buy into that, so we want to work with them in the first place,” he said. “I think it’s easy to see, especially these days, when something is just a purely transactional relationship.”
Forming partnerships with college athletes is part of Athletic’s broader strategy to build brand awareness. These athletes attract many Gen Zs, millennials and sports fans, who are a target demographic for the company, he said.
Ryan Detert, CEO of influencer marketing firm Influential, said some college athletes may have fewer followers than a typical influencer, but their engagement rates may be equal to or higher than from some social media personalities due to the buzz happening on campuses and sports fans. commenting on their performance. Unlike influencers, however, college athletes may need more guidance on how to create content.
“You have a very committed varsity athlete who has both national appeal and, very importantly, local appeal,” Detert said. “When they become the big man or the big woman on campus, they have a tremendous amount of influence.”
Other brands are also vying for deals with college athletes. Last week, Columbus, Ohio-based apparel retailer Express named Ohio State’s Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba as its first collegiate athlete style ambassadors. Adidas too unveiled a new NIL network in March, this would allow 50,000 college athletes to be paid as affiliate brand ambassadors.
Some NIL transactions are worth millions. In August, Ohio State freshman QB Quinn Ewers signed a $1.4 million NIL contract with GT Sports Marketing. Last month, sports publication The Athletic reported in March that a five-star recruit had signed a collective NIL who could pay the student $8 million by the end of his freshman year in college.
Hannah Cameron, head of corporate communications at influencer marketing platform #Paid, said finding student-athletes to partner with is becoming increasingly competitive for brands.
“It’s getting more and more competitive because everyone knows who the best schools are and who the best athletes are,” she said. “So you can imagine how many brands want to work with them.”
Experts say partnering with student-athletes is attractive for brands that want to build a relationship with these athletes early on before they turn professional. According to data from Front Office Sports.
Long term, Athletic’s Katz said the brand is ready to team up with college athletes from niche sports. Whether Athletic expands its student partnerships after college depends on how their relationship with the athlete develops, he said. “We would love to be able to continue to be a part of their story as they evolve from college athletes to professional athletes, but I think all of these relationships are two-way.”