Collegiate athletes, private brands could make great teammates

With the NCAA now allowing college athletes to make money from their likeness, regional retailers could benefit from a store brand partnership.
Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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In July of this year, the NCAA adopted a policy that enables collegiate athletes for the first time to “benefit from their name, image and likeness,” meaning they can make money from a brand endorsement — think being on the famed Wheaties box, or appearing at a car dealership, or mostly how they wield their powerful social media presences.

The rule has been a few years in the making and now that it’s been given the go-ahead, college athletes are already striking deals, especially on a local level, where I think smaller or independent stores or grocery chains have a real opportunity to partner and even promote their private brands. In fact, it seems like a natural fit for a local retailer to partner with a homegrown star as a way to challenge larger national brands who leverage big celebrity endorsements and influencer partnerships.

You see, I think when news of the NCAA policy change first broke, it was easy to immediately think about star athletes like Zion Willamson, now an NBA star with the New Orleans Pelicans, back when he was at Duke University and the potential money he could’ve made from endorsements. This still may likely happen, where a college athlete becomes as notable as Willamson was during his days at Duke, and finds his or her way into national commercials, on that Wheaties box or even into more lucrative deals.

a man holding a sign posing for the camera
Matt Nickell of Hy-Vee and Caitlin Clark

However, the bigger focus should be on a smaller scale. Take, for example, Hy-Vee, the chain of 285 stores across eight Midwestern states, who announced its first collegiate athlete partnership with Caitlin Clark, a standout basketball player for the University of Iowa. Clark, a native of West Des Moines, Iowa, where Hy-Vee is headquartered, is a sophomore and an absolute star in her sport, only strengthened by the local ties.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen her play and was an instant fan. As a freshman, she led the country in scoring and total assists, earning the Dawn Staley Award for most outstanding collegiate guard in the country. She’s one of the top players in the country, a future WNBA pick and professional international basketball player. For now, she’s in Iowa, where she’s beloved, as is Hy-Vee. It’s the perfect time for the regional chain to work with Clark — and maybe even on a box of store brand cereal!

Hy-Vee has previously worked with celebrities and athletes on endorsed store brand cereals such as the Field of Dreams Corn Flakes that it did with actor Dwier Brown and the Hy-Vee cereal Cousins CinnaMINN Snaps. I asked Hy-Vee if Clark might find her way onto an own brand cereal, and the company said for now she will be helping with general promotional and social campaigns, including calling out products she loves at Hy-Vee, as well as supporting its KidsFit wellness program. 

But the idea makes sense. A lot of independent grocers or smaller regional chains may not be in markets with major pro sports teams, and can leverage the loyalty of its collegiate fanbases, putting its popular athletes into store brand licensing deals. 

Stop & Shop recently delivered a fun, limited-time-only pasta leveraging the likeness of Boston Bruins' right wing David Pastrňák, and Cleveland-area grocer Heinen’s had an exclusive cereal with Cleveland Browns player Nick Chubb. For potentially less money, and the same amount of clout, regional grocers can now tap college athletes in their area.

And if not on actual products, the regional chains can leverage college athletes to get in on their great social reach. Even before they make it to college, a lot of high school sports stars today have huge social followings. Williamson, as noted above, had more than 1.5 million Instagram followers when he was in high school. 

High school athletes, raised with a mobile phone in their hands, are branding themselves on social media well before they get that scholarship. They then take a well groomed social presence and build it even further in college. This is where a local retailer can make a connection, like Hy-Vee will be doing to promote its wellness programs and have Clark highlight her favorite products.

Being so attuned to social, it’s the more likely for college athletes to take advantage of the new NCAA policy in the social sphere, as opposed to striking a shoe deal. It's a nice way to make some well-earned extra money doing sponsored social posts or personalized phone calls on the mobile app Cameo. But, some of them will get a store brand cereal box, too, I believe it.  

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