A graphic on ESPN's deal with INFLCR.

Last week, ESPN announced an intriguing collaboration with content and compliance platform INFLCR, which will see ESPN’s Andscape (formerly The Undefeated) and espnW have their own branded pages within the INFLCR app. That’s paving the way for those ESPN brands to potentially strike name, image, and likeness deals with college athletes.

In that release, ESPN vice president (sports business development & innovation) Kevin Lopes said “This collaboration between ESPN and INFLCR allows our Andscape and espnW brands to interact with collegiate student-athletes, foster new relationships, and identify mutually-beneficial opportunities.” He expanded on that further to Awful Announcing via e-mail. To start with, Lopes said the espnW and Andscape brands were good places for ESPN to start this relationship.

“Andscape and espnW are ESPN’s leading brands when it comes to elevating stories about black and female athletes. We feel there’s an opportunity for both brands to share content and grow relationships directly with student athletes via INFLCR’s platform.”

As for why INFLCR in particular was the right fit to work with, Lopes said ESPN’s been tracking that company’s NIL work and saw them as a logical fit  for this.

“We recognize INFLCR as an early leader in the NIL space, and we’re looking forward to testing various content opportunities to help inform ESPN’s future strategy in this new industry.”

Lopes said they can’t spotlight what particular kinds of NIL deals this could lead to right now, as this collaboration is in early stages at this point.

“Given the relative early days of NIL in collegiate athletics, we’re just excited to learn as much as possible and identify mutually beneficial opportunities that lead to success in the future.”

But he said it matters for ESPN to examine NIL deals with athletes even at this early stage, and they can then decide if they want to push further into that arena.

“It’s a good strategy for ESPN to get out in front of any emerging industry that makes sense for our brand, so we can understand if and how we want to be involved. In this case, initially we are just focused on launching branded pages for Andscape and espnW to share content and grow relationships directly with student athletes via INFLCR’s platform.”

ESPN is not the first sports media company doing NIL deals with athletes. There have been a number of these, from TexAgs paying Texas A&M players for exclusive interviews to the Twitter/Opendorse highlights deal (set to start with Pac-12 football) to Comcast and NBCUniversal launching a NBC Sports Athlete Direct NIL pilot program for athletes at Notre Dame, Temple, and Vanderbilt.

That NBC program is maybe the most comparable here, and it includes paying athletes to post about NBC Sports initiatives they’re interested in (including Peacock’s MLB Sunday Leadoff games). NBC Sports Group’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives Damon Phillips told On3’s Andy Wittry last month “Compared to what we’re seeing as reported influencer engagement rates, we are very pleased with how the athletes are performing.” And it seemingly makes a lot of sense to get athletes to market sports content; the people following athletes on social platforms are likely to be sports fans. So it’s interesting to see ESPN now exploring this, and exploring it with Andscape and espnW in particular.

It’s also interesting to read that particular quote from Lopes of “It’s a good strategy for ESPN to get out in front of any emerging industry that makes sense for our brand.” That makes sense, and it fits with some of the business-oriented things ESPN has done around new areas in the past. Some of those moves have led to long-running partnerships and larger areas of emphasis for ESPN, while others have been exploratory moves that didn’t work in the end, such as the planned stake and short-lived exclusive ad partnership with DraftKings back in the daily fantasy heyday. We’ll see if this NIL approach, which is starting with this small and focused move, winds up being a larger thing for the company long-term.

[ESPN Press Room]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.