Nicholas Lord: Sports Marketing Expert and NOCAP CEO
Student athletes are transforming the influencer marketing space, but how can brands put their best foot forward with NIL deals? Sports marketing expert and NOCAP CEO Nicholas Lord shares his tips for high-engagement student athlete NIL strategies in 2023.
Nicholas Lord is a student athlete turned entrepreneur: he is the co-founder and CEO of NOCAP Sports, a premier name, image and likeness (NIL) platform helping connect brands, agencies and athletes. NOCAP Sports was created to provide trusted, safe and secure solutions for athletes and advertisers entering the new NIL era.
A few highlights from this NIL-focused episode:
- What the leading brands in the NIL space are doing that’s so successful
- How to get extra PR from NIL deals
- The power of reaching local audiences with college athletes
- How to navigate messy/inconsistent compliance rules
- Genuine sponsorships vs. insincere shout-outs: why authenticity matters
Episode 20: Nicholas Lord Transcript
Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway. This is a podcast that brings you inside the world of marketing through the lens of influence. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week, through candid conversations with industry insiders, we will uncover how influencer marketing is making an impact across all consumer buying habits and is changing the way we talk to each other. Let’s dive in.
Danielle Wiley: Nicholas Lord is a student athlete turned entrepreneur from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After graduating from college in 2020, during the pandemic, Nicholas co-founded NOCAP Sports, an athlete marketing technology and services company specifically focused on the new college athlete name, image, and likeness, NIL, market. NOCAP helps brands, agencies, and franchises execute athlete marketing campaigns at scale through turnkey technology and a diverse network of tens of thousands of college athletes nationwide. Now that we are just over a year into NIL being a thing in the influencer and student athlete space, we were thrilled to have on Nicholas Lord from NOCAP. This was a really fun conversation talking about all of the successes, opportunities and yes, even the messiness of the monetization of college athletes. Please enjoy.
Danielle Wiley: It’s great to finally have you on. I’m really excited to chat with you today.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on. Excited to dive in a little bit here.
Danielle Wiley: I would love to start with just you kind of sharing your journey to where you’re at today and how you ended up in the NIL space, and feel free to pimp out your company as much as you like as you do so.
Nicholas Lord: Awesome. Yeah, appreciate that. Yeah, so I started this company when I was in college, actually, and that was about two and a half years ago, graduated in 2020 during the pandemic. Was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life at the time. We got led home early for graduation and decided to start a company around that time. Our company actually started in the college recruiting space. So we were essentially connecting high school athletes with college coaches and help them decide what their next step was going to be in their career as an athlete.
Nicholas Lord: And about two or three months in, realized that wasn’t really where we wanted to be longer term, realized it was a pretty saturated market, the college recruiting market itself. And so I started looking around in different ways we could pivot the business into something a little bit more interesting. And that was when I met my co-founder, actually, Casey Floyd, who was at the University of Michigan as their Director of Compliance, I believe his title was at the time, and he was actually on the legislation and governance committee for NIL.
Danielle Wiley: So in my backyard here.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, in your backyard. So he was over there, very knowledgeable of the NIL space about a year and a half before it even occurred. So I set up a meeting with him and just wanted to inquire about what the possibilities were going to be here, cause I had just started hearing rumors about NIL and the potential for college athletes to be able to monetize that. So definitely something really intriguing to me. I was a student athlete myself. Probably couldn’t have made a ton of money, but definitely had an entrepreneurial mind when I was in college. Started my first business my freshman year.
Danielle Wiley: And what, just because I’m sure everyone’s wondering, what sport?
Nicholas Lord: I played basketball.
Danielle Wiley: Awesome.
Nicholas Lord: So I played four years.
Danielle Wiley: I haven’t met you in person, so I mean for all I knew you were five four, but apparently not.
Nicholas Lord: Not too, too tall, but I’m six four, so I’m up there.
Danielle Wiley: I’m five two, so that’s like giant to me.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, so I met with him and when I told him what I was doing at the current time and my interest in the NIL space, he was pretty much like, “Dude, you need to drop what you’re doing and go all in on this. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be huge and it’s going to be a really exciting market opportunity to get into.” So about two weeks later, decided to pivot the entire business into NIL, and this was about a year before NIL came to be.
Nicholas Lord: Casey, who I just met, actually quit his job a couple weeks later and came on full-time and him and I and my other co-founder decided to start the company around then. So we essentially built in the dark for the first year, bootstrapped the entire beginning of our company, which we’re proud of, and were able to launch a product on the first day of NIL. A lot of our initial focus was actually in the university realm, so we were essentially going after universities, trying to help them with their compliance, help them with making sure all their athletes were staying above board when they were doing NIL deals.
Danielle Wiley: I think a lot of people are not, just to pause you for a second there, I think, just in conversations I’ve had, I think there’s not a lot of knowledge about the extra compliance that is in place for NIL. So it’s not just working… actually, it’s funny because I’ve talked to people at the U of M and I think even among the athletes, there’s not an awareness that there’s a compliance requirement, where you have to let the university know every deal that you’re doing because they have to let the NCAA… there’s a lot of rules in terms of who knows about what you’re doing. So you are helping with those kind of making sure that everything was staying above board.
Nicholas Lord: Absolutely. Yeah, and it’s kind of a mess right now just in terms of compliance rules because you have universities that have different school policies regarding what athletes can and can’t do. You have some states that have NIL policies in place that you have to follow and some states that don’t, and then you obviously have the overall blanket policy that the NCAA put into action. So there’s a lot of rules that you have to follow that I don’t think a lot of athletes realize. I don’t think brands realize as much.
Nicholas Lord: So it’s definitely really important to follow that. So that was actually where a lot of our initial focus was, and over time as NIL kind of evolved, we’ve turned more into a deal sourcing platform and company. So we work with, I would say larger scale brands, helping them come up with NIL campaigns and helping them execute them from start to finish, usually entailing anywhere from five to 20 athletes at a time in those campaigns. So it’s been really fun to get in the weeds there, and I think it’s going to be an exciting 2023 with brands in terms of investing into the NIL space. So that’s kind of where we play.
Danielle Wiley: On our end we’re seeing, and I think just in the press, so much of the press is on the really big name players. I mean, I’ve talked about it a lot being here in Ann Arbor, you see Blake Corum driving with his really fancy car, and I know J.J. McCarthy’s getting a ton of money, and a lot of the dollars have been going to the athletes who are huge and have huge followings and are really well known. And I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for the more micro ones who might have a significant influence within their smaller community, but actually have greater engagement and can provide just a more affordable option for brands that maybe don’t have the deep pockets of like a Gatorade or a Nike. But what have you been seeing in terms of the size of following of athletes and how it’s been panning out?
Nicholas Lord: It’s definitely varied across the board for us in terms of the deals that we’ve been doing. We’ve done deals with a brand, they want to sponsor two to three athletes, and those athletes are bigger time, or a brand comes in and say, “Hey, we want to sponsor 10, 20, or 30 athletes that might have smaller followings so we can reach the same kind of audience, but in these targeted communities.” Because when you look at up these athletes’ following, a lot of their audience is located within that college town. So it provides a pretty cool way for brands to more target their influencer campaign as opposed to doing these larger athletes who have a national following. But in terms of exact numbers of following, we’ve done a couple deals where athletes have a thousand followers, but we’ve also done some where it’s five to 15. I would say a majority of ours are athletes in the five to 25 range at this point. Yeah, it’s been pretty across the board in terms of the total following for them.
Danielle Wiley: And what are you seeing from… the athletes I’ve spoken to, there seems to be just a lot of, I don’t know if frustration’s the right word, but confusion and just feeling like they know everything about their sport and they certainly want to take advantage of any opportunity to make money, but they don’t necessarily know, they’re not expert in growing a TikTok or they don’t know… I’ve heard stories of soccer players who have an Instagram and they never post in-feed and they only post stories, and then they don’t get any work because there’s nothing in their feet. There just seems to be… there’s not really one place for athletes to go to get a how-to on what to do. I’ve heard a lot of frustration. I don’t know if you’ve heard some of that as well.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, a hundred percent. We get approached both by universities and by athletes all the time about how can we secure more deals for our athletes, or how can I get more deals as an athlete myself? It depends on who the athlete is, but a lot of the time for us, I think the athlete just has to be proactive about it. They have to, like you said, they got to show that they’re active on social media. They got to show that they’re willing to work with brands. They’re being, I would say diligent about what brands they want to work with and giving reasons of why they want to work with that brand. I think that’s really powerful, when a athlete reaches out to a brand and its like, “Hey, I want to work with you and these are the reasons why,” I list them out. I think that provides a cool opportunity for athletes. So we just tell them to be as proactive as possible and try to provide opportunities for them to do that, in our case.
Danielle Wiley: I guess looking back, it’s been just about a year. What are your… other than the fact that it’s kind of a mess from a compliance perspective, what do you think have been the key learnings? What’s been great in the first year beyond fixing the whole messiness of it? What else do you think needs to change?
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, I think in terms of the NIL space, there’s just so much going on and so many different companies and so many different providers and so many different experts, or they call themselves experts, and I think it confuses athletes and confuses universities about who do I trust? So I think over the next maybe year or two I think there needs to be some sort of consolidation around who are the people, who are the companies that are really helping athletes in this space, and who are doing things the right way?
Nicholas Lord: Cause I do think there are a lot of bad players in the NIL space and that needs to be fixed at some point. So I think that’s kind of one of the biggest issues with this space. But we’re on the brand side and I think just talking to brands over the last six to 12 months, I think in 2022 specifically, a lot of brands are on the let’s sit on the sideline, it’s a wait and see type game for us right now. But I think now there’s enough case studies and NIL has proven a big opportunity for these brands, so I think that we’re going to see much bigger investments into this space going into this year, which is exciting for us and I’m sure for you guys as well.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. And what do you think about the whole, I’m sure you saw it too, I was reading an article in the New York Times where they were interviewing high school athletes and asking them, when you’re making a decision of where to go, how do you rank the importance of who the coach is, the NIL deal? I forget what the other thing was. And most of them were putting NIL at the bottom, which was kind of… and I don’t know if they were lying, just because it sounds crass to say NIL is top choice for me.
Danielle Wiley: But two thoughts on that. I’m curious to know what you think. One, it was kind of refreshing if it’s true, but two, I think that it was a football specific article, which I think is very telling, because for those kids, there’s a much bigger moneymaking opportunity after college. But I think if you’re asking, I don’t know, female diver or a sport that there’s not a huge… even wrestling, something where there’s not a huge pro money making opportunity out there, I wonder… I feel like that just the importance of NIL and recruitment takes on more… it takes on more importance because that’s their one shot to make that money.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, absolutely. That is surprising to me, actually. I don’t think I… you’ll have to send me that article.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah.
Nicholas Lord: To me, it depends on the type of athlete and the school, too. I saw an article the other day about a collective offering. I guess I’ll explain what a collective is. Maybe people listening don’t know what that is, but so at these universities, there are groups of boosters or donors that come together and pool together money, and then essentially allocate that money to athletes in exchange for them promoting local businesses or local charities or things like that. So you have these collectives that have come into play raising millions of dollars and distributing that money to athletes, and I think especially at bigger schools that are football schools, I think that has been a huge, huge plus for recruiting and I think drives a lot of athletes’ decisions when it comes to who they’re going to choose, what school they’re going to choose to go to.
Danielle Wiley: It feels so not in the spirit of… it feels like a creepy loophole.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah. I look at collectives as being a separate entity almost at this point compared to… I think NIL is athletes using their own following to work with brands or work with their fan base, not getting handed money from random people to go to a certain university or to stay at a certain university. I think they’re two completely separate things. I do think it is highly influential in the decisions that athletes are making right now about where to go to school. Might not be for every sport, but especially I think at football and basketball schools, major schools like that I think that’s a big factor for a lot of these athletes right now.
Danielle Wiley: It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out because like I said, it feels like it’s a loophole, and I don’t know if they’ll be able to dial it back at all now, but yeah.
Nicholas Lord: I know they’re talking about it at the congressional level. I see articles all the time from ADs and other influential voices in this space talking about how this needs to be fixed. I just don’t know how you’re going to do it. I think to an extent it was probably happening before, just now it’s on the surface and people know about it because they’re allowed to talk about it.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah. No, it was definitely happening before, but now it’s kind of crawling above ground, right?
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, exactly.
Danielle Wiley: So what do you think were some of the huge brand wins over the past year? What were some of… and these could be campaigns that you worked on or even didn’t, but what stands out for you as some of the really great examples of what brands accomplished in the past year?
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, I think the brands that have kind of led this space so far are the ones that have gotten really creative about the campaign that they’re doing. It’s not just like, “Hey, I want you to go hold a product and post it on social media.” I think if they’re able to invest a little bit more and really kind of dive into how they can affect that fan base, I think that has been more interesting to me. I’ll give an example. So we did a deal a couple weeks ago with Conagra and Rotel and Hunts for a tomato sauce campaign, and we had the entire Arkansas men’s basketball team show up at a local kitchen and they all cooked chili, and we made a whole video around it and they all ended up posting it on social media.
Nicholas Lord: And it blew up because it was just a super genuine sponsorship, in my opinion, where you had the full team getting together, saw the camaraderie of the team, which was cool, and you had the athletes talking about the product and whatnot of course, but it was more organic as opposed to, “Hey, you should go buy this.” I think the brands that are doing it like that and really kind of taking the time to come up with creative ideas of how they can be different when it comes to NIL are the brands that are really succeeding. I we did another one with Slate Milk and they did some really cool videos where they had… Slate Milk wasn’t even the main point of the video, it was the athlete working out. They were in the weight room, they were on the court getting a workout in, and at one point in the video showed them drinking Slate Milk, which was cool. And I think those subtle kind of sponsorships are the coolest ones to me and the ones that are the most effective.
Danielle Wiley: I think my favorite one I’ve seen, it’s a local one here in the Detroit area, there’s personal injury attorneys who advertise all over local TV, and we have one named Mike Morse, M-O-R-S-E, and so he had on Mike Morse the defensive, the defensive player from University of Michigan who’s like this huge beautiful man. So he’s like, “I’m Mike Morse.” And he said, “I’m Mike Morse.” And they’re like, “We both have great hair. We both…” And it was so silly and goofy, but it was like that’s so… you know what, you realize that it sounds the same and everyone in this area knows who he is, and everyone’s tired of seeing these same personal injury attorneys commercials all the time that you just kind of tune out. I thought it was super clever for a local ad.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Another one that just came to my mind, there was an athlete, I think it was from Texas, where he worked with a brand to essentially create his own condiment, I think it was mustard, Dijon mustard or something. I think his last name was Dijon, or Bijon. Bijon mustard, maybe, which I thought was pretty cool. They created their own product around it and did a whole social media campaign. So I think stuff like that is cool.
Danielle Wiley: There was a dairy one that was awesome. I forget which state it was, but one of the state dairy commodity boards, there was a player who goes by the mailman and he’s at a fake press conference, and he said he was changing his name to the milkman. It’s just kind of nice to… I feel like anytime there’s something new, it gives people this creative spark and marketing initiatives that have gotten stale. It just gives people this little spark of creativity and you start seeing some fun, creative stuff again.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, a hundred percent. And the cool part about NIL I think is if you’re able to come up with a creative concept, NIL is still super new, so when you do something that’s interesting or that hasn’t been done yet, you usually get a ton of press pickup on it and you get people talking about it in social media and the media organically, which I think is a really cool aspect to NIL.
Danielle Wiley: That’s a great point.
Nicholas Lord: I know a couple of deals we did just got… they just blew up just because Front Office Sports took it and then ESPN. I think one of the first ones they did was a full team deal with College Hunks, the moving company, and it was a full team football deal, and I remember, I think it was the first team deal, so it just blew up on social media. So I think there’s a cool aspect to NIL with that.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah, it’s getting a… I was actually just a guest on a NIL specific podcast a couple of weeks ago that’s being co-produced by Reddit. It has its own news podcast, and there’s definitely a lot of interest in it from a PR perspective.
Nicholas Lord: Right. Yeah, absolutely.
Danielle Wiley: Which is cool.
Nicholas Lord: A hundred percent.
Danielle Wiley: We were talking about some of the creative things, and with the Bowl games having just happened a few weeks ago and then March Madness coming up… I mean, I feel like last year with March Madness, we saw kind of the start of people being ready to jump into this opportunistically, because you don’t know who’s going to be the breakout star. So what would your advice be to marketers who want to be kind of poised and at the ready as we get close to March Madness here? How should people be prepared to pounce?
Nicholas Lord: Yeah. I think the way I would think about it is, from a brand’s perspective, would be to plan out the type of campaign you want to do, the creative things like that, but don’t choose the athletes yet. I think there’s a cool opportunity with March Madness or the Bowl games where you could capitalize on significant increases in… I remember last year there was one kid who just went viral, I think his name was like Doug or something from one of the-
Danielle Wiley: Is he the one who did one of the fast food, like a Subway, was it?
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, I think it was something like that.
Danielle Wiley: Some kind of sandwich thing, yeah.
Nicholas Lord: But he went into the tournament, not many people really knew about him yet, and all of a sudden, this dude is gaining 20,000 followers a night on social media, and if a brand had a budget already allocated for that, they could have hopped in right away. And I think a couple… Buffalo Wild Wings definitely did, now that I remember. They jumped in right away. And I think brands have these budgets set aside to capitalize on these moments that happen in these really cool sporting events. That’s the way to do it. But I think it also is important to figure out what is our strategy going to be a couple months before? We’re working with a couple brands now about what their strategy is with March Madness. Some are selecting athletes ahead of time, “We think these teams are going to be in March Madness, so let’s lock in athletes now.” But we also have some brands that are like, “We have this budget. We want to allocate it in a timely manner during March Madness at a pivotal point.”
Danielle Wiley: Those are my favorite. I mean, that holds true for any kind of influencer marketing. I always love when brands… well, I just love saying bucket of money, but I love when brands have this just an unspecified little bucket of money and you know, you understand what the brand strategy is and you know what their objectives are and what’s going to fit in with their brand and make sense. And you have this budget that’s been pre-allocated, but not specifically allocated, that you can move when something happens and not get bogged down in all of the approvals. It’s already been set aside, sitting in a little bucket waiting.
Nicholas Lord: Exactly.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah.
Nicholas Lord: I think that’s the way to do it, and the way we’ve really kind of pitched it to clients that we’re working with so far.
Danielle Wiley: And then I guess a final NIL related question, have you… I mean, it’s only been a year now, so this hasn’t happened a ton, but do you foresee any issues or have you experienced any issues as these athletes kind of transition to pro and they might suddenly have exclusivities or restrictions that they didn’t have? They’re going to a whole new city, it’s a whole… just everything changes. Has that been a problem yet at all, or do you foresee it being one?
Nicholas Lord: We haven’t ran into too many yet. I think the important thing to do is when you’re an athlete and you know you’re going onto your next stage, maybe you’re going pro, is to put clauses in your contracts that… let’s say, for example, I’m a college athlete and I have a deal with some brand, and when I graduate and I’m going to… the pro team is sponsored by a competitor, for example, and I wouldn’t be able to technically promote that other brand, I think it’s important for these athletes to make sure their agents, to put in those contracts that if they run into a situation like that, they’re able to get out of it in a clean way. I think that’s probably the biggest thing, but it’s not something we have seen really too often. I know technically athletes are, I don’t know if it’s a technical rule yet, but the NCAA has mentioned an athlete’s contract has to end once their college career is over.
Danielle Wiley: How interesting.
Nicholas Lord: But that’s not a full on law yet.
Danielle Wiley: And I feel like a lot of even the things that are full out laws are not necessarily being followed to the letter. So that might not matter anyway.
Nicholas Lord: Right. Yeah, we’ll see. I’m assuming we’ll run into those situations now. We’re starting to move into the pro space a little bit and…
Danielle Wiley: Oh, fun. Okay. So our final question is not NIL related at all, but we ask this of everyone who comes on the podcast, and I’m a little afraid to ask you this because you’re only a couple years older than my daughter, so it’s going to be funny. But we always ask, what was your favorite TV commercial as a kid? What TV commercial did you see all the time that kind of still sticks with you to this day?
Nicholas Lord: Okay, that’s a good question. I would probably say there was a Christmas commercial that was my… I still watch it every once in a while, and it was a Jingle Bells commercial, and they took six NBA players, I think it was like LeBron and Steph Curry and James Harden, all these shooters, and they put bells on six different basketball hoops and they were shooting, and the balls went to the same jingle of Jingle Bells.
Danielle Wiley: That’s awesome.
Nicholas Lord: So they basically played Jingle Bells while they were shooting basketballs, which I thought was really cool.
Danielle Wiley: And what was it a commercial for? Just for the NBA?
Nicholas Lord: I think it was just for the NBA, yeah. Just an awareness thing, which was pretty cool. I don’t think it was for a specific brand.
Danielle Wiley: That’s awesome. And I love that you still watch it.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, I still watch it all the time. It’s such a… I watch old commercials all the time. I’m a huge LeBron fan, and he had all these funny commercials, like when he was younger, they would do… it was like clones of LeBron in different personalities, which I thought were really funny. So I still watch those too.
Danielle Wiley: Commercials are kind of the unsung heroes. I get a lot of amusement out of them.
Nicholas Lord: Absolutely.
Danielle Wiley: I know everyone skips them these days, but they still bring me joy.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, absolutely. I make it a priority to watch all the Super Bowl commercials and NBA championship commercials because they’re always the best. Brands are paying a lot of money to get into this, and so they have to make them good. So I always watch those.
Danielle Wiley: Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you so much for coming on to chat, and then before we go, if you want to let the audience know where they can find you and NOCAP on social, that would be awesome.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, absolutely. You can find us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter @NOCAPSports. You can go on our website, nocapsports.io and sign up as a brand or an athlete. You can find me as well on LinkedIn, Instagram, username is NickLord20.
Danielle Wiley: Okay. Well thank you again. This was great.
Nicholas Lord: Yeah, thanks so much, Danielle.
Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.