Tyler Shooshani, one time manager of the USC football team, founded Inked Sports in November 2021 to resolve some longstanding inequities in college sports by easing athlete entry into the increasingly expensive, saturated, and secretive influencer marketing industry.
When college athletes were finally allowed to engage in sponsorship deals beginning Summer 2021, Inked Sports seized the opportunity to help an underserved community of college athletes by connecting them with brands hungry to authentically reach Gen-Z. We asked Tyler Shooshani about how college athletes, most of whom are not on scholarship or ever going to go pro, are shaping the influencer marketing game.
Grit Daily: Inked Sports seems to have launched very soon after image and likeness deals were legalized for college players. Tell us the origins of the company.
Tyler Shooshani: During my time at USC and as a Manager of the USC Football team, I became passionate about raising awareness of the inequities in college athletics while simultaneously falling in love with digital marketing.
In today’s increasingly digital world, influencer marketing is a favorite among marketers and business owners because it leads to higher ROI, increased brand affinity, and is one of the most effective ways to authentically influence audiences’ decisions. These factors and more have led the market to reach a projected $17.4B by the end of 2023.
However, after conducting customer discovery with a handful of influencer marketing professionals, I discovered that influencer marketing had started to become overly saturated with non-distinguishable creators, very secretive, and more expensive than ever before. Influencer marketing is primed for disruption and innovation within the industry.
Tangentially, in the Summer of 2021, new legislation paved the way for all college athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. There’s already quite a strong intersection between college athletics and influencer marketing, as 90% of all NIL deals have been centered around social media promotion. However, as the market settled over the following months, a massive opportunity still existed to help an underserved community of college athletes who were and continue to be ignored by traditional forms of sponsorship management.
That’s when I knew I had to create Inked Sports: The influencer marketing, creative, and management platform specialized for marketers and college athletes.
Grit Daily: Inked Sports says it serves an “underserved community of college athletes by connecting them with brands hungry to authentically reach Gen-Z.” Who are those college athletes and which brands are paying them for marketing help?
Tyler Shooshani: Great question. So this community of college athletes consists of the 98% who unfortunately won’t make it to the professional level or even have the opportunity to go professional. There are 480,000 college athletes every year who fit this criteria and again are ignored by traditional forms of sponsorship management because there is not enough long-term benefit for these management companies from an individual standpoint. We believe that there’s power in numbers, and when you package all of these micro-athlete influencers into, for example, team-wide deals, all types of brands jump on the opportunity to work with them no matter the individual size of each athlete.
We’ve so far been incredibly successful with this model, most recently securing a team-wide sponsorship deal for the entire Women’s Lacrosse team at USC, and have tons more on the way.
Grit Daily: There are thousands of college athletes. Few have big scholarships, but most are active on social media. Does an athlete with a few thousand followers have a realistic chance at benefiting from influencer marketing when working with Inked Sports?
Tyler Shooshani: Yes, 1000%. We are always on the lookout for all of our 10,000+ athletes within our network, pitching brands on athlete packages to make the marketing offer far more attractive for brands and to provide a much higher chance for our athletes to become sponsored. Both our brand partners and athletes have loved this approach.
Grit Daily: Inked Sports launched the Athlete App in the summer of 2022. Tell us about the app and how the company has grown since.
Tyler Shooshani: The app has been incredible for us to be able to organize all of our Inked Athletes’ contact information and easily establish + monitor our digital footprint across multiple campuses. Since the launch of the app, we have grown to a network of over 10,000 athletes, 25 brand partners, and closed over 135 deals for our athletes, all totaling approximately $13,000 in deal value. We have a lot of campaigns in the works with many new companies that are excited to work with the future of influencer marketing.
Grit Daily: What is the time commitment a college athlete should expect to succeed as an influencer?
Tyler Shooshani: With Inked Sports, literally 15-30 min a week. And we mean it. At Inked Sports, we guide each of our athletes throughout the entire deal process, making sure they have everything organized and ready to go without them barely having to raise a finger. All they have to do is confirm they’ve received the product, capture simple authentic content with it, and post. When we say “Join the rave, we’ll handle the rest”, we literally mean we’ll handle the rest. We have successfully built a unique ecosystem for college athletes to monetize their social media platforms while still being able to hone in their athletic craft and still live the college life with ease.
Grit Daily: Very few college athletes have a professional athletic career. What is the potential for an athlete working with Inked Sports to transition this into their life after college sports?
Tyler Shooshani: The potential is limitless! As a startup, we always have to remember we are disrupters first, creators second, then businessmen and women. We’ve positioned our service in a way that athletes are more than welcome to continue using our services and leveraging their social media platforms for sponsorship opportunities beyond their lives after college.
Grit Daily: You make a point that Inked Sports facilitates “NCAA compliant micro-influencer deals.” What are the main requirements of the NCAA?
Tyler Shooshani: The main requirement for the majority (if not all) of these deals is advising our athletes to not have any university logos appear in sponsored content (without the consent of the university) since that could cause major headaches for universities and their current sponsorship deals. Another main requirement is not allowing any cannabis, alcohol, or tobacco companies to work with these athletes, which is totally fair and I agree it shouldn’t be allowed as well.
Grit Daily: Is there anything you want to mention that I haven’t asked about?
Tyler Shooshani: We are always looking to grow the Inked Sports team! If you or you know someone who is a creative and wants to work with the future of influencer marketing, feel free to reach out to us through our website or social media. We’d love to hear from you and meet ya!