Jade Hewitt takes a photo of Lexie Brown during the 2023 AU Pro Basketball Media Day

Athletes Unlimited invests in building athlete brands with new position

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2024 / Credit: Krystina Brown
Alexandra Licata
Feb 15, 2024

As the NCAA has opened opportunities for collegiate athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness (NIL), so too is Athletes Unlimited (AU) dedicating resources to doing so on a professional level.

AU has created a new position within its marketing team aimed towards educating and building players’ social platforms. 

“In college-level athletics, especially now in the NIL era, there are [staff members] who have a really close relationship with their players and we’re trying to emulate some of that,” said James Zehren, AU manager of content marketing.

“They have people they can go to if they have questions, concerns, or comments. They have people who understand them as human beings and their own personal brands to really build those up in a unique and individual fashion rather than giving everybody similar content.”

Replicating that on a professional level should yield similar results.

Manager of Social and Content Adeline Nicholson, who was a social coordinator at the time, led the way in testing this hypothesis during the 2023 Softball and Volleyball seasons.

Nicholson created custom content and athletes had autonomy over posting to their own channels. Through these requests, athletes generated over 28,000 engagements across Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.

In addition, Nicholson, Zehren, and Manager of Social Design Josie Rohach (formerly a social coordinator) worked together to create new processes to streamline athlete content distribution.

“We saw successful results in terms of engagement rate in the amount of athletes who were posting their content and the overall satisfaction from a lot of the athletes,” Zehren said. “So we’re really trying to beef that up and ramp it up.”

AU Pro Volleyball athlete Molly McCage was one of those success stories. McCage doubled her in-feed Instagram post volume in 2023, growing her audience from 9,500 to over 62,000 followers – more than 650%. She also more than doubled her in-feed interactions as a result.

“James was incredibly helpful in developing my personal brand. He gave me great insight on how to use storytelling to grow my audience, that people want to see the BTS (behind-the-scenes) of your life, and the power of frequency,” McCage said. “I believe the ‘just post it’ mentality grew my follower count and James was just the person to encourage me to do that. The content team has also worked really hard to provide me with some pretty stellar photos and videos of myself. I still run some of my posts by them, but I now feel like I have a grasp on what it is I want my personal brand to be. I can’t thank James and the content team enough! As a female athlete, this personal branding has helped my career so much.”

Zehren began as a graphic design and marketing intern at AU in 2020 after previous internships with the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Wisconsin Badgers. In three years, he grew the organization’s TikTok account to over 160,000 followers in conjunction with his team. Since his start at AU, Zehren has held roles such as lead social coordinator and social media manager prior to stepping into his current role of manager of content marketing this year.

His goals are now focused on helping athletes increase their brand and social presence, along with handling social marketing and strategic partnership initiatives for AU outside of its owned channels.

To do so, his strategy targets three buckets: athlete education, one-on-one mentorship, and individualized content creation and activation.

“Athlete education is the first piece … Showing our athletes that they all have a brand and having them understand what that means, the influence that comes with that. The other thing that we’re really trying to do is work with our players and individual sessions,” Zehren said.

“We are going to work with them to establish what their voice is on social and what they want it to be. As well as ensuring they’re working with the guidelines of best practices.”

Those guidelines not only include optimization for where they are posting content, but also account security and utilizing creator accounts to access their audience insights and demographics. 

“The second part behind the engagement and education comes into content creation and activation. Within that realm we are really working to get athletes optimized content for their channels outside of the plethora of content that we’re already providing them,” Zehren said. “They can share an example of something that they liked or something that has relevance to what they want to do and we will go in and source footage and optimize it for their social channels.”

AU’s content and storytelling has been a cornerstone of the organization since its inception, with the intention of elevating the athletes within it. That focal point remains, but with a parallel path to elevate its athletes as individuals in the sports world as a whole so that they are equipped to leverage opportunities off the field and court. 

“From the beginning, AU has put athletes and the interests of our athletes at the top of the priority list. This position is the perfect example of that,” said Senior Vice President and Softball Director of Sport Cheri Kempf. “By educating and mentoring our players on best practices in social media, as well as helping them design and create content, James is expanding the potential for direct partner/player relationships and opportunities. That, in turn, will continue to make a real financial difference for our players.”

The organization also recognizes the power of fandom that its athletes command. In 2023, its player group had a combined audience that’s four times that of AU’s owned channels.

“The more that we can build our athletes’ brands, their audience will see that and see the correlation to AU, which is a big win for us,” Zehren said. “I’m hoping that with what we’re able to now and in the future, we’re really able to take a lot of the amazing content we have and make it specific and unique to our players’ themselves to really amplify their own personal brand.”


Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to provide additional context around the test performed during the 2023 Softball season and results of said test.

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