College athlete deals and pharma? Dexcom tests the waters in a first move that opens new spokesperson doors for industry

By Beth Snyder Bulik
Senior Editor

Almost half of adults with type 1 diabetes say they felt like quitting sports as a kid because of their health condition – and one in five ended up doing so. Dexcom wants to encourage the next generation to stick with sports, so it’s lined up a first-ever name, image, likeness (NIL) college athlete program to showcase 14 players living with type 1 diabetes.

The mostly Division I men and women athletes who crisscross a range of sports — from baseball, basketball and football to cheerleading, lacrosse and swimming — all use Dexcom’s continuous glucose monitoring devices. Called Dexcom U, the program aims to bring on a new class of athletes every year who will co-create content on social media and serve as role model advocates for others living with diabetes. They’ll post about their day-to-day lives, how they train and prep for game day and how they use the Dexcom CGM to understand their diabetes state.

“A diabetes diagnosis is hard and sometimes lonely, and as we found in the research, sometimes it even alters the course of somebody’s life,” said Anne Santoro, VP of global customer experience at Dexcom. “The hope with this program is to amplify the message that athletes with diabetes can continue on in sports and actually thrive.”

While Dexcom’s goal is to shine a light on high-level athletes and support younger kids and their parents dealing with type 1 diabetes, it’s also breaking ground in the pharma and medtech industries for national NIL sponsorship deals.

Since NIL deals were first allowed in July 2021, the not-surprising initial deals have been struck by the likes of sneaker companies (Nike, Adidas), retailers (Dick’s Sporting Goods) and other college-age brands such as wireless phone companies (AT&T, Boost), fashion brands (PSD Underwear, Crocs) and restaurants (Outback Steakhouse).

With Dexcom’s healthcare breakout though, will pharma companies follow in its footsteps? There are college athletes, after all, living with asthma, migraine, mental health conditions or allergies that fit the often-used pharma marketing model of hiring celebrity spokespeople with health conditions to raise awareness around diseases and treatments.

“From a brand marketing standpoint specifically in healthcare, I think it’s an amazing opportunity because you have a direct path to Gen Z and a new set of influencers,” said Jared Weiss, president of Real Chemistry’s entertainment and influencer agency, starpower. “If you’re a college athlete and you’re dealing with a healthcare condition, you’ve likely overcome something, right? So your story is going to be authentic, it’s likely going to be inspirational, and it’s going to be relatable.”

Bill Carter, an NIL consultant who works with brands, sports organizations and universities, agreed that the authenticity of athletes’ health stories could be a pharma and healthcare marketer strength in NIL sponsorships.

“If I was advising Dexcom, one of the things I would feature is the fact that their product is so important for a student-athlete,” he said. “Their device has a very genuine impact on the quality of life of a student-athlete, and I would argue student-athlete success.”

Carter has type 1 diabetes and was a college athlete 30 years ago — before Dexcom and CGMs were around to help monitor blood sugar — and he remembers having to sit out at some practices to deal with low blood sugar at least once every two weeks.

Much of the NIL deals activations expected of students center on social media — about 85%, Carter estimated — with other elements including event appearances, a Zoom meeting appearance at an internal sales meeting, for example, or asking athletes to sign memorabilia the company might give to employees or customers.

Still, signing college athletes comes with challenges, or at least potential issues to look out for, experts caution.

First, the athletes may still be teenaged or just a bit older, and working with young people means vetting for potential “bad” behavior. Having an existing social media following is another consideration, Weiss said. Not necessarily a large number of followers, he clarified, but rather a solid, core group.

“A lot of times we’re looking for micro-influencers which is where I would put these college athletes. Because their audience may not be 2 million or even 500,000 people, maybe just 5 or 10 thousand. But they’re going to be loyal and engaged which your message and brand working with that patent influencer is going to resonate,” he said.

Another consideration? Keep in mind the limited amount of time athletes may have to devote to brand activities as busy college students and athletes.

Carter advises all the parties he works with to consider the time commitments. He recently helped a D1 basketball player evaluate a contract that asked her to post twice a month — on four different social media channels and the brand was not planning to help her with the content. She turned it down because when they divided the amount paid by the hours involved, it wasn’t worth her time.

On the other hand, Carter said, brands can go the other way and don’t allow students to write or have input in the social media content they’re posting.

“Big brands that are inexperienced with NIL may be over-prescriptive. They’ll give the content to the student-athlete with the copy and say ‘post this.’ Of course, they post it, but they may feel foolish doing so because it’s not their tone or it’s not their words. And then their own community is left scratching their heads,” Carter said.

Dexcom’s Santoro said the company will be working with the Dexcom U athletes to co-create social media content. In addition, the athletes may also appear at Dexcom events.

“Everybody that we chose was very interested and was already a part of our Dexcom Warrior community and very active in the diabetes space. They’re super interested in that mentorship and advocacy component of the program,” she said.

While Dexcom is the long healthcare product maker in NIL, for now, there are other emerging health-related deals. Some are regional or local, such as with hospitals or doctor’s offices, while others are technology based.

Emmett Gill, the founder of AthleteTalk, a mental health and wellness app for athletes, recently signed NIL deals with 10 athletes. The athletes will be featured on social media campaigns and in images inside the app along with wellness quotes and tips.

“Mental health in athletics is such a hot topic so we think it’s a great time to do this,” Gill said. “Featuring male and female, Black, white, brown and other athletes give us credibility, and it also allows us to present mental health from a diverse standpoint.”

And a generational one. High school students are watching college students, and middle school students are watching the high school students, and so as Gill points out that ends up having “a really positive effect on mental health awareness and help-seeking behaviors around mental health.”

Main image:
Dexcom’s NIL deal with college athletes is leading the way for US healthcare and pharma brands. (Illustration credit: Assistant editor Kathy Wong)

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