In a previous article, How Athlete Affinity Groups Improve Outcomes, we explored what Athlete Affinity Groups are and why they matter.

Through our partnerships with universities, both large and small, we’ve seen what drives the success of these micro-communities. From approach to content to technology, below are tips to ensure your branded student-athlete group delivers on its promise.

Make It Theirs

“Give them the platform, seed some content, and get out of the way.” This was the advice from Ben Hansen, Assistant Director of Football Operations at Iowa University.

In 2018, Hansen and his team launched the Hawkeye Legacy community, bringing together former and current Iowa football players. The program started with about 300 alumni and has grown to engage more than 1,000 today.

“Often we look for tools to help us, the coaching or admin staff, do our jobs better. But in this case, it was important that the players and alumni felt it was there to support them – that it was theirs first,” said Hansen.

Education, mentorship, and connection are the pillars of any successful athlete-first affinity group. They demonstrate a school’s commitment to their success off the field and long after graduation.

These micro-communities also help foster diversity and give members a voice. They enable student-athletes and alumni to start and contribute to important conversations such as race and gender equality, player safety, and mental health.

Design your branded student-athlete group with their needs at the core, and you’ll increase the likelihood of organic engagement and growth.

Appeal To The Heart

Decisions about what we buy, who we hang out with, what we read or watch often come back to how they make us feel. It’s no different with your athlete affinity group.

“If you want to capture the attention of your student-athletes and alumni, you have to connect on an emotional level,” said Dave Bradley – Creative Director for Duke Men’s Basketball. Bradley is the mind behind #TheBrotherhood brand, a player and alumni community that builds upon Duke basketball’s long and rich history. “The Brotherhood makes its members feel like they’re special, like they belong to something bigger, and are proud to be a part of it,” noted Bradley.

If you take our first tip (Make It Theirs) to heart, you’re well on your way to making that emotional connection. By supporting organic engagement with intentional content, programming and branding, you can take it further.

“It has to be more than just a logo and a saying, it has to be real,” said Bradley. The Brotherhood brings its values to life by hosting educational series, such as The Brotherhood CEO program, designing limited edition gear available only to members, and sharing player and alumni stories. An invitation to appear on #TheBrotherhood Connect, a YouTube series hosted by former Duke star Nolan Smith, is an honor for many student-athletes and alumni.

The Brotherhood serves as a great example of how a branded student-athlete group can flourish when it appeals to the heart. Their efforts reinforce feelings of belonging and exclusiveness while delivering real value to its members.

Go Big By Going Small

In our work with universities, we’ve seen how some of the most successful athlete affinity groups, like Hawkeye Legacy (Iowa football), and #TheBrotherhood (Duke men’s basketball) are sport-specific.

Keeping your athlete affinity group narrowly defined and private helps reinforce the tie that binds its members together. The broader you go (i.e. an entire university), the less relevant and more watered-down the connection becomes. Keeping it closed and limiting it to athletes, unlike LinkedIn and other networking platforms for graduates, creates an environment where members feel safe to be themselves and organizations can comfortably share private information.

“When we started Hawkeye Legacy specifically for football, we faced some push back because the university already had the Varsity program for athlete alumni,” recalled Hansen. “But they let us experiment. Now, because they’ve seen how our program supports its members and improves fundraising efforts, they’re creating something similar for other sports.”

A smaller group is also more familiar. “It was important for Hawkeye Legacy to be owned by someone within the football department,” said Hansen. “When we sent out communications to our players and alumni, it came from a name they knew, not a general or unknown university person, so they were more likely to engage with us.”

Over in Durham, Duke Men’s Basketball already enjoyed a strong culture and brand: the logo, Coach K, the Cameron Crazies, and the endless list of NBA players. The Brotherhood was an opportunity to leverage that existing equity.

“We wanted to create something that brought together four generations of men’s basketball players under one umbrella,” said Bradley. “The Brotherhood has become part of the Duke brand but also its own thing. When recruits say ‘I’m committing to The Brotherhood’ – that’s as good as it gets.”

Create Relationships, Not Transactions

Athlete affinity groups help form a continuous connection with your student-athletes from recruit to alumni, and bridge the gap between coach and university. But for it to be successful, the focus must be on developing meaningful relationships, not on transactions.

It starts with recruiting. “High school coaches and parents want to know how we can help their kid after graduation,” noted Iowa’s Hansen. “Hawkeye Legacy and the NextPlay platform make it easy to show off all the alumni in the community, what industry they’re in, where they work, and how they’re engaging with our student-athletes.”

For current players, the ability to tap into generations of former players for mentoring, education and networking is invaluable. Alex Nicoara, a former Campbell University student-athlete, participated in the Campbell CARES program where she connected with an athlete-alumni. “She helped me explore my options for life after college, kept an eye out for opportunities she thought I’d be interested in, and provided recommendations,” said Nicoara. “Because she knew what it was like to be in my shoes, I really valued her perspective and advice.”

The connection with a relationship-focused community remains strong after graduation. “We believe the ‘give’ must come before the ‘ask’,” said Hansen. “The Hawkeye Legacy program supports our members long after they leave school. So when we call on our alumni to donate, whether it’s their time or money, they are excited to contribute.” Hansen’s give-first approach has seen dividends for the school: funds raised by Hawkeye Legacy paid for the recent renovation to their player’s gameday tunnel.

Beyond engaging with the current student-athletes and coaches, alumni find a support system within the community. Hansen shared a story of a former Iowa football player who had engaged with Hawkeye Legacy since inception. No one knew he was struggling financially and living out of his car. When other Legacy members discovered this, they rallied, found him a place to live, and helped him find work.

These meaningful relationships, built upon a shared experience of being a student-athlete for a given program, are what make these micro-communities thrive.

Use Technology Designed For Your Student-Athlete Group

The final ingredient for a successful student-athlete group is the technology solution underpinning your community.

NextPlay’s solution has partnered with schools of all sizes to centralize and automate their athlete-affinity groups. Specifically, the platform helps centralize and automate much of the administration involved in running these groups, including:

Communication: NextPlay’s platform allows staff to easily and directly communicate with its members without having to keep email addresses or phone numbers up-to-date.

Connection: Through the mobile app, members are empowered to connect organically. Once they join, they’re automatically connected to other members without the need for invitations, spreadsheets of alumni contact info, or staff coordination.

Mobile: About 75% of Gen Zers prefer to use a smartphone over a desktop computer, with over 80% of their time spent on apps, specifically messaging apps. That’s why NextPlay leverages a mobile-first platform design.

Content: The platform also serves as a central hub for all relevant content generated by the department, coaching staff, alumni, or players.

Athlete-Specific Opportunity Hub: NextPlay’s platform is expanding to support the “second recruitment” of Next-Level talent through a curated opportunity hub built with today’s generation and corporate recruiters in mind. Similar to how athletes are scouted, the hub includes talent analytics, deep-dive insights, personality assessments, user-generated video, and a customized recruiter dashboard for employers looking to hire former athletes.

Fundraising: Often, alumni-relations gets stuck going after the same handful of large donors every year. The technology helps engage alumni continuously, enables a crowdfunding approach, and uncovers new opportunities for donations both big and small.
If you’d like to learn how NextPlay can help you launch your athlete affinity group, or support an existing community, please reach out. We’d love to hear about your specific goals and challenges and see how we can help you improve the outcomes of your student-athletes.