As the transformative effect of being culturally – and financially – shaped drapes itself over college athletics — for better or worse — one savvy entity in the Midwest has unveiled an opportunity.
The Michigan Army National Guard sees the changing landscape of college sports as a way to bolster its ranks, especially with recruitment numbers trending in the wrong direction.
“We’ve been using social media to try to reach our target demographic, but these kids don’t want to hear from recruiters because they know what we’re trying to do,” said 1st Lt. Jerred Johnson, of the Michigan Army National Guard, who is the commander of Bravo Company Recruiting and Retention Battalion. “We’re trying to get them to join the National Guard.”
The National Guard Association of the United States reports that as of June of 2022, the ANG is under 50% (currently at 48%) of its 2022 recruiting goal of 38,340 soldiers and hasn’t achieved its recruiting mission since 2019.
So Johnson and company are using college athletics to do the heavy lifting. In this case, the University of Michigan football program.
“I have teenage daughters,” he said. “And I kind of noticed that, while they won’t listen to us, they will listen to social media influencers. So name, image, likeness, NIL, was a new thing. And I thought, well, hey, why can’t we leverage these athletes?”
The Michigan ANG teamed up with sports marketing agency Valiant Management Group to leverage the Wolverine football players.
“Over the span of four, five months, we just kept kind of growing the concept, and it was such an awesome idea,” said former Michigan football player and Valiant founder and CEO Jared Wangler. “Really great opportunity to implement NIL into the military or the National Guard’s recruiting efforts.”
The recently formed triumvirate rolled out their NIL campaign this summer.
“We’re one day into this, and we’ve gotten over 50 direct messages on our Instagram,” Johnson said. “We were getting 200 views, lucky. And now we’re in the multiple thousands 24 hours into this thing. So it’s already paying off.”
State NIL laws became reality a year ago, seizing a significant slice of power from the monolithic NCAA. College athletes can now cash in on their advanced skill sets within the framework of higher education.
“NIL means that college athletes can now earn and accept money doing commercial endorsements, appearances and social media posts, writing books, hosting camps, giving lessons and performing various other commercial activities outside of their schools,” reported ESPN.
Johnson saw the law as a means to implement a clever recruitment strategy. He felt he could sway Michigan football players because their situation mirrored that of guardsmen.
“They have their own value system that they have to follow at their school,” he said. “They have to get good grades. They have to be morally in good standing to be on these teams, which fits with what we do in the National Guard … So I kind of came up with the idea of partnering with them to get them to spread our message because they are influencers within our market, and they’re civic leaders in their community.”
It took Johnson seven months to facilitate the plan and get it approved. A contract process had to be undertaken with Valiant. But once the light turned green, they were ready to deploy.
“We were approached by Lt. Johnson of the Michigan National Guard several months ago, dating probably back to like January almost now,” Wangler said. “With this idea of a partnership with some of the University of Michigan football players and the National Guard, getting them up into space, getting them up in the helicopters.”
And on July 15, 2022, more than 120 players were strapped into Chinooks and Black Hawks at the Grand Ledge Armory, home of the 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment, and flew over the Big House.
The original idea was to bring in 12 players. But once head Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh heard about it, 12 turned into the whole team. Harbaugh brought the entire 2017 Wolverine squad to Rome to gain historical perspective, so team-wide flights aboard the helicopters were par for the course.
“So we got these guys up in helicopters,” Johnson said. “We got them to meet with the soldiers, they kind of got to be a day-in-the-life of our aviation unit … and I can’t speak to the level of respect that these kids showed just to our soldiers. They were asking our soldiers questions. They were interested in like, ‘What have you guys done? What do you do?’’
Johnson said some of the players expressed a real interest in the Guard.
“The bottom line is 140 kids on that team, they’re not all going to the NFL,” he said. “But they’re going to graduate with a degree from Michigan … once you graduate here, you’re eligible to become an officer in the National Guard.
The Guard benefits from this event if players share their experiences on social media, like Wolverine quarterback J.J. McCarthy who has 105,000 followers on Instagram.
“He just liked the Michigan Army National Guard Instagram page, and he’s driving people to our page for that awareness of what we do. So I mean, that’s invaluable.”
One of the value factors for players is the non-compensated interactive activities like the visit to the Grand Ledge Armory. But getting paid is also part of the deal.
“They’re not being compensated for that (the Grand Ledge Armory excursion),” Wangler said. “They’re being compensated for their social media marketing that they’re doing for the military … 120-something players on the team that will be compensated for sharing content from the visit and promoting a message on behalf of the Michigan National Guard.”
So J.J. McCarthy’s Instagram post, or a recent tweet about the National Guard, is money in the bank for the Division I athlete.
The NIL partnership is scheduled and budgeted for a three-month window when it will be evaluated for its impact. Wangler said a long-term deal hasn’t been worked out yet between his agency and the Michigan Guard though he’d love to see it happen.
Johnson is optimistic about the near future.
“So our initial thing here, the 90 days, is just you know…we want to get an ROI, the return on investment of this,” Johnson said. “And then we’re hoping that next year we can get a little bit bigger, and we’re going to add some more universities.”Read comments