NCAA’s NIL rules become key focus for booming athlete-to-consumer businesses like Cameo

By | January 26, 2021

Sports-related technology startups continue to thrive during a pandemic that has been painful for other parts of the American economy, taking advantage of record-setting venture capitalist investment and rising stay-and-home consumer bases to establish themselves as potential behemoths.

Cameo, for example, has accelerated into what CBO Arthur Leopold told Sporting News was a period of “incredible growth” over the past nine months. The digital platform allows people to purchase customizable video messages from their favorite athletes and other celebrities. The concept gained mainstream appeal as quarantined customers look for new ways to interact with the world.

One source with knowledge of the company’s internal thinking said Cameo could be valued at $1 billion by the end of 2021. Previous reports pegged its valuation around $300 million.

A spokeswoman declined to provide an official figure, telling SN, “as a private company, we don’t speculate on our prospective valuation.”

MORE: Here are the best athletes, sports celebrities on Cameo

With an opportunity to commercialize the names and likenesses of college athletes in 2021 under proposed NCAA legislation, cash flow for Cameo and others involved in the direct athlete-to-fan business ecosystem could roll on. That’s the hope of their executives, who believe their products to be worthy of the ballooning hype that has sent the entire technology industry to new heights.

“Athletes are among the most popular talent on Cameo, and within the sports vertical, football and basketball are our best performing categories,” Leopold said. “During a time when people aren’t able to attend live sporting events, they’re looking to stay connected with their favorite athletes. It’s a huge opportunity that we believe will extend far beyond the pandemic.”

Some media researchers, however, wonder if there is a dead end ahead for entities that rely on novelty purchases to thrive. And because athletes have long connected with fans for free via their own social media accounts, the long-term viability of paid models sprouting up is subject to debate.

More broadly, there’s concern a bubble is forming in the technology sector that has taken valuations too far.

“It’s really easy for the market to get saturated,” said Galen Clavio, who serves as director of the national sports journalism center at Indiana University. “I really think Cameo is clever. Actually my sister got me one for my birthday last year, and that was neat. But it also didn’t inspire me to do a lot more with it. And I’d be curious to see how excited people are about the idea a year or two down the line.”

MORE: NCAA NIL rules, explained

Cameo has added live chats with celebrities to its offerings in addition to pre-recorded messages in an effort to diversify its product. It’s also important to note the firm, which grew its gross merchandise volume by four times to $100 million in 2020, operates within a larger, interconnected community.

It recently partnered with INFLCR, a software company used by both pro and amateur players to better commercialize their online brands. INFLCR’s access to a trove of top college competitors — it counts an estimated 130,000 active student-athletes in its ranks after merging with Teamworks — make it a particularly alluring ally for Cameo in its mission to build out a roster of available sports bookings.

INFLCR’s parent Teamworks raised $25 million last spring in a Series C funding round led by a firm that had previously never made a sports-related financial commitment.

“All of a sudden, a product we had been selling since 2017 (is attracting a new wave of interest),” INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale said. “It was now top of mind because of (NCAA) legislation being announced. And so it’s created a great deal of urgency.

“A lot has happened in the last six months, and it’s mostly been very good for INFLCR.”

As these companies and their peers, such as Opendorse for INFLCR and myFanPark and Athlete Interactive for Cameo, anchor deeper into sports media culture, their focus will often be on promoting the micro-celebrities or local names who have appeal to individual communities.

MORE: How people inside college sports would change NIL rules

Soon, Cameo will launch a tab within its sports vertical that will allow users to book messages from college players for free before making the services paid once the NCAA’s name, image and likeness legislation is officially enacted in the fall. INFLCR will assist by connecting their clients with Cameo.

An exact release date for the free college trial has yet to be determined, Cavale said, but the idea is that when it is made available, the fierce tribalism of college fandom leads can transform even lesser known players into commercial draws.

International expansion is also front of mind. European soccer players are among the most coveted personalities in the world, and the localized fervor of the game in many countries often mirrors the way people view their alma maters in the U.S.

In discussing future ambitions with SN, both Cameo and INFLCR expressed strong interest in making foreign athletes part of their portfolios.

“Watch this space,” Leopold said of Cameo’s plans in the global market.

Because of the low up-front costs of the direct athlete-to-consumer business model — players join onto these services voluntarily for a revenue cut — there’s a potential avenue toward early profitability, the elusive marker of financial sustainability many tech unicorns struggle to attain.

The approach contrasts with subscription-based sports startups, such as the streaming service DAZN and the journalism vertical The Athletic, which require time and significant capital to mature as a business.

From that standpoint, Cameo’s financial run and the fundraising of adjacent companies could offer a glimpse of businesses to come in the sports and entertainment industry.

If the well dries up, though, it might become a prime example of a technology bubble returning to orbit after years of misguided exuberance.

“I look at it like the NBA Draft — everybody gets drafted in the first round, particularly in the lottery, on potential,” Clavio said. “Some of those players pan out and become All-Stars, some of them become transformers and some of them never play. It’s the same thing with tech evaluations. Because ultimately, the numbers don’t mean much other than the potential that this company could, if everything went right, be worth this much money and people could get in on the ground floor with it.”