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Show Me The Money

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Show Me The Money

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The news of a prized athlete signing for big bucks is hardly news anymore, so it might have slipped your notice that Bronny James, son of NBA career scoring leader LeBron James, and Arch Manning of the fabled Manning quarterback family tree have picked up some tidy sponsorship checks recently. James has deals worth $7.2 million while Manning’s payday racked up $3.8 million, per on3.com. 

No, what really gets one’s attention about such things isn’t that companies are lining up to offer such deals but that neither of these young men are yet out of high school and have yet to play one minute at the collegiate level. How is this possible in so-called amateur sports? Three words: name, image, likeness, otherwise known as NIL. 

NIL, which only came into being in 2021, gives players the opportunity to pursue monetary deals in much the same way as professional athletes have done for years. The new free-market system landed like a thunderbolt after decades of highly restrictive and rigidly enforced rules by sport governing bodies, such as the NCAA, over what an athlete could or could not accept in terms of compensation. 

In just two years NIL, along with 2018’s transfer portal which expanded choices for athletes switching schools during their college years, have radically and permanently changed the landscape of college sports. And with that change has come a new breed of athlete, one as attuned to their own brand as they are to touchdowns thrown or points scored. 

“Young people have an opportunity to make money for themselves and change the trajectory of their lives and their families’ lives a little earlier than they would have and that’s a good thing,” said Terry Prentice, former University of Arkansas track star and now senior associate athletics director in charge of NIL for the Razorbacks athletic department. 

“Being able to monetize their name, image and likeness and maximize opportunities related to their name, image and likeness is great because most of our student-athletes are going to have more opportunities now than they’ll have as professionals. Many of our student-athletes won’t be professionals. That’s just the cold, hard truth. So, for them to be able to build some relationships with movers and shakers in our community, in our state and be able to do that a little earlier gives them a jumpstart on the rest of their life.” 

In his role, Prentice wears several hats. He educates incoming athletes on guidelines concerning NIL deals (for instance, U of A athletes are not allowed to align with beer or liquor companies or casinos) as well as recommends classes within the College of Business that are useful to advancing one’s brand. While not involved with individual deals, Arkansas, like other universities, has also established certain partnerships that help athletes across the board in NIL negotiations, such as the group licensing agreement it struck with Brandr Group last year. 

“The Brandr Group partnership has helped our student-athletes maximize their opportunities in NIL from a merchandise standpoint,” he said. “Anything that can be sold that has a Razorback on it now marries the student-athlete’s name, image and likeness. Think jerseys, T-shirts, name-and-number T-shirts, any kind of collectible trading cards and other things like that. That’s been great because it’s actually helped a host of our teams, if not all of them.” 

It bears mentioning that the vast majority of athletes don’t earn nearly what James and Manning do, ranked first and second, respectively, in on3. com’s current list of top 100 NIL deals. As the Associated Press reported last summer, the average NIL deal overall was just below $2,000 and varied widely by sport, gender and Power 5 versus smaller conferences. 

But what’s equally compelling is how rapidly high schoolers have been scooped up by companies banking on their athletic potential and by how many. Of the current on3.com 100 list, 23 of 25 have amassed deals totaling $1 million or more, about a third of whom are high school students. And this is with only a little more than half of the states (27) legalizing NIL deals for high schoolers, a fact not lost on the Arkansas legislature which saw two bills introduced this past session to allow prep athletes to market themselves in the name of keeping prize prospects at home. 

Even with high schoolers aside, NIL has spawned an entire battery of related services and industries. Antwan Phillips, a partner with Wright Lindsay Jennings, is co-founder of the firm’s WLJ Sports Law, dedicated to both SHOW ME THE MONEY NIL continues to redefine college sports nationwide By Dwain Hebda pro athletes and coaches as well as representing collegiate players in NIL partnerships. He said such services are a growing specialty within the legal industry but still not utilized as much as needed. 

“There are a lot of folks who are handling these deals themselves or a parent, an uncle or whatever is helping out,” he said. “I would say [formal legal representation] is not as common as it should be. One thing we tell our people is, when you don’t have a team like we have – we have a sports law team made up of seven attorneys in addition to having a firm of about 80 attorneys – you could miss out on opportunities when they happen.” 

In addition to providing a continuum of services at each stage of an athlete’s career, such firms also help advise young athletes on various elements of their marketability, how to think like an entrepreneur and how to keep partnership expectations realistic. 

“For athletes, [branding is] more intuitive just because of social media,” he said. “They were already branding themselves, already building a following, so they get that. Often, they don’t get the legal aspect of it and that’s where we come in to make sure they understand what their contractual obligations are and should be and what they are giving up in exchange for compensation and whether that’s a fair exchange. We don’t want you to sign up to show up at Walmart every Saturday to sign autographs for three months. That’s too much. 

“We also really try to coach them about the value of their time in understanding branding opportunities. I have one client who went to a certain restaurant all the time and always posted about it. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want you to do that anymore; you’re promoting and advertising for them and you’re not getting anything from it when there’s other companies who may pay you to do this.’ I’m not saying he shouldn’t go to his favorite restaurant, but if Restaurant A is willing to pay him to post and Restaurant B isn’t, let’s do A.” For Hogs track star Britton Wilson, learning the ropes of NIL is a journey where her opportunity and interest have only recently jelled. She was approached with influencer opportunities in high school but wasn’t interested; her freshman year at the University of Tennessee, she was interested but NIL wasn’t in existence. Transferring to Arkansas for the 2021- 2022 season, those two elements finally came into alignment. 

“At first, I was kind of just accepting any deal that I was learning about,” she said. “But now that I’ve worked on my own brand more and realized what I do want to work with and what I don’t want to work with and what opportunities are paid and what are not, I’ve started to realize that I’m more interested in taking brands that will also benefit me in the long run rather than just getting a free product and posting about it.” 

Wilson, whose NIL portfolio has included agreements with 310 Nutrition, Slim Chickens, Zips Car Wash and study website Quizlet, saw things spike dramatically after she set the North American record in the 400 meters, became a world champion relay runner and landed SEC Outdoor Runner of the Year honors. The increased demands can be daunting, said Wilson. 

“I would say it’s definitely not as easy as it seems,” she said. “I think that I’ve had the misunderstanding with some of my teammates that think you get all these deals, like, it’s just so easy for you, you have so many followers. And it’s really not. 

“I feel like people think once you have a lot of followers or that status that it just comes easily, but especially in a sport like track it’s just not that easy. It’s kind of hard to put yourself out there, especially when you’re a freshman in college and you’re just coming into college. I think it’s a matter of patience and trying not to compare yourself. [NIL] always keeps me grounded like, oh yeah, I have to do this for a brand; let me get my stuff together so I can get this content out. I think it just holds you accountable.” 

On April 16, Wilson added to her honors by setting a new NCAA collegiate outdoor record of 49.51 seconds in the 400 meters at the Tom Jones Memorial meet in Gainesville, Fla. Earlier on March 11, she ran another American record of 49.48 in the 400 at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Albuquerque. At the same Gainesville meet, Wilson also ran a world-leading time in the 400-meter hurdles of 52.23

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