Arkansas universities are still working out the kinks in NIL deals for their athletes, but one complaint dominates: The NCAA needs to provide clarity on what’s allowed to avoid putting student-athletes’ eligibility at stake.
The NCAA rescinded its restrictions against student-athletes receiving compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) beginning July 1, 2021, but failed to set up guidelines for the deals. Rules and prohibitions vary from university to university and state to state.
“We have learned quite a bit over the last 18 months,” said Terry Prentice, the University of Arkansas’ senior associate athletics director for athlete brand development. “Student-athletes have been able to capitalize on their name, image and likeness. There is still a lack of clarity from a national standpoint as it relates to the NCAA on what is allowed and what is not. [Companies and student-athletes] want to know what they can and can’t do. No one wants to put a student-athlete’s eligibility at stake.”
The NCAA withdrew its opposition to NIL in response to legal challenges, as well as legislation in some states legalizing it. In Arkansas, a law was set to kick in Jan. 1, 2022, that would have allowed NIL compensation.
But without an overarching NCAA policy, the deals operate under a patchwork of state laws. For example, Arkansas’ flagship university in Fayetteville and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro allow their student-athletes to use the universities’ intellectual property — logos, venues, etc. — for their NIL promotions with companies that have IP-use rights, but other states do not allow their universities’ intellectual property to be used.
Josh Daume, senior associate athletic director at Arkansas State, said that when NIL started, no one really knew how it would work out. It is still, in many ways, a work in progress.
“When that [state law] was written, everybody was pretty naive about what all this would become,” Daume said. “There have been some unintended consequences of that, right, wrong or indifferent. It’s nobody’s fault. We just didn’t know what this would turn into. We’re learning a little more every day.”
The NCAA has not atively established a governing set of rules for NIL, so many in college athletics hope Congress will set national standards.
“It’s a good idea as long as there are regulations for it,” said Lance Harter, the Razorbacks’ ultra-successful women’s track and field coach. “There are people [in Congress] who are interested in it, and they’re fans of collegiate athletics. NIL is so much in its infancy there are a lot of people scratching their heads.”
One unsurprising characteristic of NIL is a dominance of high-profile, usually male athletes getting the lion’s share of deals and publicity.
There are exceptions, of course. Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne has made national headlines for her talent and her big NIL deals, as well as her millions of social media followers. LSU has even had to hire extra security at meets.
Harter, who has led the Razorbacks to six national championships, would like to see some NIL money and attention “trickle down” to his athletes. Track and field, and sports such as swimming, golf and baseball, are equivalency sports, meaning athletes rarely receive full scholarships. Harter has 18 scholarships to divide among about 50 team members.
“Obviously, society is very focused on football, and if it is not football, then it is men’s basketball, eventually women’s basketball,” Harter said. “When society is super excited about an individual or a sport, that is when the money starts accumulating. Track and field is out there, it is a point of discussion, but nobody is writing checks. We have been blessed that we have some athletes who have small deals. That’s the same on the men’s side as well.” Coaches, he said, don’t even know “who is getting what.”
Daume said some of Arkansas State’s female athletes and those in lower-profile sports are getting deals, but not the kind that make the news.
“We are seeing some of those kids get some deals; they’re not big deals, $100 here, $100 there, some free products,” Daume said. “Those kids are going out and hustling. They’re looking for deals, looking for companies and brands to partner with. The ones who are doing that are having some success. It’s not life-changing, hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it is still a big deal to a college kid.”
Driving Home Deals
That’s not to say there aren’t inroads being made. The Everett Automotive Group in Bryant has an NIL deal with every member of the Razorbacks’ gymnastics and softball teams.
Because Everett has intellectual property rights with the university, its NIL athlete partners can wear school logos and use school venues in appearances.
“In the spring of 2022, Buick unveiled a campaign entitled See Her Greatness focusing on increased visibility of female athletes,” said Everett co-owner Susie Everett. “Female athletes make up 40% of total athletes in the NCAA, but they get less than 10% of the media coverage. Alongside Buick, Everett committed to doing something to help these women by offering a name, image, likeness agreement to each University of Arkansas softball athlete in the spring of 2022 and each University of Arkansas softball athlete and gymnast in 2023.”
Everett said her company’s NIL investment goals are more altruistic than aimed at increasing revenue through advertising with the women Razorbacks athletes.
“Our main goal in these NIL agreements was to support increased visibility of women athletes,” Everett said.
“I read recently that Arkansas’ women’s teams saw an increase in ticket sales revenue last year, and we hope that media coverage had the same uptick.”