What the NIL era for collegiate athletics could mean for Northwest Arkansas

by Blake Marts ([email protected]) 979 views 

If you expected this piece to begin with a sports pun, you were correct. The name, image and likeness (NIL) era for collegiate athletics officially teed off this month to an audience equally abuzz with excitement, skepticism and confusion. Whether consuming the announcement as a student-athlete, a college sports fan or just an innocent bystander with no emotional ties to universities and their athletes, it was difficult to miss as the news broke nationally.

For those just getting caught up, here are the basics: Since the origins of the universe, student-athletes were prohibited by the NCAA from earning money for brand or business sponsorships, signing autographs or conducting coaching clinics, among other potential revenue streams. That concept was subject to decades of intense debate between stakeholders (one of whom has prominent, influential attorneys and lobbyists) over athletes’ freedom to profit from their personal fame while maintaining amateur status.

Nearly two years ago, however, California introduced a bill that would allow athletes in its state to monetize their NIL beginning in 2023, after which the NCAA (begrudgingly) suggested a “modernization” of its NIL guidelines. The domino effect that ensued involved several more states signing their own bills into law with various effective dates and ultimately culminated in the NCAA removing its prohibition on NIL monetization on July 1.

While the dust has not yet settled and additional legislation is expected, collegiate athletes can now do something they’ve never been allowed to do before — become social media influencers overnight.

For athletes at the University of Arkansas, whose state law concerning NIL goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, the NCAA’s lifting of its ban on NIL monetization means they will operate under school guidelines until that date. These guidelines provide Razorback athletes the freedom to engage with local, regional and national companies willing to pay them in exchange for advertising, with a few caveats.

Local businesses can (and, in many cases, should) view this as an opportunity to partner with young, trendsetting individuals who have captivated local audiences. Compared to non-athlete influencers — a $15 billion advertising channel today — student-athletes deliver five times greater engagement among followers and reach nearby audiences at a significantly higher rate, on average. That means fans who follow them on Instagram, TikTok or other platforms find their content exceedingly meaningful and tend to reside in the area where the athlete’s university is located. For businesses expecting marketing expenditures to authentically and effectively reach local patrons, not many techniques can operate with comparable scale, efficiency and efficacy.

National brands — many of which maintain headquarters or satellite locations in Northwest Arkansas — operate sizable marketing budgets intended to drive awareness and sales for their products. When doing so, they will likely appreciate the same metrics mentioned above and evaluated by local businesses. They will also be looking to identify the trade areas where student-athletes are poised to have the most significant impact when operating as representatives of their brand.

Many will distinguish Northwest Arkansas as a critical region for athlete collaborations. The UA is the only major conference athletic program in the state, and there are no professional teams in the area to steal the spotlight. The region also boasts over half a million residents, several UA sports and athletes having success on the national scene and no competing top-tier schools within a three-hour drive. Compare these characteristics with other schools across the nation, many of which are located in smaller markets and/or have fanbases split between other major institutions nearby.

If and when Razorback student-athletes’ pockets become a destination for these brands’ and businesses’ investments, this means more money — potentially millions, in aggregate — flowing into the community and being spent with local merchants.

And now we’ve come full circle, minus a closing sports pun.

Blake Marts, a Rogers native, is the director of product marketing working in New York for the marketing technology and services company Inmar Intelligence, which previously acquired Rogers-based influencer marketing firm Collective Bias. The opinions expressed are those of the author.