Q&A: University of Arkansas entrepreneurship leader discusses NIL era

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 673 views 

Sarah Goforth, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI) at the University of Arkansas.

Now that college athletes are allowed to begin profiting from their name, image and likeness (NIL), the University of Arkansas is helping its student-athletes navigate and capitalize on the process.

The UA’s Flagship program launched this summer to help Razorback athletes elevate their brands, social media influence and earning power. The announcement came just as the NCAA announced a landmark rule change providing athletes with varying degrees of new protections and opportunities to make money by selling their NIL rights.

Flagship’s work is highlighted by campus partnerships with the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI), which offer resources for students to start business ventures.

Sarah Goforth, executive director of the OEI, discussed Flagship’s early progress in a recent interview with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Paul Gatling: So Flagship is new. Stood up to support something very new, and that is the NIL guidelines. Would you mind giving us a quick snapshot of Flagship and its work with and for Razorback athletes?

Sarah Goforth: I think of it as a training and services program. There is a training component of a time-capped program that student-athletes go through to learn some fundamentals. There’s also a year-round, ad-hoc, on-demand mentoring and services program they can tap into anytime, whether or not they have been through the more structured program. We kicked it off this past summer. We’d been working on it many months before NIL rules became official. We kicked it off in July and served two cohorts. The idea is that we are equipping them with entrepreneurial skills and business fundamentals, relationships — all the things that they need to take advantage of the new opportunities to gain sponsorships and think like entrepreneurs.

Gatling: The idea when Flagship was announced in May was to prepare athletes for state legislation that goes into effect in Arkansas on Jan. 1, 2022. Then July 1 this year, the NCAA adopted interim NIL policies for every college. Immediately. Did that speed up your work any at all? Regarding the timeline you thought you had versus what happened with the NCAA announcement?

Goforth: It did. I’m very fortunate that my colleagues in athletics were on this extremely early compared to our peers. Before I even knew what NIL was, they tracked dialogue at the NCAA level, state level and nationally. They knew this was coming, and they were remarkably prescient in putting together a team of people. And by they, I mean Jon Fagg [deputy athletics director], Will Landreth [athletics department compliance coordinator] and Justin Johnson [director of student-athlete development] in particular. They put together a team of people across the university who had relevant skills and resources and services to bear.

Gatling: This is a multifaceted program, Flagship. Would it be fair to say that your primary focus, even more so than anything specific to NIL, is to help Razorback athletes learn about the ins and outs of business and entrepreneurship?

Goforth: Yes. Our mission in the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation is to equip every student with an entrepreneurial mindset. We will take any hands-on opportunity we can get to do that. In this case, what we’ve been able to do is create an environment that lets student-athletes explore NIL safely. In the sense that we’re here to make sure they stay within the bounds of the NCAA rules and university rules. We are here to equip them with some essential financial and business skills like how to think about their taxes.

From an educational perspective, an exciting opportunity here is the skill of negotiation. That is important in this case because it’s a new industry. There’s no fair market value. No one on either the business side of potential sponsors or the students’ side knows what their time is worth. What their autograph is worth or what an appearance is worth. Negotiation is how you determine that, and doing that professionally, fairly and competitively is a fantastic skillset we’ve now been able to teach.

I’ve been able to teach dozens of young people the principle of the BATNA [best alternative to a negotiated agreement], which is my favorite thing to teach. And it’s authentic to them because they have the opportunity to go out there and apply it.

Gatling: You’re giving them the tools to think beyond autographs and clicks on social media and into the world of business and entrepreneurship. Are they receptive to that?

Goforth: Most of them come into the room thinking, “I’m going to learn how to charge money for my autograph.” But what we show them is that promising entrepreneurs are always thinking about their goals. We put everything in the context of their goals. It’s one thing to say to a potential sponsor, “Yes, I will take $200 to show up at your store or restaurant.” It’s a whole other thing to say, “I want to have a future in healthcare because I saw how uncoordinated the care my grandmother received last year was.” Or that you care about the mental health of young female athletes because you watched what happened with Simone Biles at the Olympics.

We’ve encouraged them to think about NIL in that context. What brands do you want to partner with for the long run? They are developing their brands around those things and thinking about what sponsors they want to partner with instead of waiting for potential sponsors to come to them. That’s something they can carry with them to become entrepreneurs and innovators.

Gatling: Are you enjoying the athletics and academics mix as much as you expected when this was announced?

Goforth: That’s a fun question for me because I don’t have an athletic bone in my body. It’s not my space, so I have never paid that much attention to the business of college sports. I was excited because I’m always excited to engage with students, but I don’t think I made it my highest priority initially.

What changed for me was when we were working with the first cohort of students, and I saw how vulnerable they were. There was a real lack of confidence in this space in a population of students with extreme confidence on the field and on the court. I thought, “Oh my gosh, we can help them.” We can help them understand that this is not rocket science. And also that they don’t have to learn every element of business to be successful. They need a combination of skills, competencies and relationships. And I knew that we could equip them with that, which made this something that I pretty much eat, dream and sleep right now.