Bryan Hunt on NIL venture: ‘Either you think it’s genuine, or you don’t’

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 8,124 views 

Bryan and Mandy Hunt

Bryan Hunt is heir to one of the largest transportation companies in North America.

He’s also a generous guy with a great sense of humor. It’s helped him deal with some misinformed reactions to his latest business venture.

“I always turn everything into humor,” he said. “Let’s just say I have been laughing a lot.”

He commented to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal 24 hours after announcing Athlete Advocate Consortium (AAC) on Wednesday (Jan. 26). Hunt is the son of Johnelle Hunt and the late J.B. Hunt, founders of Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services. He and his wife Mandy formed the new organization to guide college athletes in the new era that allows them to make money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) while remaining eligible to compete.

AAC will connect nonprofits with college athletes, who are now allowed varying degrees of new protections and opportunities to make money by selling their NIL rights. The NCAA announced the rule change on July 1, 2021.

JD Notae, a senior on the University of Arkansas basketball team, is AAC’s first signee. Hunt said the company would use Notae’s NIL to benefit the Samaritan Community Center (SCC), a food pantry and soup kitchen in Northwest Arkansas and a longtime recipient of the Hunts’ philanthropy.

Bryan Hunt is a wealthy UA alumnus (class of 1983), and he and Mandy are ardent Razorback supporters. They have the means to financially support certain players as they see fit — legally — through NIL.

But considering the new money era remains a complex issue on the college sports landscape, and the idea of paying amateur athletes still takes getting used to, it was not surprising that Razorback sports fans didn’t correctly grasp AAC’s business model.

In some corners of social media, overzealous Razorback fans hailed the news as J.B. Hunt Transport starting a company to pay UA athletes — current or potential. It’s not.

One report referred to Bryan and Mandy Hunt as J.B. Hunt executives. They are not. Bryan Hunt is a J.B. Hunt board member and the managing member of several private companies, including Hunt Automotive LLC.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re very close to J.B. Hunt Transport, and that’s near to our heart, and I enjoy serving on the board,” he said. “But this is strictly a Bryan and Mandy Hunt opportunity that we felt like there was a need for.”

AAC is also not a nonprofit group. According to the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, Bryan Hunt filed paperwork to create the Athlete Advocate Consortium LLC in October 2021.

“Under advisement from several legal entities, we decided to establish AAC as a limited liability company,” he said. “It was important to us to assist, not compete with, various 501c3 organizations by being one ourselves.

“The creation of AAC is and never will be about personal financial or taxation gains for us. This is all about promoting and assisting community nonprofits through the usage of student-athletes as their advocates.”

Hunt didn’t disclose the investment to start AAC or the financial details of Notae’s contract. There will be more deals announced, possibly even with non-Razorbacks.

In Notae’s case, depending on time commitments, he will raise awareness about SCC in several ways, including work, attending fundraisers or media appearances. The center is nearing the start of a $14 million capital campaign to build a new facility in Rogers.

Notae’s contract with AAC has a sunset clause, meaning the Hunts have his NLI rights for a specific, undisclosed period.

“If [Notae] chooses to go past that, we’ll make that decision together,” Hunt said.

Bryan Hunt grew up in Northwest Arkansas. As a longtime Razorback supporter, he’s cultivated friendships with several UA coaches and administrators and personally gotten to know many players. He said he always found it awkward to see college students who could use some help, but he couldn’t legally assist them because they played sports, no matter how trivial.

“I saw an athlete walking down the sidewalk one day, and I was getting ready to pull over and give them a ride,” he recalled. “One of the athletics administrators was in the car with me, and he said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t give him a ride to campus.’ Of course, by nature, I was going to do it anyway. And he said, ‘No. You’re not.’ And he was very serious. So I didn’t.”

Less than a year after one of the most significant rule changes in the history of college sports, like it or not, NCAA athletes at the highest level (Division I) are in line not just for car rides but for large bank accounts.

According to USA Today, at the University of Texas, one group is dangling $50,000 a year for individual offensive linemen while another says it already has $10 million promised for Longhorns athletes. At the University of Oregon, billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight is part of a group helping Ducks athletes line up deals. Knight is just one of many interested parties with deep pockets jumping in alongside the apparel companies, energy drink companies, car dealerships and restaurants already signing athletes to endorsement deals.

Several Razorback athletes have announced deals with numerous companies paying them for their NIL rights. Notae has a NIL deal with a Fayetteville restaurant, and Hunt said AAC contracts don’t require exclusivity.

The fledgling industry’s actual size is unknown due to the lack of a public clearinghouse that tracks NIL compensation and activity.

Most schools have hesitated to release details provided by their athletes, citing privacy concerns. However, UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek tweeted on Jan. 7 that 159 Razorback athletes had earned nearly $1 million in NIL compensation through 385 agreements since July 1.

AAC’s arrangement is unique because the focus is not on monetizing college athletes and the companies that engage them.

Josh Lens is an assistant professor of recreation and sport management at the University of Arkansas and consults for universities and conferences regarding legal and NCAA matters. He said AAC’s facilitation of pairing athletes to charities or nonprofit groups is an example of what he considers “peak NIL.”

He referenced two University of Iowa football players using their NIL to raise significant funds for a local children’s hospital and an organization that seeks to prevent stillbirth.

“While other, perhaps flashier NIL arrangements across the country may receive national headlines due to the involvement of brand new cars or large compensation amounts, NCAA enforcement staff scrutiny may accompany those headlines if universities use NIL as a recruiting inducement or if the arrangement constitutes pay-for-play or an impermissible extra benefit under NCAA rules,” Lens said.

Terry Prentice is the UA’s senior associate athletic director for athlete brand development and inclusive excellence. The university hired him in March 2021 specifically to help the athletics department stay on top of policies and NIL-related compliance issues.

He said that with the NIL space being so new, the UA had encouraged local businesses, Razorback donors and fans as a whole to ask questions and understand parameters before acting.

“Bryan and Mandy did exactly that,” he said. “They came to us in the early fall looking for some perspective and asking questions about NIL. They shared that they intended to support student-athletes and the community as a whole while doing so compliantly. After several conversations, they felt confident enough to develop the [business] framework for AAC, including disclosing necessary agreements with our student-athletes to the UA.”

Prentice said colleagues from around the country had shared positive feedback about AAC with him and others on the UA brand development team, including Yurachek and deputy athletics director Jon Fagg. They’ve shared that reaction with the Hunt family.

“Through seven months, we’ve seen quite a bit of what I will call traditional — or what we thought was traditional a year ago — version of NIL, including radio ads, TV commercials and in-store appearances,” Prentice said. “However, what stands out to our peers is the comprehensive approach in financially supporting the student-athlete, building their professional network and then helping connect to a local cause the student-athlete is passionate about.”

Chris Wyrick, an AAC spokesman, said he fielded nearly 50 inquiries about the company in six hours after the Hunts announced the endeavor Wednesday. They ranged from athletes, agents, college administrators and startup companies working in the NIL space.

Mandy Hunt is passionate about Razorback basketball and rarely misses a game sitting courtside at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

“I love the kids,” she said. “And I’m not afraid to meet them, reach out to them or congratulate them after the game with a big hug. That’s how I met JD.”

A Georgia native, Notae is in his second season in Fayetteville after transferring from Jacksonville (Fla.) University. He’s one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference, averaging nearly 19 points per game.

Notae had a hardscrabble life as a boy. Raised by a single mother, he sometimes didn’t know where he would sleep or where his next meal would come from.

Mandy Hunt knew pieces of his background but wanted to dig deeper.

“There is more to that player than just that jersey and what they do on that court,” she said.

As the Hunts got to know more about Notae and Bryan Hunt dug deeper into NIL involvement, the initial idea of a business model started to crystalize. On Oct. 6, through a friend, the Hunts invited Notae to their east Springdale residence to share their proposal.

“You could not put two better [sides] together than JD Notae and the Samaritan Community Center,” Bryan Hunt said. “Put it this way — we’re not that smart. There was a higher purpose that brought this together. It was just phenomenal to listen to him talk about what he wants to do with his life and his goals and objectives.”

Hunt said learning more intimately about Notae’s youth reminded him of his father. A sharecropper’s son, J.B. Hunt was born in 1927 and grew up poor in north central Arkansas during the Great Depression. He quit school at 12 to help support his family.

“He’s had a really hard life,” Hunt said of Notae. “And you’d never know it from talking to him or spending time with him. You’d think the guy lives next to the Queen of England because of his attitude and outlook on life. He reminded me so much of talking to my dad. JD’s not one to talk much about it.”

Hunt said a handful of AAC deals will be announced this spring but did not disclose the nonprofits or athletes involved.

He responded to naysayers who say AAC comes across more to pay athletes instead of achieving a charitable objective.

“Either you think it’s genuine, or you don’t,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Some people are going to abuse NIL and take advantage of the athletes. We’re already seeing that from the athletes we’re talking to about this.

“We’re not going to pay somebody to support an organization. That’s not what we do. What we do is put athletes and organizations together. Now, the athlete does need to be compensated. But it’s got to be the right athlete, and it’s got to be about community service. It can’t be about NIL. NIL needs to be the bridge that allows us to work with an athlete to do this.”