It’s June 29, and Arkansas Senior Associate Athletics Director for Athlete Brand Development Terry Prentice is fewer than 48 hours away from a major deadline that was just moved up six months.
At least that’s what he now expects. He won’t have perfect certainty until tomorrow, and one can never be too sure when dealing with the NCAA.
But at the moment, that’s the assumption he’s working under as he’s hustling among meetings, juggling responsibilities and caught on the phone with a reporter.
Yet, somehow, it’s not trepidation, anxiety or frustration coming through in his voice.
He’s excited. And it sounds genuine.
“We view this as an incredible opportunity for the University of Arkansas,” Prentice says in a way that makes you believe him.
What he’s talking about is the school’s Flagship program, a multifaceted approach to prepare student-athletes for the commercial opportunities made suddenly available to them through an interim NCAA policy that went into effect July 1.
Prentice sees it as a golden opportunity: a chance to mobilize both the university’s business partnerships and the passion of Razorback fans to propel the athletics department ahead of the pack in a new era of college sports.
And make no mistake, the landscape has changed.
At heart of the matter is the NCAA’s long-standing prohibition on student-athletes trading on their status and receiving compensation for use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).
A raft of recent legislation in state capitols across the country made those restrictions illegal and forced the NCAA to reconsider its position.
What it now means for the future of college sports is undetermined, and how it will affect athletes — and where they choose to play — is still an open question.
Whatever form the evolving road may eventually take, at the University of Arkansas, it’ll be up to Prentice and the handful of administrators helming the Flagship program to navigate, putting the athletes and the school itself in the best position to benefit in a world populated by new opportunities and obstacles, both coming more quickly than anticipated.
Rolled out May 13, less than a month after state legislation paved the way, Flagship combines elements of business education, how-to’s in entrepreneurial savvy and a roadmap to social media success.
“Flagship is our solution to name, image and likeness opportunities,” said Prentice, who’s leading the program along with Sarah Goforth from the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Karen Boston from the Walton College of Business.
“It’s an overview of everything in that area. So it’s personal branding, it’s influencer marketing, it’s business fundamentals, it’s entrepreneurship skills, entrepreneurship basics, all packaged together.”
Prentice, a former All-SEC decathlete for the Razorbacks, returned to the university in March, but discussions regarding NIL possibilities were already well under way in the athletics department and beyond.
Prentice said research began in 2020 as state legislatures around the country were picking up the issue, and by early 2021, representatives from the athletics department were meeting weekly with colleagues from the Walton College of Business and the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Goforth said, “We started meeting every Friday to talk about what this meant and to talk about how we equip our students with the skills and also the confidence that they need to take advantage of these opportunities.
“And, you know, it’s not rocket science. Some of it is basic business training. Like how to think about your taxes. If you are going to be doing sponsorship deals, on an individual basis, how to make the decision about which sponsors to onboard and which to say no to. How to think about your brand and your opportunities as a foundation for a business.”
From there, the program grew to include partnerships with influencer marketing and data specialist Captiv8 and NIL platform NOCAP Sports, as well as incorporating INFLCR, a brand-building platform with which the university was already partnered.
By March 8 — about a week before Prentice’s hire was announced — Arkansas House Bill 1671 made its first appearance and zipped swiftly through both chambers with one amendment, passing each vote by near-unanimous margins before being sent to the governor’s office on April 15.
Among other things, the bill secures the ability of student-athletes to earn compensation for commercial use of their publicity rights, establishes prohibited categories (including drugs, alcohol, gambling and guns), and sets an effective date of Jan. 1, 2022.
That timeline was jolted somewhat when the NCAA adopted its interim NIL policy allowing student-athletes in any state to take advantage of commercial opportunities, beginning July 1.
Prentice said the university was prepared for this possibility, and though the legislation doesn’t take effect until 2022, the athletics department is already operating under the rules and regulations laid out in the bill.
“We’ve just got a little less runway than we had expected,” he said on June 29, shortly after it became clear the NCAA planned to drop its NIL prohibitions two days later. “We have to make sure we are making the education available to all athletes. [Deputy athletics director] Jon Fagg and I are going team by team, covering rules and regulations, presenting information and answering questions. We’re also making office hours available in person and on Zoom.”
He’s also reaching out to corporate partners and donors to make sure they’re aware of the opportunities afforded to businesses in the era of NIL.
“Some athletes already have [endorsements] lined up,” he said, adding, “which is fascinating, and makes me nervous and excited and everything in between.”
Twenty-five student-athletes went through a five-course pilot program in June with another cohort enrolled for July, learning from social media specialists, local entrepreneurs and former student-athletes exactly how they might be able to convert their status as regional celebrities into income.
The possibilities for these new potential spokespersons are wide and varied, encompassing everything from sports camps and paid posts on Instagram, to appearances in local commercials. Elsewhere in the country, a Wisconsin quarterback has announced his own trademark, while an Iowa basketball player is launching an apparel line.
The prevailing opinion among experts is that while college athletes aren’t likely to become the face of national ad campaigns, the potential in local and regional markets is strong.
“One of the things that we get with our data sets from the social platforms is not only age, gender, ethnicity of followers but actually location of followers at the city and state level,” said Bryce Adams, director of brand partnerships for Captiv8. “So, take [men’s basketball player] Jaylin Williams. Eighty-two percent of his audience is from the state of Arkansas. I told him, ‘Jaylin, this is information that you could take to any local or regional brands that want to talk to people in the state of Arkansas and say, look I’ve got an overall audience of 50,000 people or whatever and 40,000 of them are located in the state, so you can reach the people that you’re trying to reach through my social page. I am now an effective channel.’”
The goal is to shape the pilot program into a crash course that will serve as an orientation for all incoming student-athletes into the world of NIL, both broadly and specifically.
Aside from market data, insights and connections from Captiv8, student-athletes will be able to pursue partnerships with interested companies through the platforms of NOCAP Sports and INFLCR, as well as on the university’s own Flagship website, where they can find rules, regulations, contact information and a list of existing Razorback partners.
Both Goforth and Prentice said they were encouraged by feedback they’ve received from community members and former Razorback standouts who have donated time and wisdom to the current athletes enrolled in the program.
“I think it did not fully dawn on me until we had launched this program how deep that well of support is in Arkansas,” Goforth said. “And it is on an individual level with leaders in the community but also on a business level. Small business is very excited to get involved. Literally, every person we invited to take part [in the Flagship mentor program] said yes and showed up in the middle of the day and mentored these students, and literally every one of them said afterwards, ‘I want to do more, how can I do more?’”
It’s that kind of dedication that Prentice believes can help turn the new landscape of college athletics into a fruitful one for the Razorbacks.
In college athletics, where competition takes place on two fronts — between the lines and on the recruiting trail — success on the field rarely feels secure. Those on top say the grip is tenuous, while for those looking up, inertia can feel intractable.
In such an environment, little is as precious as a newfound edge over the competition.
Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman has proven as much in his two years with the Razorbacks, honing and perfecting a talent-finding formula that takes advantage of recently loosened restrictions on player transfers.
Building his rosters with a significant influx of players who began their college careers elsewhere, he’s led the Hogs to back-to-back 20-win seasons, the deepest run in the NCAA tournament in 25 years, and has his team poised to open next season ranked among the top 10 teams in the country.
Prentice is hopeful Razorbacks athletics can similarly benefit in the NIL era by leveraging its unique position.
“This could be an opportunity for the University of Arkansas to stand out, primarily because of our business relationships and what I call our natural resources in the state,” Prentice said. “Between all of the Fortune 500 companies in Northwest Arkansas and Fortune 1000 companies in the state, the passion of Razorback fans, not having any professional sports teams, really taking advantage of things we’ve always talked about with our recruits and with our donors and supporters and really putting that into action.
“That, to me, as an alum, as somebody who has traveled to all 75 counties in the state as a fundraiser and seen the passion head-on and had relationships with our supporters, that was really the enticing thing,” he added, “to take some of the things I’ve learned through that and really use them to make the Razorbacks the best athletics department in the country.”