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Arkansas athletics works to keep up with changing environment

Hunter Yurachek at a One Arkansas event.
E. Wayne
Hunter Yurachek at a One Arkansas event.

New Year, new Razorbacks. On Jan. 1, longtime Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson announced he was transferring to the University of Central Florida. Moves from Jefferson and several other prominent football players were made possible in part by a new development in college athletics called the Transfer Portal.

Byron Jenkins is the CEO of Arkansas Athlete Connections, which helps develop high school and collegiate athletes' brands. He's been around student athletics for a long time. As he puts it, "I started in 1997, and that's all I've ever done." Byron said the way transfers used to work is that a student had to sit out a year and was unable to play, "So when you open up the Transfer Portal and said, 'Everybody's eligible to transfer one time,' I mean, it changes the whole game."

Matt Jones, a veteran Arkansas sportswriter who has covered Razorback Athletics for upwards of 19 years, agreed with Byron on the transfer portal. "[To] transfer from one school to another without having to sit out a year, that was a huge game changer."

The Transfer Portal, introduced in 2018, goes hand in hand with the NCAA's new Name, Image, and Likeness system, more commonly referred to as the NIL. The NIL came about as the result of a unanimous 2021 Supreme Court ruling that college athletes may be compensated for use of their name, image, and likeness ranging from commercial deals to social media partnerships. Since the ruling, the NIL has exploded. Matt said University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek told the press that the push was to help the university "get their arms around" NIL collectives "Because the collectives are different from school to school."

NIL Collectives are private, third-party companies that handle the bulk of the financial NIL lifting, because colleges and universities still can't directly pay athletes. They arrange brand deals and set contracts for players. Justin Johnson, the Director of Student-Athlete Brand Development at the University of Arkansas, said a lot of people misunderstand this about the NIL space. "We [the University of Arkansas] are not associated with any of the collectives as far as our day-to-day."

Matt described these collectives as an unforeseen byproduct of the NIL Supreme Court ruling.

“NIL is meant to give a player the chance to go out and make money through advertisements to profit off of his image, his popularity, or her popularity. And what happened was that many of these schools began to pool their resources. So, instead of the local Chevy dealership going out and saying, 'Hey, QB1, come over here and we'll give you ‘X’ number of dollars to do some promotional work for us, everybody locally started pooling their money into these collectives."

Because of the recency of the Supreme Court ruling, every school's NIL situation looks a little different. Matt added that every NIL is set up in its own unique way. "Some are set up as a 501C3s, that are nonprofits, some are not set up in that way."

Justin claimed the University of Arkansas was the first institution to hire a Senior Associate Athletic Director just to oversee NIL. "Some [schools] have followed that. Some kept in compliance, and some kind of just outsourced to different groups. Some smaller schools might just use a company to outsource all that too. Not only is it fairly new, it seems like it's changing pretty rapidly also."

In November, Arkansas Athletics announced that they were launching Arkansas Edge, which replaces the previous NIL collective called One Arkansas. Arkansas Edge is under the national parent company Blueprint Sports, which also manages collectives for schools like Kansas, Tennessee, Penn State, and Arizona.

The reasons for the change seemed clear. Matt said simply, "The one Arkansas program just was not performing up to the level they wanted it to." Justin adds that in the first year of One Arkansas, lots of companies wanted to participate. But then, "There [was] a slowdown and, you know, the One Arkansas necessarily didn't have, like, a subscription model. They had fundraisers to go out and raise funds for it, but this new model they're hoping to just get a lot more of the fans involved and excited about that model." He predicts, "It's just going to be sustainable in the long run."

Even as the new Arkansas Edge collective, recently naming Chris Bauer as its executive director, finds its footing, nothing is certain. The only constant appears to be change.

Byron said that the new emphasis on athlete branding has also changed the recruiting process. "College coaches [used to] believe they wanted to feel the heartbeat of a kid. Sit down and talk to kids. And now it's all social media driven.” He notes how in 2015 he “started Arkansas Basketball Rankings, and once we got that database up, once we started that Twitter account, Arkansas athletes started getting a whole lot more exposure.” Justin adds, "It's constantly changing. Honestly, it could look totally different even a couple of years from now as far as the revenue sharing goes with student-athletes."

Matt wondered about concerns that Arkansas will struggle to keep in the NIL space. "Does Arkansas stack up with other universities? I talked to Hunter Yurachek, the AD at Arkansas back in November. And I ask him, you know, where do you stack up in NIL? His assumption at that time was that probably the teams that have the largest operating budgets are also the teams that have the largest NIL budgets. Arkansas, I think, is 11 out of 14 teams. When Oklahoma and Texas come into the league later this year, Arkansas would become 13 out of 16 teams in terms of, you know, where their operating budget stands. But I don't Arkansas stands up to other teams. I just I don't think they do. I think some of it has to do with the size of your population base, the size of your alumni base, the money that is available within your state. I mean Arkansas is a very poor state compared to other states, even in the Southeastern Conference footprint."

Byron said the concern trickles down to high school students looking to commit to a college. "It's really different. Because when NIL first passed, I'm working with a big-time basketball player, and I asked his dad, are y'all really going to stay in Arkansas?"

High school students in Arkansas can now take advantage of NIL deals thanks to new legislation. The new law allows students who have committed to an Arkansas University to begin accepting NIL deals in high school. Matthew Shepherd is the Speaker of the House for the Arkansas State Legislature, and he expressed concerns that Arkansas colleges might be losing out on future student-athletes. "In order to be competitive, there have to be NIL opportunities. In a perfect world, I wish that we didn't have to deal with NIL, but the fact of the matter is that's the reality within which we deal. It's unfortunately becoming maybe an issue at the high school level."

Even with state leaders like Shepherd working with university leaders like Yurachek, some worry it will take far more to attract and retain talent in Arkansas athletics. Byron is very straightforward with his prediction. “I see the top 50, 60 major college programs paying players, and I don't see Arkansas in that number. And I'm a Razorback at heart. But, you know, I see Arkansas in that second tier. College has something that, you know, even pro football or pro basketball doesn’t have. In pro sports, they have a salary cap. And that's why you're having problems recruiting and retaining players now [at Arkansas]. Because we don't have the money."

Casual fans might incorrectly assume that student-athletes are only transferring for the money, but Byron said many athletes are, in fact, turning down the money. "Most athletes aren't that concerned about the money, you know, their focus is to get to the NBA and not necessarily NIL. You hear a lot of people; I hear a lot of parents talking about keeping the main thing the main thing."

He adds, "The main thing is the NFL, not NIL."

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Josh Marvine is a multimedia producer for KUAF.
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