Q&A: Arkansas Edge executive director Chris Bauer answers frequently asked questions about NIL collective

by Christina Long

Read the full article here.

No three letters have caused as much confusion and, at times, frustration in college athletics than NIL. At Arkansas, a new player in name, image and likeness emerged in November 2023: Arkansas Edge.

Arkansas Edge replaced the former One Arkansas as the official NIL collective of Arkansas athletics. The collective announced its "Drive for Five" campaign in March to attract 5,000 subscribers to its fan membership club.

Executive director Chris Bauer gets plenty of questions about Arkansas Edge and NIL in general. Bauer spoke with WholeHogSports to clear up some common misconceptions and answer some important questions about NIL activity at Arkansas.

Why was One Arkansas discontinued, and what is different about Arkansas Edge?

One Arkansas, for all intents and purposes, was decommissioned for a variety of reasons. But the two main reasons: One Arkansas was underneath the Razorback Foundation, and the Razorback Foundation has a very big mission for the university. There were some memos from the IRS last year that came out [stating that NIL collectives might not be eligible for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status]. It didn't change the rules, it just put a little question mark into people's minds about whether or not charitable contributions would remain considered tax-deductible, and that could have put the Razorback Foundation's 501(c)(3) status at risk had they continued to take those charitable contributions. 

Around the same time, the NCAA came out with some guidelines that encouraged universities to push NIL activity outside of the walls of the university. So those two things combined made sense for it to separate from the Razorback Foundation and be outside of the walls of the university. …

We are not a part of the Razorback Foundation. It is completely separate. There are no benefits for tickets or parking or any of that [through Arkansas Edge.] It is a little confusing because One Arkansas was a separate entity underneath the Razorback Foundation before, and now Arkansas Edge is a completely different organization outside of the walls of the university and the Razorback Foundation. We sit in [our office in the Razorback Foundation] building, so we get sort of guilty by association, but it's an important distinction to make.

What are the three types of funding for Arkansas Edge?

There are charitable contributions through the BPS Foundation. There's the fan membership club, which starts at $25 and goes up to $250 a month. There are different benefits with that, the sweatshirts, the hat, that kind of stuff. And then we'll do different things throughout the year with that group, tailgates and other events, kind of exclusive events just for them. And then there are business partnerships. So there are really three ways to get involved depending upon what the entity is that wants to get involved.

What is Blueprint Sports and the BPS Foundation, and how does Arkansas Edge’s partnership with them work?

So there's the BPS Foundation, which is the 501(c)(3), and then there's Blueprints Sports. Arkansas Edge is an affiliate of Blueprint Sports, which is a commercial organization [which is partnered with multiple collectives nationwide]. It is not a 501(c)(3). BPS Foundation is a 501(c)(3) and is a separate organization that Blueprint Sports partners with.

... Those charitable contributions, to be considered tax-deductible, have to be given to a 501(c)(3), so we partner with the BPS Foundation to be able to do that. They can take those donations on behalf of the Arkansas student-athlete community, and then we can help to direct those funds to where they need to go to enable NIL opportunities with student-athletes working in the community with other 501(c)(3) nonprofits. So they can go out and earn those dollars working for [Arkansas Edge’s charitable partners]. 

… [When a fan makes a charitable donation to Arkansas Edge] they’re making the donation to the BPS Foundation. When they make that donation, because it's coming through Arkansas Edge's website, [the BPS Foundation] knows that it's coming from an Arkansas donor. Then, they make it available for Arkansas student-athletes, and then we can then direct where that money goes, to which student-athletes through partnerships with nonprofits in this area.

Does the BPS Foundation keep a portion of the donations?

There's a small administration fee, like any nonprofit would take, to run their organization. They have expenses that they have. But it's very miniscule.

Are most people who are contributing via charitable donation or fan membership designating a sport for their money to go toward?

About 50% of charitable contributions and fan memberships go into the general fund, and that allows us to direct it where the need is greatest. And then as you can imagine, the vast majority of everything else has gone toward football, men's basketball and baseball. 

Is the money collected through charitable donations used differently than the money collected via the fan membership club?

So in both cases, [fans] can designate which sport they want the money to go to. They can't designate the student-athlete, but they can designate the sport, and we honor that designation. … In a business partnership, though, they can specify the athletes that they want to work with. Or, what happens most often is that because we have relationships with all the student-athletes, they'll come to us and say, 'This is what I'm trying to accomplish. Here's the personality I'm looking for. Here's the type of student-athlete.' … It really depends on what the business wants to do. Then we help them connect with the right student-athlete for that opportunity.

How does Arkansas Edge actually make deals with student-athletes?

So if it's a business relationship, then that's pretty cut and dry what's going to work between that business and that student-athlete, and we help facilitate that.

Generally with student-athletes and the contracts that we sign with them, we commit a certain amount to them at the beginning of the season, and then we work to provide them the opportunities to earn that amount. I'm just going to use fake numbers here: Say we contract with a student athlete for $100. We're going to go find opportunities for them to earn that $100. That might be from the charitable contributions, it might be from the fan membership club money that comes in, or it might be through business partnerships. … We’re raising those funds. Some of it is raised already, but we're always fundraising. We're always filling the bucket. There's a hole in the bottom of it that we have to keep throwing more in.

How is a student-athlete’s NIL value determined? How do you know how much you need to pay them?

There's no exact science. There's no database across the country that says this athlete is worth this much. It would be great if that were the case, but that's part of the wild, wild West of this.

Now that we're kind of almost three years into this, some of that dust is settling and we're starting to figure out, ‘OK, athletes of this caliber are worth about this much.’ … We've done the research across the country to say, 'OK, this is what the market is bearing for athletes of this caliber and of this position.'

The reality is that quarterbacks are hot commodities and they are often going to command more in the market versus other positions or even other sports. So we have a pretty good idea of where that all lands. So, ultimately, we're the ones making that determination.

Because NIL deals are not publicly available the way that coach contracts are at public universities, it’s unclear how much money athletes are really getting. Does that lack of clarity make it difficult to make deals with athletes?

I understand the curiosity, but I would also hope that fans understand that it is not in the best interest to put [the value of deals] into the public sphere, because then that signals to other universities how much we are committing to student-athletes from a recruiting standpoint. That is a double-edged sword. It could work in our favor because [some schools] can't match us, but it also could be, 'We know exactly what Arkansas is doing, and we're going to go find [a donor] who can help us beat that.' … 

You also heard a couple years ago that certain universities, I won't name them, were going to pay student-athletes $1 million apiece to come in NIL deals. Did that happen? Absolutely not. You saw that recruiting class the next year all transfer out because it didn't happen. … 

It can be a difficult conversation if expectations [between the athlete and the collective] were vastly different. But for the most part, we have some great student-athletes. We have fantastic student-athletes on this campus, and I'm constantly impressed with the quality of human that we have here. And for the most part, most of them are grateful to be, A) at the University of Arkansas, and B) to even have an opportunity to have NIL earning potential.

Of the three methods of fundraising — charitable contributions, fan memberships and business partnerships — which one accounts for most of the money Arkansas Edge has available?

The largest piece of that pie right now is on the charitable giving side, but we are growing the fan membership club. We want that to become a larger piece of the pie. 

We also want to grow the business partnerships part of it as well. Right now, it sort of tips in the direction of charitable contributions, but in the future — to be quite honest with you, there's a concept called donor fatigue. We know that there's going to be a point at which donors are going to not want to continue to give or are going to be sort of tired of giving at that level, and so we're trying to tip the scales to balance it out a little bit more so that it's more equal across all of those three. 

Also, if we can find business opportunities for recurring revenue, we're trying to find business partnerships that can allow for that, too. That's a way more sustainable business model. … So if there's a T-shirt shop and they want to do an NIL edition line of clothing and they agree to give us 20% of the sales from that, fans are more likely to go and buy that because they know that it is going to provide NIL dollars and funding back to Arkansas Edge. That also helps that business, too, and that can be a recurring revenue stream out there of dollars coming in.

Do businesses have to go through Arkansas Edge to make a deal with a student-athlete?

They could strike their own deals, but there are a lot of benefits going through us. Number one, and probably the most important, is the compliance angle. The laws and the policies are complicated, and most businesses do not understand them. Most student-athletes don't even understand them. We do, and we want to keep that student-athlete's eligibility intact, number one. We also want to make sure that the university is protected in that as well. By coming through us, they can ensure that that's going to happen. We're going to keep everything between the guardrails. … Then there's also just the matter of, 'I don't know which student athlete to work with, help me find one. How do I make this work? What should I even do? What's the strategy behind how to get a student-athlete involved?' 

Student-athletes are 17, 18, 19, 20-year-old kids that are not just students, they are student-athletes. Their schedule is hectic, and they, like any 19-year-old, can be forgetful. We help keep them accountable, and we, in a way, project manage the business partnerships so we can make sure that student-athlete is doing what they're supposed to do according to what the contract says with that company.

How many fan memberships had Arkansas Edge sold before Drive For Five was announced?

We are approaching 500 and trying to get to 5,000. At first, you could say, 'Wow, that's not very many,' but when we started from zero, I think it's a pretty good start.

Other than the launch on Nov. 28, there hasn't been a big initiative to push this forward. …

We're going to keep marching toward 5,000. If you read the kind of the synopsis of what [Drive for Five] is, there's going to be milestones and we'll basically break those down to 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 and then 5,000, and at each of those milestones we have giveaways that are incentives to help get us there, and then we'll also unlock new rewards for all members, when we get to those milestones.

Donations to Arkansas Edge don’t come with any benefits regarding season tickets the way that donations to the Razorback Foundation do. Why can’t Arkansas Edge donations count toward season tickets and other such benefits?

Even One Arkansas didn't [have those benefits], because that's an NCAA policy. No NIL funding can get you benefits of parking, tickets, anything like that. Even when they were giving to One Arkansas [under the Razorback Foundation], it was separate….

There have been all kinds of ideas that have been thrown around, like, 'When Cam Little kicks a field goal, we should give him money for that.' No, [under NCAA policy] it can't be about performance. 

How can Arkansas Edge be called ‘the official NIL collective of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ while not being directly part of the athletics department or Razorback Foundation?

Anybody that is the official anything of the Razorbacks has to pay for that sponsorship. That cannot be given to us by NCAA policy. There's nothing that can be given to the collective. [Our office inside the Foundation building], we're not just given this space. We have to rent this space. Tickets for our donors, tickets for our staff, tickets that we give away for the fan giveaways, those aren't just given away. Some of that comes through our sponsorship through Learfield, but it's an NCAA policy that we have to pay for that. So it's the official NIL collective, partly because we paid for that, but also because we have great partners across the university that want us to succeed, too.

But Arkansas coaches can promote the collective and encourage fans to contribute?

Yes, they can be a part of the fundraising process. They can't put their own funds in. They can be a part of the fundraising process, and we intend to fully utilize them in some of those fundraising initiatives. What they cannot be a part of is the deal-making process. They cannot put a contract in front of a student-athlete and say, 'Sign right here.'

Editor’s note: According to Bauer, coaches are permitted to discuss Arkansas Edge with prospective student-athletes and tell them what deals other Arkansas athletes have had, but they cannot promise them dollar amounts or make deals with them directly.

What other common misconceptions do you see about NIL and Arkansas Edge?

‘Why aren't the coaches, why aren't the administrators, why aren't athletic department employees giving to this? Why aren't we taking part of ticket sales? If you're going to raise the price of tickets, then take that increase and put it toward NIL. Concession stands?’

You name it, there's been ideas. And I'm not saying they're bad ideas, they just aren't permissible [by the NCAA]. 

… I also think there's a misconception that the big three companies in Northwest Arkansas [Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt] should be the ones footing the bill. What I would say to that is: Those are global brands. I come from the advertising world. I understand advertising strategy. It doesn't make sense for them to advertise with a student-athlete at the University of Arkansas because that is a very local market that's going to care about that. They are global brands. So it is not in their best interest from an advertising standpoint to get their board to sign off on that investment. It's not going to happen.

The other is that the families behind those companies should be the ones that are footing the bill for [NIL] too. And I will say, if you look around this campus, they have mightily supported this university, and there should be nobody who calls them out for not supporting NIL. And the reality is, they don't know whether [the families] are or they're not because that's not public information, and some of them could be already.

What do you say to fans who are frustrated at being asked to donate more money on top of tickets, Razorback Foundation donations and more expenses?

A lot of fans have been frustrated by the fact that, 'Well, I give to the Razorback Foundation, I buy tickets, I do all these things, and now you want me to give to NlL?' And it's just because that's the way it has to be. The NCAA, those are the policies. All support for NIL has to come from outside the university, from fans, from supporters and from businesses who love the Razorbacks and want them to succeed. Those are the rules that we're given right now that we have to play with, and we have to play the game, or we're not going to be competitive. But we have to play within the rules. …

I think we need to change the perspective and the mindset. 'OK, we all want the Razorbacks to win, and this is the game that has to be played, and if we care that much about it, then we all need to play a little part in it' — at whatever level is the most comfortable. If they want to just give a one-time, $20 tax-deductible charitable contribution, they can do that through the BPS Foundation. If they want to join the fan membership club at the $25 level, they can do that. Whatever is most comfortable to them is what we want them to do.

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