When the Conway, Arkansas Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) announced plans to sign student athletes from the University of Central Arkansas to “Name, Image and Likeness” (NIL) agreements, it came as a shock. But as executive director Rachel Shaw explains it, the program is a natural – as well as a great learning experience for the students.
At this point, the sports-consuming public is expecting college athletes to sign endorsement deals for products like shoes, performance athletic wear and nutrition supplements; Conway, however, figured out a way to turn the equation in its favor and have the athletes promote their city as a destination for sports, fun and, of course, its colleges.
“Conway is the City of Colleges, after all” says Shaw, referring to the area’s moniker, derived from the three post-secondary institutions that call Conway home (the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College).
The idea, suggested by Shaw’s colleague at the CVB, was to have students be advocates to promote the area, and to talk about what they liked – and what others could take advantage of by visiting.
The CVB spoke with the athletic director at UCA, who was enthused about the idea. Approximately 300 student athletes were surveyed to find out what their impressions had been of Conway prior to living there, as opposed to their present thoughts. Students were asked about their favorite things to do in the area, what they thought the city’s most valuable assets were, and whether there were specific entities, such as restaurants, stores or parks, that they thought were most valuable.
“We got about 180 of those surveys back,” says Shaw, “and we also had the coaches send us their lists of who they thought would be good candidates, and we surveyed them as well.”
The results were interesting to the CVB.
“We had a number of people who said that originally, they had thought Conway was this really tiny town; then we also had people who came from small towns and originally thought that Conway was so much bigger than they’d imagined. But both sets of students said they’d come to the conclusion that Conway was neither one of those things.”
The fact that the city defied stereotypes gave the CVB a jumping-off point for its marketing committee, and it was able to winnow down its list of students to 21 men and women, representing a wide range of sports as well as demographics.
“We preferred juniors and seniors, students who were in good standing with the teams they were on, as well as people who were juniors or seniors. We partnered with a local company called Conductor for training and they put us in touch with a local law firm where one partner worked part time as a sports agent for NFL players. Both these organizations were uniquely qualified to help us.”
Students went through training on the responsibilities of representing Conway. They worked with mentors who helped identify appropriate behavior as those whose NIL would be used to promote the destination. Additionally, students had a “pitch night,” in which they were able to make presentations to business owners in the communities about why they would be good representatives for those establishments.
Although the program was announced in the fall, it will begin ramping up soon. Expect students to do social media takeovers, appear in print ads and created content, to go out into restaurants and to talk about aspects of the city they enjoy.
And they’re not doing this free, either. Shaw estimates that most of the students will earn between $500 to $2,000 during their time in the program.
“We are paying them competitively – it’s not like they are doing this for a restaurant gift card,” says Shaw. “They are like a contract employee for us. We treat them like responsible adults.”
Students received training on what it means to be an hourly employee, how to fill out a 1099 and information on managing finances and withholding taxes.
If students have ideas about other ways to promote the destination, “we encourage them to let us know,” says Shaw.
UCA athletic director Brad Teague thinks that this announcement is another historic moment in the program’s history.
“We are fortunate to be in a community that is willing to innovate and think outside the box for the betterment of our program, our campus, and our city,” Teague said. “I am especially pleased with the educational component of these NIL agreements. The CVB will offer up to 30 of our student leaders these NIL agreements. It will allow almost 10 percent of our students to sign NIL contracts annually and will equip them with skills for life. I am also very appreciative of the diverse selection criteria they have put in place. Members of all of our 18 sponsored sports will benefit.
Men’s basketball player Jaxson Baker is one of the program’s first signees. Baker is the current president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). The Phoenix area native also has 84,000 followers on TikTok and says that the program “represents an exciting opportunity.”
“I think it’s really cool for them to have us in their minds and to approach us with this concept,” said Baker. “I know our student-athletes appreciate this. It’s really a win-win for both parties. And I think it will be key in getting student-athletes to come here. It will show them that this place is just as important as people say it is. To have the community come around and support us and in turn we support them. I’m really excited for it.”
Tyler Rose, a junior from Fresno, Texas, is a sprinter for the track and field squad who holds multiple school records.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for our student-athletes to be given a huge opportunity like this,” Rose said. “And for Conway to be one of the first cities to come up with this idea and concept for the student-athletes at Central Arkansas. I think this is a great way to showcase our student-athletes and our different sports here at UCA.”
To remain in good standing in the program, students need to keep up their grades and be willing to make sure nothing inappropriate was being posted on social media.
“They’re still college students, after all,” says Shaw.
The Conway program is groundbreaking, she notes.
“We haven’t seen any other destinations doing this. We’re the first public entity. Some businesses have done deals with athletes, of course, but they were private. We were the first to announce a large group of athletes acting as ambassadors.”