Arkansas Edge Director Has Plan to Break New Ground in NIL Fundraising

Sam Pittman, Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas football, Arkansas Edge, NIL
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Across the country, Name, Image and Likeness – better known as NIL – has become an arms race in college sports, with numbers reaching stratospheric figures. Arkansas is doing its best to try and keep up with its peers, but it was slow off the blocks.

To make up for lost ground, the Razorbacks must get creative. Enter Chris Bauer, the executive director of the UA’s official NIL collective, Arkansas Edge.

It has taken some time, but after nearly five months on the job, the Hot Springs native and UA alum is on the brink of introducing some cutting-edge (no pun intended) ideas that could help Arkansas inch closer to its SEC brethren.

One of those has already been announced. Arkansas Edge has partnered with ECHO, a credit card processing company based in Tulsa that will donate half of its take of the processing fees generated from businesses who sign up.

Arkansas Edge is believed to be one of the first NIL collectives to announce such a partnership. All it takes is getting in touch with ECHO, which will conduct an audit and try to match the current vendor’s rates before switching the business over to its service.

“This is a way for business owners to support NIL opportunities through Arkansas Edge without having to pay any more than they already do now fro credit card processing,” Bauer told Best of Arkansas Sports. “It’s really that simple; we just need businesses to sign up for it.”

ECHO is just the first of what will be several business-oriented partnerships Arkansas Edge plans to reveal in the coming months in an effort to get the small businesses of the state involved in NIL efforts through their normal operations, at no extra cost.

That’s different from what some of Arkansas’ rivals are doing, where a portion of sales go to the collectives. For example, The Grove Vodka is a line of Vodka where a portion of all sales goes to the Grove Collective at Ole Miss.

Efforts to Grow Arkansas Edge

Those creative ideas by Chris Bauer are even more important at a place like Arkansas because it is playing catch-up compared to other NIL collectives, especially when it comes to membership numbers.

Other schools established their fan collectives early on, collecting donations from fans designed to help athletes earn compensation. Arkansas didn’t get into the game until more than a year after NIL was legalized with the advent of OneArkansas. That was a 501(c)(3) non-profit that accepted tax-deductible donations and partnered athletes with charitable organizations.

More than a year later, in November 2023, OneArkansas was scrapped in favor of Arkansas Edge, which combined the charitable side of its predecessor while adding a fan membership club to it.

“You look at the other programs around the country who have fan membership clubs and they’ve been at this thing for almost three years now,” Bauer said. “Some of them are at 6,000, 7,000, pushing for 10,000 members.”

Because of its history as a charitable organization, Bauer said most of Arkansas Edge’s donations are still of the tax-deductible variety. However, he also knows Edge isn’t drawing from an unlimited pool. A lot of his prospects also donate to organizations like the Razorback Foundation or other charities.

His goal is for the split between those kinds of donations and the other two sources of the Edge’s funds – corporate partnerships and fan club members – to slowly even out over time.

While it’s been reported that John Calipari has a war chest of NIL “chicken money” from John Tyson – which Bauer and Tyson himself have refuted – the long-term success of Arkansas athletics across all sports will fall on the common fan to contribute to NIL.

Bauer, who started his job in January, is looking to grow the fan membership and get the program away from relying so heavily on top donors. Thus, came the launch of the Drive for Five program, which is attempting to grow Arkansas’ fan membership club to at least 5,000 individual members by the start of the Arkansas football season.

For as little as $25 a month, fans get a quarterly newsletter, apparel and swag giveaways, exclusive student-athlete digital content, and invitations to watch parties and tailgates. The highest level of membership club costs $250 a month and comes with additional perks, including a 10% discount at Wright’s BBQ.

On top of the current membership options, Bauer teased a potential “round-up” program that would also allow fans to make incremental donations directly to the collective. It would likely be the first such arrangement in the SEC, an indicator that Arkansas is starting to break new ground in an area where the perception has been that it’s behind.

Hunter Yurachek Weighs in on NIL

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek also put the burden squarely on the common fan to step up their game and keep the Razorbacks afloat in the game of NIL in an interview with Hit That Line Arkansas.

“We have a great top-end donor base at the University of Arkansas, people who have been incredibly generous to us,” Yurachek said. “But if we are going to be successful year after year in the Name, Image and Likeness programs and compete in the SEC, we very much need a grassroots campaign. We just can’t from person to person look and say, ‘Somebody else is going to take care of that for us.’”

Since launching Drive for Five in late March, Arkansas has increased the number of memberships sold from about 380 to 793 memberships, or roughly 16% of the target. That pales in comparison to a school like Ole Miss and The Grove Collective, which had 5,500 members in March.

Of course, Ole Miss launched its NIL collective back in January 2022 and relaunched in September of that year with new leadership, similar to Arkansas’ relaunch this year. Since then, the Rebels have gone 19-7 in football, including a win over Penn State in the Peach Bowl to cap their first 11-win season in school history.

Ole Miss football success has done nothing but help that program’s enrollment increase by leaps and bounds.

Yurachek may be even more ambitious. He’s looking for help from fans and asking them to donate at all levels of Arkansas Edge, looking to double the Drive for Five goal, while also helping the Razorbacks with facility needs.

Things like the renovation of Bud Walton Arena and additions to the softball and soccer stadiums involve capital campaigns by the Razorback Foundation and other revenue generated by the UA. All funds that go to the Edge – which, per NCAA rules, is not part of the UA athletics department – go directly to the student-athletes.

“We need people across this state regardless of their means,” Yurachek said. “Whether they can give $25 a month, $50 a month, $100 a month, if we can get 10,000 people to be a member of Arkansas Edge NIL collective and give something consistent every month that we can plan for, that’s how we’re going to be successful.” 

While Arkansas is less than one-fifth of the way to its targeted goal, Bauer still believes there is a path to get there, although the collective may need more time. He said there’s a plan for an aggressive ad spend this summer – a “digital, social media campaign” – so they can reach all fans, not just ones attending games. 

Despite still having a long way to go to be up to par with other SEC schools, the Razorbacks do have at least one advantage.

“We have a state with one Power Five team,” Bauer said. “We should be able to get to that number easily.” 

Other possible advantages are coming down the chute with the innovative tactics in NIL fundraising that Arkansas Edge will be deploying.

All of it will be needed to make up ground at a critical stretch of the arms race that is NIL in the SEC.

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Andrew Hutchinson and Evin Demirel contributed to this story.

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