About four hours after his most recent endorsement deal became public, Armando Bacot shared the news with his 56,400 followers on Twitter. By then, on a recent Thursday, Bacot had long become familiar with the art of the social media pitch. Keep it short. Direct. Add an exclamation point or two. Don’t forget the promo code. He typed 37 words and attached a video commercial and sent them into the ether.
“I am honored to join the @BOA_blast team!” Bacot wrote, referencing BOA Nutrition, a North Carolina company specializing in athletic performance products.
“BOA has helped me take my game to the next level,” Bacot continued, and then directed people to a website where they could buy Ignite for 20 percent off with a discount code.
Back in his home office in Winston-Salem, Jon Pritchett kept watch. He’s the CEO of BOA Nutrition, and this was a day that he’d long anticipated. The launch of his company’s first formal advertising campaign had been months in the making, and Pritchett eagerly followed its reception. He wondered about impressions and website traffic, and waited for any tangible signs that the ad was working. He spent the day in front of his computer and on the phone, monitoring social media and answering questions from reporters interested in the latest story about NIL and college sports.
This one came with a twist: BOA not only signed Bacot, the North Carolina forward who entered this college basketball season as the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year, but it also signed a deal with Jeremy Roach, a guard from rival Duke. The advertisement, a 30-second video with Bacot and Roach dribbling and spinning and dunking their way around separate basketball courts, played on the idea of rivals bonding over their use of the latest product that might provide an edge. It’s the first NIL-related commercial featuring players on opposite sides of the Duke-UNC rivalry.
In NIL deals, size matters
Eighteen months have passed since college athletes received the long-awaited right to monetize their name, image and likeness. Those three words have been condensed into an acronym, NIL, that has become a regular part of the college athletics lexicon, and one that has affected nearly every aspect of the enterprise throughout the past year and a half. Companies large and small have seized the opportunity to enter into endorsement deals with college athletes.
Some have a global reach. Others are mom-and-pops in little college towns. BOA Nutrition is somewhere in between, though on the smaller end of the scale. It entered the NIL game with caution, and without the resources more monied companies can afford to lose on an investment. In some ways, then, BOA provides an ideal case study for how NIL deals come together, and what companies hope to gain from them.
Bacot’s social media mentions of, say, Dunkin’ or Dick’s Sports — two national brands he has endorsed during the past few months — aren’t likely to have a significant effect on either company’s bottom line. His work with BOA, meanwhile, could help bolster that company’s growth, or at the least help spread brand awareness. That’s Pritchett’s hope, anyway.
“We’re not a company that has tons of cash to sign all kinds of athletes,” he said during a recent interview. “We have to be very careful and particular about it. And as an early-stage company, you know, cash is really important.”
For all that has been written about NIL over the past year — and perhaps no other topic has commanded as much national attention in college sports — little is known about the mechanics of most deals. They can come together in mysterious ways. The amount of money involved is often unknown, at least publicly, and the exorbitant sums bandied about for this high-level athlete, or that one, are impossible to vet or verify. The benefits for the athletes, who make money, are clear enough. But what about the return on the investment for companies?
Playing the game
In some cases, NIL deals are nothing more than pay-for-play by another name. Schools can’t pay athletes directly. But they can, and have — and are, actively — encouraging boosters to contribute to NIL collectives, which then filter money to athletes through various deals. Those deals may or may not capture the spirit of the original intent of it all, back when the NCAA in the summer of 2021 begrudgingly allowed athletes to monetize their brands.
It had a feeling, then, of innocence and perhaps naivety. The thought was that athletes could, say, make money off of autograph shows or selling personally-branded merchandise or off a YouTube side hustle or by promoting the local diner near campus. And that has happened. But what has also happened is that NIL has become a monster of its own, an unregulated and untamed tentacle of a billion-dollar business — a rapidly-growing business within an even larger business that has allowed college athletes to take back some of the power they never had in the first place.
Bacot has played the game as well as anyone. Since his decision to return for his fourth season at UNC, he has become one of the national faces of this moment; exhibit A, at least in his sport, of what’s possible for an entrepreneurially-minded college athlete. In a story last summer in Sports Illustrated, Bacot’s mom told the publication that his NIL earnings for that year would be “definitely past half a million” — and he’s only become more of a pitchman since.
His endorsement prowess brings to mind the old saying from Jay-Z, who during a song once asserted that he was not “a businessman but a business, man.” Throughout the past several months, Bacot has announced partnerships with Cap Tech, and MoneyLion.
He has posted amateur video ads for the toy company Nerf — “loser gets soaked w/a Super Soaker,” he wrote of a Nerf gun battle with teammate R.J. Davis — and Dunkin’, of which Bacot wrote: “I’ve been drinking their coffee almost daily since high school, and am pumped to create some great content with them.” The same tweet included a photo of Bacot behind 10 Dunkin’ drinks, all varying shades of coffee-brown.
In addition to the recent deal with BOA Nutrition, Bacot also announced one in the past month with Rhoback, which is now his “exclusive apparel sponsor.” On Twitter, his pinned tweet atop his timeline includes a link to his online store, where he sells Bacot-branded swag. He has sold coffee, seafood, consulting, toy guns that shoot foam ammunition, charity endeavors. Last spring he announced in a tweet that he was “pumped to be teaming up with Bad Boy Mowers …
“We’re doing big things together this year.”
It has proven prophetic, at least in one way. Bacot, who suffered an ankle injury during the Tar Heels’ defeat at Virginia earlier this week, has often been left to wonder about UNC’s ho-hum performances on the court, where it started the season ranked No. 1 but now finds itself outside of the top 25. Off the court, though, it’s difficult to imagine anyone thriving in the NIL era as much as Bacot has.
“He has made the most of his opportunities in college,” said Jim Kitchen, who is in his 13th year as a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. It is “that combo of athletic talent, plus business savviness that has put him in that position,” said Kitchen, who taught Bacot in a lecture course last year about entrepreneurship. The student made a positive impression.
“He’s probably the finest student-athlete that I’ve had in my class, and one of the top 10 students that I’ve ever had in the past 13 years,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen’s class paid off for Bacot — both figuratively and literally. It was Kitchen, an endurance athlete himself, who introduced Bacot to BOA Nutrition’s newest product. Kitchen sits on BOA’s board, and in his class one day he discussed the company’s latest innovation: a citrus-flavored spray that, in a couple seconds, delivers “atomized nutrients which are rapidly absorbed,” according to the company.
Bacot during a recent interview said when he tried it he “really liked the product. I thought it was cool.”
“And when he told me this year they wanted to do a partnership with me,” he said of Kitchen, “it was a no-brainer.”
So began Bacot’s business relationship with BOA. The company last year entered into an endorsement deal with Wendell Moore, the former Duke forward. That came to fruition in large part because the inventor behind BOA, Hank Durschlag, took his product to Duke and won the support of the university’s sports medicine department. That support led to a round of investment — BOA has raised more than $6 million from private investors, and has another investment round scheduled for this year — and it also led to some widespread publicity.
During Duke’s nationally-televised game last season against Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe revealed that Paolo Banchero, then a Duke freshman, lost seven pounds per game because of sweating. To stay hydrated, Rowe told a national audience, Banchero used the company’s first product, BOA Endure, and soon other athletes and teams picked up on it.
To Pritchett, the CEO, and Kitchen, Bacot became the perfect pitchman, in large part because “Armando obviously is known in and out of his jersey,” Pritchett said.
Making the deal(s) work for everyone
The negotiations didn’t take long. A few days to reach the broader agreements, a couple of weeks to finalize the nitty-gritty. One complication with these deals, Pritchett said, is working through potential conflicts that might emerge between an individual athlete’s deal and any broader contracts involving their school. UNC, for instance, has an athletics department-wide deal with Gatorade.
“Just about every discussion that we have, whether it’s with Ironman or it’s with UNC and Armando, or Duke and Jeremy or whatever it is, that’s always a topic of conversation,” Pritchett said. “And essentially, what our position is is we’re not asking to take over a category. We’re not trying to buy a Gatorade, or Powerade or somebody out of a category, because we think we’ve created something that’s new and novel and unique.”
The company added Roach to the ad campaign with the thought that the rivalry angle might help generate buzz, especially when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils play twice (or more?) in the coming months.
Then there was the issue of money. BOA doesn’t have a lot of it, certainly not enough to burn and hope that a deal with a college athlete might lead to a significant return. And so Pritchett and his colleagues came up with a creative solution: equity in the company. Both Roach and Bacot agreed to stock options and incentives. The better BOA does, the better they’ll do.
“They have an incentive to help us on sales, because they will benefit from the sales they generate from their ads or their organic posts, where they offer discounts, “Pritchett said. “ … They have an interest in the long-term success of the company, because they’ll do very well as shareholders.
“So it’s a nice way to make sure that it’s not just a transaction.”
The final product, in terms of Bacot and Roach’s endorsement, represented the culmination of months of work. A 30-second video that begins with Bacot and Roach, who’ve known each other since they were in ninth grade, Bacot said, spraying BOA Ignite into their mouths. For most of it, Bacot and Roach are maneuvering around different courts, the action spliced as if they’re together.
Pritchett wasn’t expecting much of an early return, at least not with sales. He’s still focused on raising brand awareness. In the hours and days after the launch of the campaign, he devoted most of his attention to metrics that could tell him whether the video moved any needles — and it did.
Web traffic increased by 600 percent, he said. Page views by hundreds of thousands. The media coverage resulted in more than one billion impressions, according to French West Vaughan, the Raleigh-based public relations firm BOA enlisted to spread the word. There were stories in outlets local and national, and in ones that cover UNC athletics.
Pritchett considered the launch a success. But what did it all mean, in terms of the bottom line?
It was too early to tell, he said earlier this week. He anticipated that by early February he’d have a read on sales, and whether the stories and social media impressions translated into customers. That’d be the real barometer.
For now all he could do was wait, and hope.