TJ Callaway is always tickled when sees college athletes at the University of Georgia sporting Onward Reserve, a men’s apparel brand he launched 10 years ago.
A UGA alum and diehard Bulldogs fan, Callaway is now poised to connect with college athletes in a way he couldn’t have fathomed a decade ago: paying them to endorse his products. Onward Reserve will offer a handful of standout UGA athletes after midnight on July 1 — the date Georgia law says athletes can officially cash in on their name, image and likeness.
“This is a no-brainer,” Callaway told Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Small companies, like Onward Reserve, can now capitalize on the large followings of student athletes. Callaway will send opportunities next month to UGA athletes: track and field star Matthew Boling, quarterback Brock Vandagriff, placekicker Jack Podlesney, golfer Trent Phillips and baseball player Connor Tate.
Onward Reserve is slated to be the first Georgia-based business to sign college athletes to endorsement deals. But, the floodgates may be ready to open. Restaurant owners could partner with the college athlete who love their food. Car dealerships can make a fan-favorite college athlete their spokesperson.
And businesses that broker these relationships between brands and athletes are popping up.
Denver-based Icon Source is facilitating the arrangement between Callaway and UGA athletes. Drew Butler, once a UGA standout punter, heads Icon's collegiate division. He's a longtime friend of Callaway's.
“It’s a very natural fit,” said Butler. “These student athletes shop in their stores and use their e-commerce website and speak authentically to what Onward Reserve represents.”
This is probably just beginning.
Georgia companies bouncing back from the pandemic will have more marketing dollars to spend. “As brands become more comfortable, the volume of deals at the hyper local and regionally level will be tremendous,” Butler said.
Onward Reserve, which sells its own in-house apparel, third-party gifts and accessories, is expanding across the Southeast. Minority shareholders include Atlanta business leader and real estate developer Robin Loudermilk, CEO of Loudermilk Cos.
Onward Reserve is a popular brand in Athens, where the company opened its first of 12 locations nearly a decade ago. Former UGA quarterback Jake Fromm was a regular customer. UGA head football coach Kirby Smart has been spotted wearing Onward Reserve apparel. Former Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence also wears the brand.
Callaway can engage directly with college athletes using a digital platform Icon Source provides. He can also leverage Onward Reserve's social media following to grow brand awareness. And, starting next month, he can for the first time compensate college athletes for their services.
Callaway declined to divulge the value of potential contracts with UGA athletes. He did say they are “low cost.”
The Thomasville, Ga. native says social media analytics will help gauge his return on investment. He's also considering whether to ask athletes for in-store appearances on gamedays. Maybe he'll put them in seasonal Onward Reserve catalogs.
The Buckhead-based company got its first UGA product license about six years ago. They’ve also got deals in place with Florida State, Clemson and others.
But the introduction into the NIL market begins with the Bulldogs.
Callaway said, “It goes hand and hand the story of our business starting in Athens."