On Feb. 5, 2020, college athletes were still nearly 17 months away from being able to profit off their names, images and likenesses. But without the events of that day, Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw likely never would have experienced this one.
Friday, Rakestraw became the first college athlete to ink a deal with Horns Down Shop. The company, co-founded by longtime Mizzou fan Jesse Cox, will sell college sports merchandise and memorabilia online: t-shirts, autographed footballs, bobbleheads and more. It also marked the first endorsement deal Rakestraw has signed since the NCAA adjusted its rules to allow student-athletes to capitalize on their likenesses starting July 1, and it provides a glimpse into how NIL deals have come together across the past two months and how they could impact the college football landscape.
It might seem a bit unusual that, of all the players on the Missouri football team, Cox hitched his wagon to a redshirt freshman cornerback. But ever since Feb. 5, 2020, Cox has been drawn to Rakestraw. Cox was living in Dallas at the time, and that was the day Rakestraw, finishing up his senior season at nearby Duncanville high school, announced that he would be attending Missouri instead of Texas or Alabama.
Rakestraw’s decision incited a raucous celebration from newly-hired Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz, which went viral. Rakestraw gained an outsized social media following as a result, which he only padded as he started all 10 of Missouri’s games as a true freshman last season. Cox researched social media followings among Tiger players and said that Rakestraw has the most Twitter followers of any player on the team that he looked at and is close to the top in Instagram followers, too.
That social media presence helped make Rakestraw the ideal partner for Cox. The icing on the cake was the aspect of Rakestraw’s signing day announcement that has since been overshadowed a bit. Before placing a Missouri hat on his head and announcing he would be a Tiger, Rakestraw picked up a Texas hat, started to raise it to his head and then tossed it aside. Cox said that embodies the type of lighthearted rivalry he wants to capitalize on with Horns Down Shop.
“He was the right guy for it,” Cox said of Rakestraw. “I mean, being from Texas, being such a good representative of Mizzou. He’s just very recognizable, I think, from a fanbase perspective. So we’re super excited to launch our brand with this guy’s image and this guy’s name.”
Horns Down Shop won’t just provide Mizzou apparel — and it’s not just anti-Texas gear, either. As of Friday, the website offers Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas A&M merchandise. Cox said his goal is to offer apparel for every fanbase in the new-look SEC, including Texas and Oklahoma, by the end of the year. In doing so, he hopes to sign an NIL deal with at least one student-athlete at each of those schools. Eventually, he hopes to sign more Missouri athletes (including non-revenue athletes such as softball players) and also market to each of the eight schools remaining in the Big 12.
And while there will be shirts that say “Horns Down” available in every team’s colors, Cox noted that the site will sell pro-Texas merchandise, as well. He said the “horns down” moniker is really just a way to catch the attention of consumers. Rakestraw made sure to clarify that he’s not trying to take a shot at his home state by signing this deal.
“Horns down, to me, is not to bash my home state,” Rakestraw said. “Because at the end of the day, when football is all said and done, I’m still going to be a Texas fan. I’m Texas for life. … I’m not like bashing Texas or anything, because that’s where I’m from.”
Horns Down Shop is an example of what will likely be a new phenomenon in the NIL era. The company was started, in part, with NIL in mind. Cox, who also owns other small businesses, said since July 1, he has been trying to find a way he could get involved in the NIL landscape to support Missouri student-athletes.
“My mindset was how can I have the chance to invest back in Mizzou, which is what I love?” Cox said.
Cox recognizes that, even though the NCAA has tried to keep NIL from being used as a recruiting inducement, most prospects are going to factor which schools can help them earn sponsorship money into their college decisions. Some boosters elsewhere have already formalized deals that are little more than thinly-veiled recruiting pitches for their favorite football team. Miami fan Dan Lambert offered every Hurricane scholarship player $600 a month to endorse his company, American Top Team. BYU helped broker a deal that will cover the cost of tuition for every walk-on player for at least one season.
Cox hopes signing Rakestraw will coax other business owners among the Missouri fanbase to offer NIL deals to players.
“I want players from Texas and other states to be able to choose Mizzou because we’ve got a rabid fanbase that figures out a way that we can help them succeed through helping promote our business,” Cox said.
Cox declined to share the exact terms of his agreement with Rakestraw, but he believes it’s more player-friendly than most of the deals that have been signed in the past two months. Rakestraw will receive a percentage of all the site’s Missouri sales. He doesn’t have to do anything in return, aside from autographing a few items and promoting the brand on social media.
That was important for Rakestraw. He waded slowly into the NIL waters while many of his teammates dove in head first in early July because he was wary of signing a contract that would pay him now but demand a cut of any future professional earnings. He said the deal with Horns Down Shop took about a month to completely iron out. He wanted to build a relationship with Cox first, and he had to get it approved by both the Missouri compliance department and his mother before entering into the agreement.
“When NIL first happened, the deals came, there was a lot of deals that were two-sided,” Rakestraw said. “So some of my teammates and some people around the country signed a deal that really didn’t benefit them. That way if they was to make it to the next level, they would still be making money off of them, and they would be making very little. So I really didn’t take any deals right away. My mom told me to wait, and waiting, I guess it helped me out right now.”
Rakestraw said he hopes to save as much of the money he makes from Horns Down Shop as possible. He plans to invest it and create “something to fall back on” in the event that his NFL aspirations don’t pan out.
That’s music to Cox’s ears. Of course, he hopes to profit from Horns Down Shop. But just as important, he said, was finding a way to support Missouri and give back to the players he cheers for on Saturdays.
“I hope fans support Ennis at the end of the day,” Cox said. “That is what this is about. And if our business takes off, it’s going to allow players at universities across the country to make a little money before hopefully they go sign bigger deals and have greener pastures. That’s all it is, help bridge that gap and be a player in this market that’s fair. … We want to make sure this is just as much about the players representing our brand as the brand itself.”