Why Kellie Harper created a role to help Tennessee players build their brand

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When Heather Ervin sat down with the 16 Tennessee basketball players, she had a question.

“If basketball is taken away from you, what are your passions? What are your hobbies ? What are you going to do ? Ervin asked each player.

Lady Vols’ new director of student-athlete success and external relations says not all players immediately know the answer to that question. Ervin said it was important to her to help players understand this while they were still in college and help them plan for life after basketball.

“Having these real conversations with them about what they really love to do, what their passions are outside of basketball, I think that kind of sparked something to be able to really reflect on that process and what they want to make a living,” Ervine says.

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While Ervin isn’t facilitating any name, likeness, and likeness deals, she is there to provide resources and help every gamer establish their brand.

“Either you embrace it or you’re left behind,” Ervin said of the NIL sports era.

At the grand opening of Orange Mountain Designs’ new Kingston Pike location, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman said the store, which has signed a number of Lady Vols agreements at NIL, shows that Tennessee ” is extremely serious” about supporting women’s sports. Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said having a store to feature the Lady Vols brand is a big deal, for current and future players.

“We always talk about our difference, it’s just different here, and that’s just one more example of how,” Harper said. “It’s so unique in how the University of Tennessee has always been committed to women’s athletics.”

Tennessee softball coach Karen Weekly, former UT women’s athletic director Joan Cronan and players from basketball, volleyball, golf and women’s soccer meet fans at the grand opening of the WCO on Saturday.

Harper said that now, when talking to potential Lady Vols brand recruits, she can walk into the store full of merchandise and she has nothing else to say. Ervin’s new role was also important for Harper to ensure her players could take advantage of the opportunities she didn’t have as a player.

“They deal with so much in the NIL space that we wanted to find another avenue to support them,” Harper said. “It’s been fantastic and I think it will continue to grow and evolve as times change.”

Tennessee senior guard Jordan Horston was one of the first Lady Vols to sign an NIL deal with OMD. With the new store and Ervin’s new position – which Horston said was right up there with Ervin – Horston is excited about the opportunities for the team.

“She’s very involved with us, she loves us like we’re her own children,” Horston said of Ervin. “She really stands up for us and helps us with our image and branding… That’s really important, because we’re not just basketball players. So it’s kind of cool with NIL and stuff, we let the fans see who we really are and connect with us as human beings.”

Rickea Jackson – who transferred to Tennessee from Mississippi State – said she had already learned a lot about building her brand and that Ervin was “already moving mountains”.

“Although basketball takes up a lot of our time, we’re still people out there,” Jackson said. “Heather is really implementing that with us because one day the ball will stop bouncing. So we need another plan. We need other avenues that we can take after basketball is over. That really means a lot that they care about us outside of basketball.”

If Jackson had seen the new store as a freshman in high school or in the Portal, she said she would have been thrilled.

“Like, ‘Is this just for y’all?'” Jackson said. “It’s just amazing to have something like this and to be one of the only schools to represent women in this way. So I would have said, ‘I’m joining now.'”

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