CINCINNATI — Brian Fox thinks Cincinnati can experience a smooth transition as it changes its conference affiliation to the Big 12, effective July 1, 2023. The creation of an NIL collective could ease the change in conference membership and on Monday, the Cincinnati-focused NIL collective Cincy Reigns launched, chaired by University of Cincinnati College of Law alum Fox.
The announcement comes just days before No. 25 Cincinnati hosts No. 21 Tulane in a matchup between the top two schools in the American Athletic Conference standings. A berth in a third consecutive conference championship game will be on the line in Cincinnati’s regular season finale in the American.
The creation of Cincy Reigns, the first collective designed to support all Cincinnati athletes, will play a role in the athletic department’s future in the Big 12.
“I don’t know how we don’t figure in at the top every year, just like we have in the American Athletic Conference, and I think we will,” Fox said. “Will it take time as we transition? I don’t know that it will.”
Fox attended law school during former football coach Brian Kelly‘s tenure at the university, which included a No. 3 finish in the 2009 BCS standings. Fox has a background in corporate law, he has assisted nonprofits and he serves as city solicitor for the City of Madeira on Cincinnati’s east side.
It’ll be critically important for Cincy Reigns, whose name pays homage to Cincinnati’s “Queen City” nickname and the since relocated and renamed Cincinnati Royals NBA franchise, to tap into the business community and fan base in the city. The university’s city and enrollment will rank among the largest in the future iteration of the Big 12.
Cincinnati ranks No. 36 in Nielsen’s Designated Market Areas (DMAs) rankings.
“People don’t realize how big of a school we are,” said Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham. “48,000 students. That also leads to a large alumni base and a lot of alumni in proximity of campus and a lot of alumni that come to our games. That’s definitely one avenue, that crowdfunding piece, that this collective specifically believes it can attach itself to.
“When this collective was formed by these donors, they talked specifically about, ‘We should get out to every one of the fans that come to games and just make sure that they understand how important it is to everything you guys are doing to support our coaches and support our student-athletes.'”
‘It was great to have that clarification’ on NCAA NIL policy
Cincinnati is among the schools that have capitalized on the NCAA’s latest guidance regarding its interim NIL policy. Cunningham said the guidance didn’t change the university’s approach to promoting Cincy Reigns upon its launch. However, the NCAA’s latest clarification provided comfort.
“I always felt like there was a path for me to speak about it,” Cunningham said. “I felt like that was within the rules but it was great to have that clarification because we weren’t 100% sure, so we want to make sure we’re on the right side of all the NCAA guidelines.”
Starting recently, Cincinnati has had an additional resource in navigating the NIL landscape thanks to its partnership with Altius Sports Partners (ASP). In July, ASP announced the creation of a general manager program at Cincinnati, LSU, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Virginia.
ASP placed a general manager on campus at each school. Greg Harrell, who previously worked as the senior director of ticket sales and service for the MLS franchise FC Cincinnati, was named the general manager at Cincinnati.
“I spend more time with Greg than almost anybody in the department the last few weeks that he’s been here and he’s right down the hall for me,” Cunningham said. “I’m popping in and checking in with him almost every day.”
Cincinnati athletes have signed more than 200 NIL deals
In June, Fox registered Cincy Reigns, LLC, and Cincy Reigns, Inc., with the latter filed as a non-profit corporation. Cincy Reigns has a seven-member Board of Directors and 11-member Board of Advisors.
Former Cincinnati quarterback Dustin Grutza and long snapper Alex Apyan serve on both boards. The Board of Advisors also includes other notable alumni, such as Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ, Green Bay Packers tight end Josiah Deguara, former Cincinnati outside hitter and Olympian Jordan Thompson and former women’s soccer player Jordan Cotleur.
“For forever we’ve been raising money around the student-athlete, which has been important, but this is a chance to put money in the pockets of student-athletes who certainly deserve it and have deserved it for a long time,” Cunningham said.
Through the first 16-plus months of the NCAA’s NIL era, Cincinnati athletes have signed more 200 NIL deals valued at “well above” $1 million,” according to Cunningham. He said every athletic program has had at least one athlete sign an NIL deal.
A document previously obtained by On3 through a public records request that’s dated in mid-October stated the school’s football players has signed 86 NIL deals. Its men’s basketball players had signed 43.
“We feel like we’ve been aggressive but this is the next step for us,” Cunningham said. “We’re not going to be the first one out there but it was really well thought out and I think that that’s really important, too.”
Cincinnati athletes sign with Beats by Dre, Dr. Pepper, Range Rover
Cunningham said the list of companies with whom Cincinnati athletes have partnered include Beats by Dre, Dr. Pepper, Range Rover and Skyline Chili. Skyline Chili signed the the school’s offensive linemen to a promotional agreement that features a weekly commercial series where they discuss the best block of the week.
The first academic year of the NCAA’s NIL era coincided with the Bearcats qualifying for the College Football Playoff. They were the first Group of Five program to do so. Cincinnati then had nine players who were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, which ranked third nationally behind Georgia and LSU.
“When you put the brands up on a slide, I mean, it’s really impressive, the global brands that have done deals with our athletes,” Harrell said. “When I think of aggressiveness, it’s gonna start here in our backyard but it’s really, really great to tell the story of the brands globally that have connected with our athletes.”
The Kroger Co., which is headquartered in Cincinnati, offered NIL deals to all of Cincinnati’s female athletes in conjunction with the Kroger Wellness Festival in September.
“We wear the city’s name across our chests,” Cunningham said. “We have that piece to it. I know that we have passionate fans in these local businesses in the C-suites and higher that want this place to be successful so I imagine that they will find this collective and start to interact with it.”
‘I don’t know how we don’t figure in at the top’ of Big 12
Sitting in his office with less than eight months from when Cincinnati changes its conference affiliation, Cunningham said, “I think we’re gonna love the parity in the Big 12.”
The last two Big 12 Championship Games have featured four different football programs — Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Entering Week 13’s slate of games, two others, No. 4 TCU and No. 15 Kansas State, sit atop the conference standings.
Coming off of a College Football Playoff appearance in the 2021 season, that’s the rotation Cincinnati hopes to join not just in football but all of its athletic programs.
“I think we’ve got some leaders in our programs that provide an incredibly stable, strong, administrative, thoughtful approach to leading the programs,” Fox said. “And what we’re hoping to do is just come alongside and only support, buttress, what they’re already doing. … I look at those top-level [programs], the Texases, Oklahomas, that then depart and then I don’t know how we don’t figure in at the top every year, just like we have in the American Athletic Conference.”
Cincy Reigns will help facilitate NIL opportunities between student-athletes and businesses in a city that Cunningham and Fox said have exceeded their respective perceived confines.
Fox said the city of Cincinnati has long punched above its weight in terms of its perception. Cunningham said the athletic department has outperformed its resources in the past.
The launch of a collective was the next step for the NIL opportunities for Cincinnati athletes, following a period in which Fox said he obsessively studied the NIL landscape.
“You know, it’s the way that college athletics has always worked,” Cunningham said. “You’re always looking to see what works elsewhere and copying it and taking that — the good stuff — and leaving behind the bad stuff and making it your own in your environment and within your community. That’s exactly what this is. I think every school is used to doing this in some way, whether it’s marketing or fundraising. This is just one more element of that.
“So, you know, R&D. Rip off and duplicate. That’s what we all do, and I think we do it pretty well.”