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What lies ahead for Kentucky, The 15 Club in NIL climb

Pete Nakos11/22/22
Article written by:On3 imagePete Nakos

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Mark Stoops
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Mark Stoops has been sounding the alarm for months. But on Monday night, he made clear to Kentucky fans what lack of NIL support could actually mean.

Talking on his weekly call-in show, the Wildcats’ head coach described what the Transfer Portal season is already looking like. While the windows do not officially open until Dec. 5, players have already announced their intention to leave programs. Nothing is standing in the way of agents and collectives inquiring about other athletes potentially leaving, either.

“With the Name, Image and Likeness, man, it is just a different world,” Stoops said. “It is absolutely insane what’s going on. Transfers. Your own team. You know how many people are going after our young players? We have as good of freshmen as I’ve ever had. And it’s like a free-for-all.”

“… It’s mass chaos.”

As of last week, Kentucky now has a NIL collective. Athlete Advantage, a sports marketing company based out of Lexington, previously assisted Will Levis and other Kentucky athletes find opportunities. It has now formed The 15 Club, which will accept contributions and facilitate deals between businesses for athletes.

Kentucky athletics has already thrown its weight behind the collective. But that is only the start of an uphill climb for an SEC school looking to stay competitive and relevant in the ever-changing NIL landscape.

The Wildcats are the last school to add a collective in the SEC, while many other schools now have multiple. The organizations have popped up across the Division I landscape. On3 spoke with NIL collective operators in the SEC about what challenges Kentucky and The 15 Club could be facing due to its delayed start.

“It’s great to have the infrastructure set up,” an SEC collective operator told On3. “But having been in this field for over a year now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The hardest work is ahead of them. It takes time to build up, to spread the word, to build up the trust of the fan base. And then to actually get people to donate money.”

The 15 Club will not make impact until 2024 recruiting class

Just like any other football program, Mark Stoops has hopes of winning a conference title and securing a College Football Playoff berth. That’s the standard at any SEC institution – even if actually reaching those goals is far from being a reality. 

Winning in the new age of college athletics also looks different. The old days of recruiting are dying off, and NIL is climbing the rankings of importance. The right culture fit and NFL development are still factors. Yet, 30% of recruits in an On3 survey this summer said they would be willing to go to a school that’s not a perfect fit for a NIL deal.

While The 15 Club will start fundraising immediately, one SEC collective leader predicts it will take at least another year until the collective can make an impact on the recruiting trail. 

“It’s probably not going to help their recruiting class this season,” the operator said. “But I think if they can establish themselves enough, they might be able to take advantage of that the next season. But then the question begs, well, how far behind are they at that point? 

“I think the jury’s still out on that. I personally believe that you can recoup from it. But I think it’s definitely gonna take it’s gonna take, it’s gonna be a lot harder.”

The recent clarification put out by the NCAA does allow institutions to publicly back collective. Kentucky has already released promotional material for The 15 Club, which should kickstart the organization’s efforts. As a college athletics stakeholder pointed out to On3, that was a limitation many collectives had to deal with in the first 16 months. 

“If the university is going to publicly endorse and allow the coaches, which they are legally allowed to promote, that should absolutely throttle the ramp-up period,” the same SEC collective leader said. 

For all the work a collective is forced to tackle head-on in its first 90 days, there’s the other problem many have to avoid: fading. Subscription programs have allowed organizations to make sure they are constantly raising funds. For others, the glitz and glam can wear off. 

“I’m a firm believer that it’s better late than never, and Kentucky has the added benefit of having this collective launch with the support of coaches and administrators,” said attorney Darren Heitner, who has been brought on to advise multiple collectives and universities. “The organizers have their work cut out for them, but it is a necessity to have a collective given how intense recruiting has become in the past 16 months.”

Another SEC collective operator only had two words of advice for The 15 Club and Kentucky. 

“Good luck.”