The 15 Club launches 500 Strong membership club at key time for Kentucky NIL market

On3 imageby:Pete Nakos03/28/24

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Kentucky did not rush into the NIL Era in the summer of 2021.

Athletic director Mitch Barnhart took a measured approach, making sure the Wildcats navigated the new landscape of college sports carefully. With minimal direction from the NCAA, some institutions went full-throttle. The model was replicated across the nation after the first NIL collective popped up in Florida. Kentucky was one of the final SEC institutions to have a donor-driven entity.

The Wildcats are now making moves to compete with top collectives. In a week where all attention in Kentucky athletics is around the future of John Calipari, the Wildcat-driven NIL collective The 15 Club has formed 500 Strong, an exclusive membership club for top-level boosters.

The 15 Club launched in December 2021 but was relaunched and reorganized in November 2022. Managed by the NIL company Athlete Advantage, Kentucky’s NIL club believes the new “VIP” level membership can elevate the football program. Ryan Maxwell, who serves as Athlete Advantage’s general counsel, told On3 that 500 Strong draws inspiration from other NIL donor clubs across the country.

Details on 500 Strong membership

To gain membership, boosters will make a three-year commitment with an annual fee of $15,000 for admission to at least three exclusive events throughout the year. The 500 Strong club announced its inaugural event Thursday, featuring Grammy-winning artist John Legend. Presented by Lexus of Lexington, the concert will be held May 10 at Central Bank Center in downtown Lexington. Wildcats’ sophomore wide receiver Anthony Brown-Stephens is Legend’s nephew.

In a time when NIL collectives are crucial in attaining and retaining, the new club is aiming to bring an influx of roughly $4.5 million annually. If it can meet its goal of 500 members, the Wildcats will be working with $7.5 million.

Maxwell told On3 that the group is already negotiating to bring another well-known musician to Lexington next year.

“This initiative represents a unique opportunity for fans to engage with the University of Kentucky Football Program in a meaningful way while enjoying unforgettable experiences,” 15 Club CEO Ryan Miller said in a statement.

Kentucky can make $4.5 million in NIL funds go a long way

In November 2022, Mark Stoops sent a clear message to Kentucky fans about what the lack of NIL support meant. Talking on his weekly call-in show, the Wildcats’ head coach was blunt.

“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.”

Thursday’s announcement puts Kentucky football on track to compete with the SEC in NIL. Sources continue to hammer home to On3 that the top collectives in college football are spending well into the eight figures on payroll. If 500 Strong and the 15 Club can eventually hit its goal, the Wildcats will be approaching the eight-figure mark.

Until revenue sharing or employment arrives, putting together a war chest and keeping top talent on rosters while winning in the transfer portal will remain one of the most popular ways of constructing rosters. Some dollars are siphoned off to attract the top high school talent in the nation. Yet, signing a contract with a top-ranked high school quarterback is not comparable to landing a game-changing EDGE in the portal who can vault a team into top-25 status.

With Thursday’s announcement, Kentucky football is starting that climb.