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Lifetime Cardinal collective overcoming Stanford's tepid NIL approach

Ivan Maiselby:Ivan Maisel04/20/23


As the rest of the FBS seized upon NIL and Alston payments and figured out how to use them for competitive advantage, Stanford dithered. University administrators may have lifted an eyebrow, but they sure didn’t lift a finger.

Allen Thorpe had seen enough.

Thorpe, a Stanford 1992 graduate and former keeper on the Cardinal soccer team, is a private equity partner in New York. He had been content to be a benefactor to the academic side of his alma mater but reconnected with athletics when his son, Alexander, became a walk-on kicker for Stanford from 2019-21.

“Wildly frustrated,” Thorpe described himself about Stanford’s reluctance. “Why are people standing around looking at each other? We’ve got to do something, and we have the alumni base and wherewithal to build something better than anyone else.”

Thorpe and several other alums created the Lifetime Cardinal collective. Former Stanford quarterback and NFL star Andrew Luck, who returned to Palo Alto after his NFL career, is on the board of directors and has been hands-on, including meeting with players.

Lifetime Cardinal has multimillion-dollar budget for NIL

They have seeded the collective with enough income that they expect to have a budget of nearly $4 million. Earlier this spring, Lifetime Cardinal made the first of two $5,000 payments to every football player. The second payment will come in the fall. Twenty or so top players will earn more, up to $50,000.

A sister collective, Cardinal One, paid each of the men’s basketball players $50,000 at the outset of the 2022-23 season.

The collectives operate under the same umbrella – Thorpe once worked for a Cardinal One founder, Jesse Rogers – and Lifetime Cardinal will be the vehicle moving forward.

(Another longtime Stanford benefactor, Greg Penner, bowed out of Cardinal One last year when he became a co-owner of the Denver Broncos. NFL policy prohibits owners from making contributions to any collective that might provide money to an athlete who would be selected in the NFL Draft.)

“We’re going to do this the right way,” Thorpe said of Lifetime Cardinal. “Stay well inside the lines and build on the ethos of the school and its alumni base. This is not going to be a rogue apparatus. This is not going to be a separate political structure.”

According to the rules, but with a Stanford twist.

Lifetime Cardinal will provide real mentorship, career support

Thorpe sees Lifetime Cardinal as more than an NIL conduit to Stanford athletes. He intends for the collective to organize summer internships, career services and investment opportunities for Stanford athletes. Along those lines, Thorpe said that Lifetime Cardinal is starting out as a for-profit entity. He hopes the collective can lure corporations to tap into its Stanford talent pool for more than endorsements.

“We’re not going to teach them to be social media influencers,” Thorpe said of the athletes. “Much more important, we’re going to give them real alumni mentorship, connectivity and career support throughout their time at Stanford. If we can go to employers and say, ‘We represent hundreds of Stanford athletes. They are an incredibly talented and diverse group of women and men. It’s not just about using their faces to sell your product. Wouldn’t you want their brains and effort level at your company?’”

Thorpe sees those services as leveraging what Stanford has always sold its recruits – a great education and a “40-year decision” that will provide for a lucrative career long after the uniform is hung up. The allure of the 40-year decision has cooled in the what-are-you-going-pay-me era of NIL.

Lifetime Cardinal supports both men and women’s programs

Lifetime Cardinal will turn next to executing contracts with the members of the perennial NCAA-contending women’s basketball team and then to other Stanford athletes. That will calm the nerves of the university administration, which has been somewhere between agnostic and obstructionist in its dealing with the collectives.

Here’s why: Stanford’s clumsy attempt to cut 11 varsity sports in 2020 in order to save $8 million alienated a significant portion of the alumni and resulted in the university being sued on Title IX grounds.

The university eventually decided not to cut the sports and settled the suit by agreeing to renovate and/or build women’s sports athletic facilities. The attempt to save $8 million will cost the university many times more than that in new fields, offices, and locker rooms, not to mention alumni goodwill.

That’s why the onset of Alston payments and NIL contracts has been, for the Stanford administration, its own form of campus triggering. The university is so reluctant to take any step that might be measured as benefiting male athletes and not female that it refused to allow the football team to meet with Lifetime Cardinal reps in the football building. This resulted last fall in the athletic compliance office blocking collective reps from using the Andrew Luck Meeting Room. The meeting took place in a tailgating area near the practice field and Stanford Stadium.

When the collective asked to hold a meeting in the athletic facility earlier this month to hand out the checks to the football players, they initially got turned down again. Only after athletic director Bernard Muir went to president Marc Tessier-Lavigne and general counsel Debra Zumwalt and urged the need for clearance did they get the room.

Will Stanford’s collective get administration support?

Muir declined to comment for this story, referring to his past statements on NIL, such as at the news conference last November announcing David Shaw’s resignation.

“We know others are a little more aggressive in that space right now, and we just have to find what is the right fit for Stanford,” Muir said then. “Striking the appropriate balance is important.”

Last week, Stanford men’s gymnastics won its fourth consecutive NCAA championship and the athletic program’s 132nd overall, 12 more than any other Division I school. As its competitors bound forward with NIL, the prominent alums behind the Stanford collective are prodding the university administration to at least start walking.