Atlantic 10 newcomer Loyola Chicago takes big step into NIL space with 'Keepers of the Culture' collective

On3 imageby:Nick Schultz03/07/23


When Loyola Chicago made its Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018, the phrase “Created by Culture” became a staple of the postgame news conferences. Of course, the “culture” started long before that season, and the “Wall of Culture” remains in the Ramblers’ locker room even after a coaching change and a conference switch.

Now, it’s associated with the new NIL venture on Chicago’s North Side.

Last week, Loyola Chicago announced its first NIL collective, appropriately called Keepers of the Culture. Its first event took place Sunday at Misericordia Heart of Mercy, a not-for-profit developmental home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood at which Loyola Chicago has volunteered for some time.

Led by fans and alumni, Keepers of the Culture also partnered with Blueprint Sports, one of the nation’s top collective-operating companies. Loyola Chicago already had partnerships with INFLCR and Opendorse, but this is the next step in maximizing opportunities as the Ramblers’ first year in the Atlantic 10 Conference wraps up.

“We wanted to make sure we were positioned to maximize opportunities for our athletes,” athletic director Steve Watson told On3. “… We were pretty aggressive out of the gate to make sure that our student-athletes would have as many opportunities as possible.”

Loyola Chicago calls on two former Ramblers to advise athletes as part of new collective

Two former Loyola Chicago men’s basketball stars are on board Keepers of the Culture as alumni advisors, serving as liaisons between the men’s basketball program and Blueprint — although, in accordance with NCAA rules, not facilitating deals.

One is Christian Thomas, one of the top players of the Porter Moser era at Loyola Chicago; he played from 2011-15 and is one of the top scorers and rebounders in program history. The other is Chris Knight, who played for the Ramblers under Drew Valentine in 2021-22 after transferring from Dartmouth and helped them to last season’s NCAA tournament.

Knight played before and after the NCAA allowed players to benefit from NIL, which provides unique perspective when he works with the athletes.

“You get to see the positives it gets if it’s done right. … I think when it’s done right and in the right way, it can be a real huge benefit to a lot of kids,” said Knight, now an investment banker after finishing his MBA. “Kind of life-changing, too. I think having an athlete’s perspective, it definitely helps.

“A lot of people say we (athletes) have scholarships, et cetera, but we’re not working. It’s really hard sometimes when everything’s attached to your school, but you can’t carry anything with you in the future. I think it’s really important for them to build a foundation for themselves.”

For Thomas, it’s a little different. Eight years removed from his playing career, he currently works as the color commentator for Loyola Chicago men’s basketball broadcasts on Learfield IMG in addition to his day job as a supply chain manager for S.C. Johnson.

He still wants to make an impact on the program, though, which is why he jumped at the chance to work with the collective.

“For me, I just saw it as an opportunity to really understand more about what it’s all about because even when I was playing — I’m not that old, but still — when I was playing, the idea of players accepting and getting money for anything, it was considered dirty or cheating,” Thomas said. “Now, you see that it’s legal and that’s the way the college athletics landscape is going.

“I think it would be an opportunity for me to just get a first-hand look at it and also finding other ways to give back to the program. I’m still a big Loyola Ramblers fan and I want to see this program continue to do well.”

Those different experiences are why Watson said Thomas and Knight are good fits to work with the athletes.

“These are guys that we know well,” Watson said. “They’re both in Chicago. Obviously, Chris just finished playing last year, so he knows the staff, he knows the players. CT’s a little bit older, but he’s doing our games on Learfield IMG. … So, close to the program, close to us, two guys that we know and trust.

“They’ve got instant credibility with our players because they were pretty damn good when they were wearing the maroon and gold as well. So, for us, it’s a great fit to have two guys like that heavily involved with the collective.”

How Loyola Chicago can still capitalize on NIL opportunities despite rough first seasonr in A-10

This season is Loyola Chicago’s first in the Atlantic 10 after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference. The Ramblers struggled mightily, going 4-14 record in A-10 play, and enter this week’s conference tournament as the No. 15 seed. Still, the A-10 brings more exposure, notably with more national TV games and a conference tournament in Brooklyn compared to the MVC’s “Arch Madness” in St. Louis.

From an on-court standpoint, Thomas was part of a Ramblers team that took the leap from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley in 2013 — and that move went like this year’s to the A-10. Loyola Chicago was 4-14 in the Valley in 2013-14, which is why Thomas can pass along his experience as the program increased its level of competition. He also can advise the athletes on maximizing their value amid the struggles.

“Obviously, this season didn’t go as well as anybody would’ve wanted,” Thomas said. “But it’s just an opportunity for them to use that as motivation in the offseason so you see all the benefits of us moving and all the opportunities that you have to continue building the Loyola basketball brand.

“Also, from an individual standpoint with the way that NIL has gone, you have a chance to build your own personal brand. The best way to do that is make sure you’re doing your job on the court and putting your team in position to win games. From there, a lot of that will take care of itself.”

Even though the basketball teams struggled in year one in the A-10, other Ramblers sports handled the jump well. The cross country and women’s volleyball teams won conference titles. The men’s soccer team lost in the A-10 championship game on penalty kicks. And the men’s volleyball team, which competes in the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, is in first place with a 6-0 record after sweeping Ohio State and Ball State.

Attendance is up, as well, with women’s volleyball and women’s basketball setting both overall and student attendance records, senior associate athletic director Tom Sorboro told On3. That’s why Watson said there are plenty of opportunities for the other programs to benefit from NIL.

For now, though, Keepers of the Culture will focus on men’s basketball as part of the initial launch.

“The NIL piece, and just generally, broadly speaking, the opportunities are there for all of our athletes, no matter what sport,” Watson said. “We make sure that they have … as many opportunities as possible. That’s for all our athletes.

“The focus of the collective — initially, as we get this started — is on men’s basketball. That’s not something that we’re hiding from. That’s our focus out of the gate. Where this thing goes with our other sports, we’ll see down the road. Initially, right now, the focus is with our men’s basketball program.”