Examining the collectives for each of the Final Four teams

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry03/30/23


On3 spoke with seven stakeholders, including multiple athletic directors and leaders of collectives, to analyze the NIL infrastructure and approach at each school in the men’s Final Four. While the strategies and perspectives vary based on a variety of factors, each acknowledges the importance of helping athletes maximize their NIL opportunities.

“In today’s world, part of that experience is can they have NIL success?” Florida Atlantic athletic director Brian White said. “And that’s part of our challenge, our goal, our mission – to help increase and help enhance our student-athletes’ ability to have NIL success.”


Former UConn Foundation board members John Malfettone and Jon Greenblatt incorporated the collective Bleeding Blue For Good in August. Malfettone said the organizers filed federal 501(c)(3) status and received expedited approval, with the collective operating by September.

“We recognized really that we were behind the curve and about a year too late, so we tried to ramp up quickly,” Malfettone told On3 in a video interview.

Bleeding Blue For Good hired former UConn forward and six-year WNBA veteran Ashley Battle as its executive director last November. Malfettone said he thinks Bleeding Blue For Good will need to hire additional staff members in the future.

Malfettone, who served for roughly a decade on the UConn Foundation’s board, including as its chairman, cited his and Greenblatt’s experience with the Foundation in explaining why they chose to form the collective as a non-profit corporation, as it provides both charitable opportunities for athletes and tax deductions for donors.

Bleeding Blue For Good has held a series of donor education sessions, which Malfettone referred to as “NIL 101,” to help explain the importance of a competitive NIL infrastructure to donors who might have historically been opposed to the idea of paying college athletes.

Malfettone said the collective has received “most” of its contributions through private donations. There’s a website where the collective receives “a few hundred bucks a week,” he said, “but that’s not the way you raise money.”

Malfettone said the collective uses former NCAA legislative services staff member Chris Schoemann as a consultant. Schoemann is the founder and principal of FirstTeam Sports Consulting. Battle runs the clinics, communicates with the university’s coaches and helps fundraise.

“You never know whose lives can be changed with the interaction like that,” Battle said. “A lot of our players played at the YMCA. A lot of our players played at different organizations like that growing up, so it’s really been a benefit for the kids in Connecticut to see that, ‘They were just like me when they were a kid’  to maybe ‘I could be like them when I grow up.’ ”

Bleeding Blue For Good has “primarily” been focused on men’s basketball, Malfettone said. He declined to share the number of men’s basketball players with whom the collective has partnered or its general level of financial investment in the program’s players.

“I can just tell you directionally, it’s been more men’s than women’s, as you’d expect because market value for men is – you know, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s reality – is more than it is for women,” he said. “The lion’s share has been to the men’s team so far. …

“The coaches have been fantastic. Coach (Dan) Hurley and Geno (Auriemma) have been involved in helping us raise money. We found the most effective ways is in the private gatherings and dinners, when they can talk about the importance of NIL.”

The collective has had discussions with football coach Jim Mora about helping the university’s football players, Malfettone said.

“It really started with Dan,” Malfettone said. “Dan was the one who said, ‘Hey, let’s get going and I’m here to help, so you tell me where you need me to be.’ So I think the first meeting, the first small gathering, was driven by him as much as anything else. It worked, right? I mean, that really launched us and then we said, ‘OK, this is the model that we need to follow when it comes to raising money.’ ”

He noted that as an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, “we cannot pay more than market value for any service.” Malfettone said Bleeding Blue For Good uses Schoemann, transaction data from the NIL technology company Opendorse and the event management and sports marketing company ProCamps to agree to deals that the collective believes are in line with market value.

“Now, there’s a caveat to that and we recognize that,” Malfettone said, describing how not all athletes are required to disclose their NIL transactions, or choose to. “So the data’s not 100 percent accurate, but it’s the best we can do.”

Last week, Connecticut Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security to advocate for guidance and policies to benefit international athletes’ NIL opportunities. Some of UConn’s top men’s (Adama Sanogo) and women’s (Aaliyah Edwards and Lou Lopez Senechal) basketball players were born abroad, and Malfettone said Bleeding Blue For Good has engaged with international athletes.

“As you know, there’s a legitimate way to do that, right?” Malfettone said. “It’s, ‘You can’t be on U.S. soil,’ and that’s what we’ve done.” Those NIL deals have involved youth clinics abroad, where athletes might also speak to the attendees and sign autographs.

UConn is two wins away from its fifth men’s basketball national championship. The first came in 1999, and its four titles since that season are the most in the country in that span.

“We’ve done good enough that we can use our success, whether we win or not – this whole thing – to help raise money,” Malfettone said. “And, yes, we have to do it quickly. You know, strike while the fire is hot.”

Florida Atlantic

When asked about the theories that the combination of NIL opportunities and the transfer portal led to this year’s upset-heavy outcomes in the NCAA tournament, Florida Atlantic athletic director Brian White told On3, “I think it’s a little silly to try to paint that it’s one thing or the other. It’s really, really hard to win basketball games.”

White laughed as he finished the last sentence.

“In a given night, if the ball bounces a different way or a rebound bounces a different way, just by chance, a game can go one way or the other,” said White, whose brother, Mike, is Georgia’s coach.

FAU beat No. 8 seed Memphis by one point in the first round thanks to a last-second layup from Nick Boyd, the upset No. 3 seed Kansas State by three in the Elite Eight.

White said all of FAU’s men’s basketball players have engaged in “several” NIL deals, mostly through social media activations, including a few opportunities that were team-wide. He said the players have had “success in collectible items,” such as trading cards and jerseys. White said one player has provided youth lessons.

“We’re extremely supportive of our student-athletes having legitimate success within the NIL space,” said White, who has another brother (Danny) who is AD at Tennessee. “We have a couple of entities that you might call a collective, entities that are helping our student-athletes have success within the NIL space.”

There are several collectives that support FAU, including the Paradise Collective and The Owl Collective. FAU also has partnered with the NIL company Opendorse.

White described the institution’s approach to NIL as treating athletes’ marketing opportunities as another part of the support it offers.

“We look at it as part of the student-athlete experience,” White said.


Miami lost in the Elite Eight last season and returned its second- and fourth-leading scorers, Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, respectively. UM also added two key transfers – Nijel Pack from Kansas State and Norchad Omier from Arkansas State. Miami-based businessman John Ruiz, who’s the CEO of the company LifeWallet, subsequently announced NIL deals with both, as well as with Wong and Miller. (Omier is a native of Nicaragua and that’s where he performed the work involved in his deal, LifeWallet attorney Alexis Fernandez said.)

Thus, Miami has garnered significant attention in the past 12 months and through the NCAA tournament because of its players’ NIL deals. What’s the benefit for LifeWallet with the Hurricanes in the Final Four?

“It’s invaluable, right?” You can’t put a price on it,” Fernandez told On3’s Pete Nakos. “Every time that they talk about Nijel Pack, there’s some type of mention of LifeWallet one way or another.”

Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich said he can’t make a connection between those who might try to connect NIL deals to the Hurricanes’ postseason success.

“I give Coach (Jim) Larrañaga and his staff a lot of credit. I don’t know that I can draw that line. … There’s a lot of student-athletes who have substantive NIL deals who unfortunately aren’t at this stage of the tournament and we fortunately are,” Radakovich told On3. “I mean, look, basketball is a tough sport. Things can move one way or another very, very quickly. We played an outstanding Texas team on Sunday and we were fortunate to come away with a win and move on. NIL had nothing to do with that.”

Fernandez concurred and said she doesn’t pay attention to outside commentary about LifeWallet’s NIL deals. If observers are crediting NIL for Miami’s Final Four appearance, “then they’re not giving enough credit to the coaching staff, to the players and their commitment to the sport,” she said.

While Canes Connection lists a roster of 12 Miami football players and the NIL company Bring Back the U has a stated goal of “helping the University of Miami football program reestablish its tradition of greatness,” Ruiz companies LifeWallet and Cigarette Team Racing are the most prominent sources of NIL-related funding for Miami athletes.

LifeWallet’s investment in Miami men’s basketball players is “nowhere near football,” Fernandez said. She also joked that she plays the role of “bad cop” to Ruiz’s “good cop.”

“There is definitely compensation for work that’s being performed, and if it doesn’t get done, I have the full right and authority to send them a breach of contract notice and even withhold payment,” she said.

Miami’s institutional approach to NIL has changed since a new Florida state law went into effect in February.

“We’ve had a law in the state of Florida that had restricted our ability to interact and cause compensation for student-athletes, so our focus up until mid-February, when that law was repealed, was really student-athlete education, brand enhancement, our partnerships with our outside firms from Altius and Opendorse and Fanatics,” Radakovich said. “Now as we move forward with that law being changed, we do have a collective. We do have local business folks who have been very, very active in the NIL space as it relates to pulling together opportunities for student-athletes to promote their businesses and give our student-athletes opportunities.”

Miami was placed on probation by the NCAA in late February. The organization ruled that women’s basketball coach Katie Meier facilitated impermissible contact between Ruiz, who the NCAA labeled a booster, and transfers Haley and Hanna Cavinder. The 11-page resolution says “the panel was troubled by the limited nature and severity of institutional penalties agreed-upon by Miami and the enforcement staff – namely, the absence of a disassociation of the involved booster.”

“There was never a circumstance where we were even entertaining the idea of disassociation. That didn’t rise to any level with us,” Radakovich said. “We didn’t feel that that was a punishment that would’ve fit the infraction that was being discussed, so we weren’t going to go there and, ultimately, we were able to convince the NCAA of that. It was the Committee on Infractions who brought that forward, not the committee that actually did the legwork that was here on campus and did the investigation. The people who were actually here and involved in it did not recommend that at all. …

“John continues to be an incredible ally as it relates to name, image and likeness, I don’t know that I always put great stock into the numbers that are out there, whether they come from other places or even here at the University of Miami, so we’ll just kind of continue to move on and make sure that we have the opportunity to help our student-athletes who want to be involved in NIL opportunities and give them a great platform.”

San Diego State

Co-founder Jeff Smith said conversations among San Diego State alumni, men’s basketball staff members and athletic department staff members led to the formation of MESA Foundation last May.

“What we found pretty quickly was that specific to the men’s basketball team, the conversations about NIL with current and potential future student-athletes was part of every conversation,” Smith said.

Smith said the athletic department “understandably took a very measured, patient approach” to the NIL era, including potential concerns regarding competition for fundraising and compliance. Members of the athletic department were willing to meet with leaders of the MESA Foundation and listen to their plans for a collective.

“They didn’t really jump in,” Smith said. “There wasn’t a lot of promotion going on up until, gosh, probably about November, December.”

MESA Foundation has connected athletes with regional organizations, such as Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Native American tribes. The collective has helped facilitate camps for children of active-duty military personnel and in partnership with Inter Tribal Sports.

Smith said MESA Foundation works with 11 scholarship players – all but fifth-year senior forward Nathan Mensah (a native of Ghana) “for reasons that you’re probably familiar with, as it relates to active participation in NIL for international athletes.”

MESA Foundation chose to offer NIL agreements to the 11 scholarship players in order to set a “year one budget that was realistic,” Smith said. There also are four walk-ons who Smith said would be the immediate beneficiaries of any future growth, rather than first increasing the compensation currently provided to scholarship players.

The collective pays every San Diego State player the same amount (reportedly $2,000 per month), and Smith said over time, the compensation players receive may need to increase. “If we are too open with what it is we’re compensating these guys, then there’s a perceived competitive disadvantage,” he said when discussing the NIL landscape in general.

He later added, “As much as we don’t give specifics, no surprise when you get to bigger conferences – even Pac-12 and Big 12, you know, the two conferences that are popular conversation for where San Diego State might be going in the near future – but the numbers go up in a big way. … The range of how much that goes up (depends on the) conference. You talk about a Big Ten basketball program, and it might be an order of magnitude in the range of three to five to 10 times more per player.”

NIL deals can be unpredictable, Smith said, and the leaders of MESA Foundation wanted a more predictable infrastructure.

“San Diego State basketball is all about team,” Smith said. “You know, we’re not getting five-star recruits for the most part. We’re competitive. This is our third time going to the Sweet 16 – first time going past the Sweet 16 – but the country for the first time is seeing how much Aztec hoops is about team. They get after it on the defensive end of the floor. They always have. We always have a mature program. We’ve done really well with transfers because people want to be in San Diego and they like that team culture that Coach (Steve) Fisher and Coach (Brian) Dutcher brought here 25 years ago.

“So it was important for us … that there wasn’t going to be anything that could cause dissension in the locker room. That was a high, high priority from the coaching staff. Obviously, they had nothing to do with the discussion on compensation. They can’t. But what they did say is, ‘If you guys are going to do this, and we think it needs to be done, then it can’t create something that flies in the face of the culture that we’ve built here.’ ”

Smith said men’s basketball players have had additional NIL opportunities outside of MESA Foundation, adding that the collective intentionally doesn’t include an exclusivity clause in its agreements. “We’re excited about other opportunities,” said Smith, who hopes the players will benefit from the Final Four run.

Deshaun Harris, the CEO and co-founder of the agency Intrusive Sports, represents junior guard Lamont Butler. Harris said Butler has nine paid brand deals or partnerships, including with the apparel company Campus Ink and Move Insoles, which was co-founded by Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

“We obviously don’t want any overlap with everything MESA Foundation does, but we also want to capitalize on Lamont’s core values and his interests as well,” Harris said.

Harris was born just north of San Diego and attended UC San Diego. He said given the speculation that San Diego State is a potential candidate to join the Pac-12, as well as some of the school’s recent athletic success, San Diego State supporters know they need to put resources behind the university’s athletic programs.

Smith acknowledges that San Diego State theoretically could be at risk of losing players who wish to earn more NIL-related revenue at another school.

“That amount is not going to be a life-changing amount,” Smith said. “I guess there’s relative to that statement, but you know, you won’t see an Aztec basketball player driving around in a new Ferrari or a new Porsche. You’re not going to see any stories about Aztec student-athlete families buying homes or any of those things. Not to say that it isn’t great that there’s a free-market opportunity in different areas of the country, but that’s not San Diego State basketball.”

San Diego State was the first Mountain West Conference team in history to reach at least the Elite Eight of the tournament.

Next, the Aztecs face FAU, where some fans launched a collective whose website features a video of Miami’s Cavinder twins to promote the benefits of NIL. Miami arguably receives as much NIL-related attention as any school. UConn has won more national titles than any other men’s basketball program during the lifetimes of the players in the Final Four and its main collective is focused on men’s basketball.

It goes to show there’s not a “one-size-fits-all approach” to NIL infrastructure and roster construction.

“This is our NIL story and it differs so much from the other ones that you hear in different parts of the country,” Smith said.

On3 sports business reporter Pete Nakos contributed to this report.