NIL collectives seek sustainable fundraising from donors, businesses

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry12/01/22


The day after UCLA and USC announced their impending moves from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten, the Cougar Collective saw an opportunity to fundraise for Washington State athletes’ NIL opportunities.

The NIL collective tweeted, “Annoyed by the USC/ULCA news? Want to do something about it? Consider donating to the Cougar Collective.”

Twitter has been a common source of calls to action from NIL collectives, which are organizations ranging from marketing agencies to nonprofit organizations that facilitate NIL opportunities.

In August, the Twitter account for The Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports Ohio State athletes’ NIL opportunities, tweeted, “Become apart (sic) of Buckeye Football & Basketball’s ‘Front Office’ and donate today,” with a link to the collective’s website.

Ducks Rising has taken to Twitter to try to reach its goal of raising $25,000 in one-time contributions by Dec. 21 for National Signing Day.

The South Carolina-focused Carolina Rise tweeted, “We need $10 per month!” It was a quote tweet of the news that an Arizona State booster committed $1 million to the Sun Angel Collective during football coach Kenny Dillingham‘s introductory press conference.

Twitter is just one, minor fundraising strategy deployed by NIL collectives.

Email is another.

Rep The C, a collective that supports athletes at Chattanooga, sent subscribers an email in September that encouraged them to make a $100 donation.

The email stated, “NIL is critical to the program. Through NIL coaches have the ability to recruit and retain athletes that otherwise would be unattainable or would be lost to the transfer portal.”

Let’s win a National Championship,” the final paragraph of the email stated in bold font. “Then, let’s win another.

Founders of NIL collectives and marketing agencies say the most sustainable strategy for fundraising is through a multi-pronged approach that involves connecting with a large number of fans and alumni, plus the local business community.

Recurring revenue is ‘the only way to create a sustainable collective’

The local business community in and around a college campus can offer financial investments that are less likely to be tied to the emotional swings that potentially come from a deep-pocketed donor.

While donors who are willing to donate six or seven-figure sums could serve as either a financial jump start to a collective or the icing on the cake relative to other contributions, one-time donations are unlikely to be sole source of sustainable funds.

“The only way to create a sustainable collective is one that is based on reoccurring revenue that is being driven by fans, alumni, which we categorize as subscribers, and businesses,” Jason Belzer, the co-founder and CEO of the agency Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), said in a phone interview.

SANIL powers various NIL collectives that support athletes at numerous schools, such as Crimson and Cream at Oklahoma, Success With Honor at Penn State and Knights of the Raritan at Rutgers.

“Individuals in the business community who don’t care about the performance of the team,” Belzer said, “they just want to have these student-athletes serve as ambassadors and somebody has to be able to go out and build that infrastructure because the universities can’t do it directly or they don’t understand how to do it. That’s where we come in.

“Like that’s why we’ve been able to have the traction that we have because we’ve been able to build this proven model of being able to come in and build an infrastructure that’s not just for the kids today. It’s for the student-athletes that will be at the university 10 years from now.”

As one example, Success With Honor has partnered with the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County to tap into the local business community.

“We wear the city’s name across our chest,” Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham recently told On3, regarding the launch of the NIL collective Cincy Reigns. “So we have that piece to it. I know that we have passionate fans in these local businesses, in the C-suites and higher, that want this place to be successful so I imagine that they will find this collective and start to interact with it.”

Some collectives have hired employees who have a background working in an athletic department’s development office or on sponsorships for professional sports franchises.

Sun Angel Collective President Jeff Burg used the metaphor of an ad placed on a billboard that’s part of a multichannel approach to marketing. Purchasing space on a billboard alone may not necessarily generate any sales by itself, he said, but it could contribute to improving a company’s brand awareness among consumers.

“You marry that billboard with radio, targeted social and a handful of other things and now people are getting hit again and again and again with the same message,” Burg said. “When we talk about the best ways to raise money or the most efficient or sustainable ways to raise money in NIL, I think it’s a multifaceted approach.

“I think you have to go after — and if you don’t, you’re leaving something on the table — a broad, subscription-based approach… you have to have that subscription-based approach that everyone can feel like they’re participating in some way.”

High-dollar donors ‘just part of a bigger strategy’ for NIL collectives

Burg and Stephen Weitzel, the founder of the Georgia Tech-focused Swarm the ATL collective, each referenced the alleged fundraising of Texas A&M fans and donors.

“Here’s what I’m gonna say and this is point blank, here’s my problem. There is no $30 million fund,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said of the Internet rumor in February. “There is no $5 million, there is no $10 [million] — this is garbage. And it pisses me off. It comes from a site called BroBible by a guy named ‘Sliced Bread.’

“And everybody runs with it so it’s written on the internet as gospel.”

The Bryan-College Station Eagle‘s Travis L. Brown reported that Texas A&M football players disclosed more than $3.3 million in NIL deals in the first year of the NCAA’s NIL era.

Regardless of where Texas A&M football players’ NIL earnings fall, the university’s fan base has unquestionably served as an avatar for a group that’s highly invested in NIL.

Leaders of collectives question the viability of any collective that relies too heavily on significant donations.

“You’ve got to have your large contributors, the people who are willing to write six-figure checks,” Burg said during a Zoom interview in October, prior to Charles “Nap” Lawrence‘s recent $1 million pledge. “We don’t have anybody who’s written a seven-figure check yet but I certainly hope that one will come. But I don’t think that’s a sustainable model in and of itself. It’s just part of a bigger strategy.

“…Again, important, great way to get kickstarted and get up and running but not a sustainable model by itself.”

Weitzel said Georgia Tech fans and donors won’t go head to head with some other NIL collectives in the South or Texas in terms of the alleged amounts of money those fan bases have raised for NIL opportunities.

“I don’t know how sustainable some of those numbers are,” he said in a Zoom interview. “…Are they going to do that next year, too? And the year after that and the year after that? That’s a really strong commitment level that very few will have and can sustain.”

Weitzel wondered aloud whether those donors who contribute significant sums for NIL opportunities only to observe disappointing results will follow through on their current commitments, let alone agree to new ones in the future. The fundraising stamina of collectives will be worth tracking in the future, especially after a high-profile program underperforms relative to preseason expectations.

‘They can be a part of bringing the best product’

Leaders of NIL collectives say it’s important for donors to feel connected to the players and the program. Weitzel recalled taking some of Swarm the ATL’s highest-level donors onto the field before a game.

Some joined him in a suite for a game.

“I think that the fan engagement models are probably the most sustainable NIL silos that are out there because what we offer as a collective, this quid pro quo that you have people that join that become members and in exchange for that, they’re getting to hear exclusive content from coaches or players,” Weitzel said.

Many collectives offer a tiered subscription program for donors and businesses that come with varying levels of financial commitments and corresponding benefits.

“They know that even smaller contributions that they’re making — $25 a month, $50 a month or so — that they can be a part of bringing the best product and talent that they can to the field,” Weitzel said. “That’s really the box that we’re playing in and we hope that the inside access that we can provide them is something that they feel rewarded by that they feel incentivized enough to say, ‘I want to continue to participate.'”

Burg added, “I think there needs to be a way for those donors to feel as though they’re having an impact and that they are getting access or have some sort of connection to the program that was deeper than they did before.”