With the start of the 2022 college football season just weeks away, stakeholders in the college athletics ecosystem could potentially benefit from repurposing Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion as they evaluate the NIL landscape. Replace the word “object” in Newton’s laws with “NIL collective” and see what happens.
“An NIL collective at rest remains at rest, and an NIL collective in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”
“The acceleration of an NIL collective depends on the mass of the NIL collective and the amount of force applied.”
Newton didn’t have a law about how many objects is too many. But with the second year of the NCAA’s NIL era underway, it’s a question that’s being asked — and sometimes answered — by those in and around the industry.
A scan of the On3 NIL collectives database, which includes for-profit and nonprofit organizations, plus school-specific marketing agencies and membership-based communities, shows that at least 32 Division I schools are supported by multiple NIL-focused groups.
Some fan and donor bases have even launched three or four. Sometimes, however, two is one too many.
“It can get pretty hairy pretty fast,” said Rob Sine, a partner at Blueprint Sports, which powers NIL collectives for fan and donor bases and the business communities that support schools including Arizona, Gonzaga, UNLV and Tennessee. “Not where we are, but I’ve seen some examples around the country where it turns into a contest, and you know who loses? The student-athletes and the fan base because they don’t know what the heck’s going on. And there’s no referee.”
Friction at USC, BYU
After the launch of Student Body Right, an NIL collective established to support USC, a high-ranking USC official said in a statement provided to On3’s Pete Nakos, “We would be very wary of anyone launching a NIL initiative who has no known connection to the athletics program and no proven track record of supporting our student-athletes.”
Previously, in June, USC’s athletic department announced an agreement with the media agency Stay Doubted, which established a subsidiary called BLVD, LLC. BLVD will exclusively serve USC athletes with potential NIL opportunities with the help of at least seven full-time employees.
Recently, BYU football players launched the Provo NIL Club, one of the roughly 20 player-driven, membership-based communities that are backed by the company YOKE.
The Twitter account for CougConnect, a preexisting NIL platform designed to support BYU athletes, posted a screenshot of Provo NIL Club’s Twitter account as part of a tweet that read, “Imitation is the purest form of flattery I guess? Kinda shocked honestly.”
“I do plan on having conversations with our friends over there at YOKE in the next couple of days,” BYU associate athletic director for student-athlete experience/NIL Gary Veron then told The Salt Lake Tribune.
How many NIL collectives is too many?
So, how many NIL collectives is too many? And whose answer to that question matters the most?
How do you even define what is an NIL collective? And does it matter when some marketing agencies or nonprofits perform semantics gymnastics to claim they’re not one?
Until Merriam-Webster provides an official definition for NIL collective, there won’t be a consensus on whether certain organizations, such as marketing agencies or nonprofits, fit the bill.
Blueprint Sports’ Sine took a stab at defining the catch-all term that is “NIL collective.”
“Well, a collective by nature is when you get a group of people together that all have a common cause and mission,” Sine said. “Usually, what we have found is that common cause is a sport, a team, a coach, a set of sports, or the university. For us, a collective is driven by people that are passionate for the athletic department in town or the sports teams in town, and when they come together, it by nature turns into a collective the right way. For me, the ingredient that has to be key is a number of donors, supporters that come together, that want to work towards one goal.”
Schools often have a preferred NIL collective
Former Georgia running back Keith Marshall is a co-CEO of The Players’ Lounge, a Web3 platform that helps create communities between college athletes and fans. The Players’ Lounge has partnered with NIL collectives in some markets, according to Marshall, who said collectives can almost act as ambassadors for his company.
“Typically, I think the universities have one that’s kind of like, ‘OK, that’s the major [collective],'” Marshall told On3 in July. “Everybody understands that they don’t work with the athletic department but they’re in cahoots a little bit. So typically we talk to the administration and understand who they feel comfortable with to make sure we do everything right by them and they kind of point us in the direction of whatever group is representing their athletes, whichever group they feel like is going to be the official collective of that university.”
Notably, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery and women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder were among those in attendance for the introductory press conference for The Swarm Collective in July. Iowa was among the last Big Ten schools to have its fan and donor base launch an NIL collective.
“I think I speak for everybody on our campus’ behalf, just appreciative of [The Swarm Collective CEO Brad Heinrichs‘] interest and his willingness to help,” Ferentz said at Big Ten Football Media Days, when On3 asked about his relationship with the collective. “And I think we’re doing it in a way that fits our program, the values and the way we see the world, so I’m extremely appreciative to Brad’s willingness to get involved and his contributions already.”
How many is too many? ‘Any more than one’
Former Virginia Tech football player Brenden Hill is a founding partner of Triumph NIL, a marketing agency that recently merged with Hot Route Marketing. Hot Route Marketing founder Kelly Woolwine, who’s now the CEO of Triumph NIL, said it was a merger like any other between businesses, complete with “pretty standard merger docs.”
As a result, there are now three organizations supporting Virginia Tech athletes through NIL opportunities, as opposed to four. The other two are Commonwealth NIL and The Hokie Way, which are self-described as an NIL collective and a nonprofit, respectively.
“We’ve heard very early on from different people in the space who have had to deal with ‘collectives’ across the country that the best to do it — the best universities or programs that are well-positioned — have one group that they lean on primarily,” Triumph NIL’s Hill told On3 last month. “I would say any more than one [is too many], honestly. I think you have to potentially have two just to not have a monopoly or create some sort of fair market opportunity.
“I think more than two is way too many, but I think it also just depends on how people fit into the community and the role. I can think of Indiana. I don’t know about their collectives or marketing agencies around their school but I know they have their nonprofit angle [Hoosiers for Good]. I could imagine if they had two marketing agencies that paired with that nonprofit, then maybe three would work. But that nonprofit technically isn’t a collective so it just depends. I think less is better.”
The merger of Virginia Tech marketing agencies followed two other instances of mergers of NIL collectives that were launched by Florida State and TCU supporters, respectively. More consolidation could be on the way, especially as some fans and donors realize what it takes to sustain an NIL collective.
“We’re already getting phone calls from people that have started collectives at different Power 5 schools who have said, ‘You know what, this didn’t work exactly how we thought it was going to. And by the way, we all have day jobs. We need help,'” Sine said. “And so they’re already waving the flag.”
Similar to Hill, Sine said that any more than two collectives designed to support a single school is probably too many. However, he said there’s a chance that three, at the most, could work.
“I would say probably once you get past two, maybe three at the most, it’s too much,” Sine said. “Because what you lose is anybody understanding where the heck I should go spend my money or ‘How do I work with the student-athletes?’ because the messaging is too muddied and watered down. I think multiple can exist if they serve separate sports, separate causes, if you have passionate folks behind it.
“When we first got into this, we were altruistic and said, ‘Hey, we want to build a collective to serve all the student-athletes’ and a number of donor bases around schools said, ‘Not so fast. We want to focus on our sports. We want to focus on this coach. We like him. We like her. We want to make sure we help keep them here and build this to support them.’
“I think it’s appropriate. At Tennessee, for example, we’re there supporting the former No. 1 baseball team in the country, the BaseVols. There is at least one or two other collectives that are involved there, primarily on the football side, which allows a great lane to support and really dominate the baseball side of this.”
Some NIL collectives work together
Some Power 5 schools, such as Arizona and Virginia Tech, have promoted on their official athletic department websites the multiple collectives that support them. In February, Arizona specifically named the Arizona Assist Club and Friends of Wilbur & Wilma in a release titled, “New ways to support Wildcat NIL opportunities.”
In April, prior to the merger of the two Virginia Tech-specific marketing agencies and before the launch of The Hokie Way, an athletic department release stated, “director of athletics Whit Babcock has confirmed that a trio of NIL collectives have offered their services to Virginia Tech student-athletes, businesses and donors.”
“I think that there are a number of schools that probably are dictated because of state law that are able to do things like that,” Sine said.
That’s one benefit for schools located in states without an NIL law or those that have a permissive law regarding institutional facilitation of NIL activities. In the future, state NIL laws could challenge the NCAA’s interim NIL policy. Of course, state laws and an athletic department’s comfort with NIL collectives can vary significantly, especially when athletic departments and collectives often fundraise from the same pool of donors.
“You know, I always say it should be an ‘and’ conversation,'” Sine said. “Continue to donate to the school and find ways to work with the student-athletes on NIL. But that’s not going to be the reality forever. But right now though, what we’re seeing with these top-level donors and supporters is it has been an ‘and’ conversation.”
NIL collectives promote each other
Not only have some schools publicly promoted multiple collectives, but some collectives will promote one another.
Jackets For ATLanthropy, which organizes and financially supports Georgia Tech athletes’ involvement in charitable activities, promotes the Georgia Tech-focused NIL collective Swarm the ATL on its website.
“We don’t really have any relations with other collectives within the Clemson family but we do appreciate what they’re doing to create more opportunities for the student-athletes,” TigerImpact co-founder and board member Kevin Gemas told On3. “At the end of the day, we want to support the Clemson student-athlete experience. We’re all for Clemson’s success, so we all want to work together. We just happen to do it with the charities and work that way but there’s other opportunities for Clemson student-athletes out there as well and it’s going to become more and more of a crowded space with these charities.”
A representative from a public relations, marketing and advertising agency that works with TigerImpact later added that there’s nothing adversarial between the two organizations. The representative said the two organizations will collaborate in cases where Clemson athletes are involved with both groups.
Gemas also said that TigerImpact, which has raised at least $5.5 million for NIL opportunities for Clemson athletes, is willing to assist NIL collectives at other schools. Given the negative connotation of NIL collectives that exists for some observers, Gemas said TigerImpact wants to help protect the reputation of those in the industry.
“Quite frankly, we’ve gotten a number of calls from different universities wanting to model TigerImpact and try to implement that into their collectives and their schools, and that’s the number one question: ‘How do you go about it?’” he said. “How do you do it the right way and make sure that no one else is going to have any problems with it? Because it could reflect on the industry if there are some collectives out there and they don’t do it properly and it reflects on all of us. We don’t want that to happen.
“We’re going to try to take even more of a national presence to help those colleges or those other collectives set it up like we do and set it up the right way.”
By the end of the 2022 college football season, the industry might have a consensus answer as to what’s the ideal number of NIL collectives among a single fan base that’s trying to approach NIL “the right way.”