Now that donor-driven NIL collectives have become the norm in college athletics, it’s not enough for your school to merely be affiliated with one.
A collective’s ambition – measured in its vision, scale and financial resources – will determine how impactful it is, how well and efficiently student-athletes are compensated through NIL activities and how much of a recruiting advantage it creates.
Collectives, which typically pool funds from a wide swath of donors, vary considerably. As one prominent NIL source told On3, there’s enough of a variety of collectives in the marketplace now – several dozen are publicly known – that “no one needs to recreate the wheel. You just have to figure out what size of a wheel you want.”
Some school-specific collectives focus on a small subset of athletes at a particular school, helping to connect them with donors and businesses for a variety of NIL activities. Others harbor far grander aspirations.
Ten months into the ever-evolving NIL era, here are On3’s rankings of the “most ambitious” donor-led collectives. These all play a unique role in helping to shape this category of the space in real time. All are impactful. And new ones promise to make this list in the coming months as the industry continues to evolve at breakneck speed.
1. Spyre Sports (Tennessee)
No collective to date has pushed the envelope more – or been bolder and more ambitious – than this Tennessee-centric collective. These rankings could change as the collectives’ arms race ramps up over the next year. But right now, Spyre is the clear No. 1. As one industry source said, “Spyre is not messing around. They are big spenders and are smart about it.” Spyre is also not shy about publicizing its grand vision, putting figures behind their ambition. In a February story in The Athletic that piqued the interest of all industry stakeholders, Spyre president and co-founder Hunter Baddour said the collective is aiming to generate at least $25 million annually to put into the pockets of student-athletes (or recruits). In an ultra-competitive landscape in the SEC, this could help lure an increasing number of five-star prospects to Knoxville. Baddour didn’t mince words to The Athletic story: “We realized being involved in recruiting was going to be a priority. Then we realized how much money we were going to need to be elite. And we’re shooting to be No. 1.” The state of Tennessee also recently relaxed its state NIL law to create a friendlier landscape for collectives.
2. Division Street (Oregon)
Some of the brightest and most influential sports marketing minds around have helped determine the structure and direction of this Oregon-centric collective. That has enabled Division Street, in the words of one industry source, to “operate at a high efficiency” and foster long-term sustainability. Nike co-founder Phil Knight joined up with a group of alumni to launch Division Street in the fall to help Oregon athletes monetize their brands. The collection of top minds involved is virtually unrivaled. Former Oregon star women’s basketball player Sabrina Ionescu is the chief athlete officer and senior advisor. Rosemary St. Clair, former VP/GM of Nike Women, is the CEO. Rudy Chapa, former VP of sports marketing at Nike, is the chairman of the board. Division Street also enlists a creative company led by former Nike and Jordan brand executives. ”They are the model,” the source said. “They are built by the smartest sports marketers, so follow along. Everything they are doing is a lesson everyone can learn from.”
3. John Ruiz (Miami)
The avalanche of NIL activity Ruiz has spearheaded for Miami athletes technically qualifies the billionaire as a director because this is one deep-pocketed individual creating deals for athletes. But we’d be remiss if Ruiz were not included on this list because of his sheer impact in shaping the contours of the space. Ruiz has allocated $10 million to spend on compensating student-athletes because he wants the Hurricanes to win. He has worked to sign more than 110 active Miami athletes to marketing deals to promote two of his companies, LifeWallet and Cigarette Racing, the Miami Herald has reported. Nijel Pack, who recently transferred from the Kansas State men’s basketball team to Miami, agreed to a LifeWallet deal that will give him $800,000 total over two years plus the use of a car. On the women’s basketball side, Haley and Hanna Cavinder, prominent social media influencers, recently announced they were transferring from Fresno State to Miami. The terms of their Ruiz-driven NIL deals were not disclosed. As one industry source said of Ruiz, he is “as bold as it gets” and also effective.
4. Gator Collective and Gator Guard (Florida)
These are two separate entities benefitting athletes at Florida. Both belong on this list because of how they have shaped and will shape the space. But they have different donor bases. The Gator Collective essentially is responsible for coining the term “collective,” which has become ubiquitous. It is unique because it has a deal with Gator Properties, which enables the collective to advertise in UF venues. Members typically make small monthly donations ($10 per month or so) to the Gator Collective. Gator Guard is for an exclusive group of well-heeled boosters to make substantial contributions to help keep the Gators competitive in the market. Prominent Florida donor Hugh Hathcock, who runs Gator Guard, sums up their mission in recent comments to InsideTheGators.com: “If Texas A&M is buying their class like they did last year for millions of dollars, and it’s fair, and it’s legal, and it’s part of the NIL landscape, that means Florida should have the funds, and a NIL partner like Gator Guard that provides them the opportunity to do that.”
5. Horns with Heart (Texas)
When telling the story of the proliferation of school-specific collectives, Horns with Heart deserves its own chapter. In December, the announcement of Horns with Heart, a nonprofit charity foundation, raised eyebrows throughout the industry because it was specific to a position group and equated to a yearly salary in the eyes of some critics. Each scholarship offensive lineman on the Texas roster receives at least $50,000 annually for making charity appearances and bringing awareness to worthy causes. Rob Blair, one of six co-founders of Horns with Heart, told On3 at the time, “Getting out at the forefront of [NIL] is the biggest thing for us – making sure Texas is not getting left behind.” The announcement of Horns with Heart likely spurred boosters of other elite football programs to begin discussing and forming many of the collectives you see today. It is a copycat industry, and Horns with Heart provided others with a strong template to follow.
Honorable mention: Country Roads Trust (West Virginia), Clark Field Collective (Texas), TigerImpact NIL (Clemson), Garnet Trust (South Carolina).