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North Texas joins list of Group of 5 programs with NIL collectives

Jeremy Crabtree08/01/22
(Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)

Almost every Power 5 program in the country has a NIL collective to help support its student-athletes. But more and more boosters from Group of 5 programs are also stepping up to the plate. The latest NIL collective to launch is Light the Tower Collective at North Texas.

Often founded by prominent alumni and influential supporters, school-specific collectives pool funds from a wide swath of donors to help create NIL opportunities for student-athletes through various activities. According to a report from the Denton Record-Chronicle, longtime UNT booster Don Lovelace and Rick Villarreal, the university’s former athletic director, organized the Light the Tower Collective.

Villarreal spent 16 years as UNT’s athletic director. He will serve as the CEO of the collective, which has registered as a nonprofit organization. The group reportedly has 12 directors who include several prominent boosters and former UNT athletes, including Craig Robertson, a UNT linebacker who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL.

The move to launch a collective at UNT couldn’t have come at a more perfect – and important – time. North Texas is moving from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference on July 1, 2023.

 “This is the No. 1 priority to move the program to where it needs to be,” Villarreal told the DRC. “We are going to step into a conference where the competition and the recruiting process are tougher. We need to have every tool we can to attract top student-athletes and retain them.”

Light the Tower Collective will help with recruiting

Villarreal would not disclose to the DRC how much money Light the Tower has on hand. However, he said he is confident the collective will raise the money to make UNT’s programs more attractive to top recruits.

“I don’t see anyone at our level getting six figures,” Villarreal told the newspaper. “You want to give your most valuable players $10,000 to $15,000, maybe $20,000. We think we can be competitive with other schools.”

Light the Tower has also reportedly formed a board and contacted more than 150 people. It hopes to execute NIL deals with UNT athletes within the next 15 days. The group plans to launch a website and social media accounts by Aug. 15.

According to the DRC, UNT boosters C. Dan Smith and Jim McNatt are also directors of the group that selected its name to recognize the school’s tradition of lighting the clock tower on the McConnell Administration Building following wins.

“Our student-athletes will be involved in educational and mentoring programs, free sports clinics and participatory deals that will not only grow the skill sets of these student-athletes outside of football, basketball and other sports but will also enhance the community,” Villarreal said. “We will also create mentoring programs and pair up with school systems and help educate students in other areas.”

AAC already has strong NIL collectives

There are already a number of collectives from the American Athletic Conference that have NIL collectives, including Team Boneyard at East Carolina, Hoop And Holler at Houston, the 901 Fund at Memphis, Pony Sports DTX at SMU, FearTheWave at Tulane and Mission Control at UCF. UTSA, which is also joining the AAC, has a strong collective with Runners Rising.

UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are leaving for the Big 12 Conference. Yet, it’s still an important time for collectives in the AAC and other Group of 5 leagues to do what they can to support student-athletes in the hunt for NIL deals.

“The student-athlete today is looking at what NIL opportunities are available if I choose to go to a university,” Lovelace told the DRC. “It makes sense. We have to have a collective that is capable of presenting significant opportunities in a conference with Memphis, Tulane, UTSA and SMU. We need to have opportunities that are equal or better.”