Twenty months into the NCAA’s era in which college athletes are able to monetize their name, image and likeness rights, Northwestern was the 14th and final Big Ten member institution whose fan and donor base publicly launched an NIL collective. The collective TrueNU, whose formation was previously announced last December, officially launched its website Wednesday.
TrueNU Executive Director Jacob Schmidt, a former Northwestern running back who most recently worked as the Wildcats’ director of football operations, started his current role last December after spending more than a decade on staff.
He compared TrueNU’s last three months to the soft opening of a restaurant.
The Office of the Illinois Secretary of State’s website shows TrueNU’s incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation last September. Schmidt said there will be a commercial arm in the next three to six months.
Northwestern is the Big Ten’s only private institution. It has a full-time undergraduate enrollment that’s smaller than its conference peers with roughly 8,500 students and an overall student body that’s just over 23,000. The university and its fan base has had to play catch-up in the NIL landscape.
“We’ve raised close to $1.5 million in support of TrueNU over the last two months,” Schmidt said Tuesday in a phone interview. “We love that number because it shows that we’re legitimate. We’re real. People are supporting this.”
Records show the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sent a favorable determination letter regarding TrueNU’s tax-exempt status in early November to the Cincinnati-based law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. The IRS lists TrueNU as a public charity, which means individuals can deduct contributions up to 50 percent of their adjusted gross income or up to 60 percent for cash contributions.
Those events were part of what Schmidt described as a larger, six-to-nine-month process.
In that time, Schmidt said TrueNU has partnered with eight charitable organizations and athletes from four of Northwestern’s athletic programs.
The football program is the most recent addition to that list. Schmidt said TrueNU hopes to support all 19 of Northwestern’s athletic programs.
Northwestern players ‘certainly have seen what’s happened’
At the last Big Ten Football Media Days, which were held in Indianapolis last July, Northwestern’s player representatives seemed to downplay, if not express disinterest in, NIL deals.
“At least for me personally, it’s not a concern,” said defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore, when asked about the lack of a collective to support Wildcats. “It doesn’t really concern me.”
When asked if he had pursued any NIL opportunities in the Chicagoland area, defensive back Cameron Mitchell said, “I wouldn’t say that I’ve done anything like that.” Offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, who’s now a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, told On3’s Pete Nakos that he didn’t want to sign any NIL deals.
Schmidt said when he worked for the football program, NIL was a topic of conversation among high school and transfer portal recruits, plus Northwestern’s current players.
“The players that we’ve engaged with have been incredibly appreciative,” Schmidt said. “They certainly have seen what’s happened across the country and some of them want to leverage their NIL. Some of them want to be able to make some money based on who they are as an athlete and you know up until really the last couple months, they didn’t have a collective supporting them.”
Pat Fitzgerald in July: ‘There’s obviously a lot of things that are in the works’
When On3 asked Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald at Big Ten Football Media Days about whether the lack of a collective was a concern, he deflected by joking about the university’s status as a private institution.
Northwestern was the only Big Ten school whose athletes weren’t supported by a collective.
“Yeah, Andy, private school. We don’t have to tell you,” Fitzgerald said at the dais in a tongue-in-cheek comment. “No, I’m just joking. Yeah, there’s obviously a lot of things that are in the works. You know, I’m a little jealous of the guys right now. The mid-’90s, NIL. You know? It would’ve been a good deal for me.”
Fitzgerald described the “Northwestern way” as not being first but trying to do what’s best. In a previous phone interview in January, Schmidt said the university has typically sat on the sideline longer than most, metaphorically speaking, but that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. He used adjectives like conservative and slow-paced when describing the speed of the institution’s approach.
“The outside entities, you really can’t control,” Fitzgerald said last July, “but, you know, I think our alums and the folks that touch our program understand the importance of this and want to make sure our guys are taken care of from a standpoint of professional growth and opportunities, financial opportunities, and look at this thing a little bit more holistically than maybe just, you know, a few more dollars for a burger or something like that.”
Schmidt said while he’s no longer Fitzgerald’s righthand man, he said those behind TrueNU view it as an extension of the athletic department.
Here’s the landscape of NIL collectives in the Big Ten
A few collectives in the Big Ten footprint have been transparent with their fundraising.
The Indiana-focused nonprofit collective Hoosiers For Good recently released an annual report in which the organization stated it raised more than $3.8 million in 2022. This month, the Rutgers-aligned collective Knights Of The Raritan announced it reached a $1 million fundraising goal in roughly five weeks.
“Obviously, our goal is much higher but we’re catching up quick,” Schmidt said of TrueNU’s stated $1.5 million in funds raised. “We’re in the game. We’re making a difference in the community.”
If you ask the CEO of one collective that supports athletes at a Big Ten institution, he perceives that the three schools in the conference whose fans and donors have raised the most money for NIL opportunities are Ohio State, Nebraska and Purdue. Of course, trying to benchmark NIL-related fundraising is more of an art than a science.
“It’s all pretty informal and you don’t know whether someone’s telling you the truth, whether they’re embellishing or whether they are sandbagging you, right? You really don’t know,” Brad Heinrichs, the CEO of The Swarm Collective that supports Iowa athletes, said in a phone interview in mid-January.
“All I can go by is what I’ve read and just informal conversations with other folks that are running collectives in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Nebraska are clearly ahead of us. I think Purdue is probably ahead of us as well because I was told that Drew Brees made a pretty substantial commitment to their collective. There may be one or two others that are above us as well. I’m not sure but I think, by and large, after those, I think that we stand pretty tall relative to some of the other collectives.
“Some of them have just not been in existence for very long. For example, I think I read that Northwestern just started up a collective a few weeks ago. They may end up blowing our doors off at some point in the future but they’re in their infancy.”
The same day that Heinrichs provided that analysis in January, which was a month before TrueNU’s announcement of its $1.5 million fundraising total, Schmidt promised TrueNU would compete.
“We might be behind right now,” he said at the time, “but we’re going to catch up really quickly.”
TrueNU shared fundraising total ‘to prove that we’re in this game’
Northwestern brands itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Chicago, however, is a professional sports market. “When people think of using athletes to market their companies, I don’t think they’re thinking of Northwestern athletes,” Schmidt said in January.
He mentioned the frequency of ads in the city that feature former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who retired 10 years ago, to the point that Chicago residents might barely see Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, each of whom won multiple Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think that sometimes we get drown out because we are the small, private school up here, 12 miles north of Chicago,” Schmidt said, later adding, “certainly the collective wants to have a major role in helping our athletes leverage their NIL to profit from it and our first arm is charitable. We’re aligned with community partners to do really good work in the community and connect them with 500 incredible athletes at Northwestern.”
Why did Schmidt share TrueNU’s initial fundraising totals publicly?
“It’s an important message to send given how late we are to this game and the numbers that our fans, our alumni, our donors have seen across the country — our players, right? everybody — and whether they’re accurate or not, they’re out there,” Schmidt said. “Part of our strategy here is to prove that we’re in this game.
“We’re competitive and to surpass that seven-figure threshold in support without even having a website public, without even really being in front of our fans and alums, we just think it tells a really strong story about the amount of support we have for the mission, which is doing really great work in the community, making a difference with our charitable partners by leveraging the NIL of these athletes.”