Special Offer

Breaking news. In-depth analysis. Limited Ads.

Subscribe Now7-Day Free Trial

On3's top 20 most ambitious NIL collectives

On3 Staff Report08/04/22
Article written by:On3 imageOn3 Staff Report
on3s-top-20-most-ambitious-nil-collectives

Now that 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. And they’re now coast-to-coast with almost every major Power 5 program having representation. They’ve become so commonplace that many Group of 5 programs, player-led groups and even sports-specific NIL collectives have popped up.

One year into the ever-evolving NIL era, here are On3’s rankings of the top 20 most ambitious collectives. These all play a unique role in helping to shape this category 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 Group (Tennessee)

No collective to date has pushed the envelope more – or been bolder and more ambitious – than this Tennessee-centric collective. Spyre Sports Group 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 its ambition. Spyre president and co-founder Hunter Baddour said the collective is aiming to generate at least $25 million annually. The money would be 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: “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 relaxed its state NIL law to create a friendlier landscape for NIL collectives. That gives Spyre more room to create NIL deals with. Jeremy Crabtree

2.   John Ruiz (Miami)

The avalanche of NIL activity John Ruiz has spearheaded for Miami athletes technically qualifies the billionaire as a directive 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. Nijel Pack, who recently transferred from Kansas State, agreed to a LifeWallet deal that will give him $800,000 total over two years.

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. Jeremy Crabtree

3.   The Fund (Texas A&M)

Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban’s highly publicized spat over NIL put the Aggies under the microscope. Yet, Texas A&M’s collective – deemed “The Fund” by organizers and donors to the group – has been operating under the radar since NIL was approved by the NCAA and made acceptable in the Lone Star State.

While other collectives have splashy websites and active social media accounts, The Fund operates in obscurity. No founders are listed anywhere. No annual goals are available. In fact, investors in The Fund told The Athletic they didn’t understand why boosters in other collectives feel the need to advertise their groups. As far as publicity goes, The Fund operators feel word-of-mouth between recruits and players will be plenty to ensure the people they’ll work with know what is available.

Amounts raised aren’t publicly available, but insiders say The Fund has generated tens of millions of dollars. Many have linked the success of The Fund with A&M officially landing the best-ever recruiting class. Even if it didn’t, as Fisher says, there’s little doubt the collective has caught the attention of the college sports world. Jeremy Crabtree

4.   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 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,” a source said. “They are built by the smartest sports marketers, so follow along. Everything they are doing is a lesson everyone can learn from.” Jeremy Crabtree

CLICK HERE to subscribe for FREE to the On3 YouTube channel

5.    Gator Collective (Florida)

Sports attorney and NIL pioneer Darren Heitner recalls receiving a direct message from Eddie Rojas the morning of July 1. The former Florida baseball star described a business model that pooled together cash from boosters to provide opportunities for student-athletes. The two tossed around names for the organization.

Within two months, the Gator Collective was formed. Rojas is now the CEO of the leading Florida collective. That first organization set off a firestorm of donor-driven NIL collectives across the college athletics landscape. The Gator Collective has not slowed down since then. The organization was the first collective to sponsor the athletic department it supports. That has given it direct access to Florida athletes.

Raising money has not been an issue, either. Events have been aplenty with fan fests and autograph sessions. And the Gator Collective recently launched a new website, too, which will allow fans to directly communicate with athletes.

The collective also helped players be able to take care of family back home and help pay bills, while also some enjoying extra spending cash they otherwise wouldn’t have to do things away from the field. Trey Dean bought his mother a car. And Anthony Richardson has been outspoken on how he has been able to help his mother out. Pete Nakos

6.   BLVD LLC (USC)

The new kid on the block, BLVD LLC has all the makings to emerge as the top collective in the coming years. With a full-time staff of seven, BLVD is the official sponsor of USC NIL activities. Backed by Stay Doubted, a modern-day media agency, the organization took nearly a year to form. Former USC chief of staff Brandon Sosna and Stay Doubted founder Michael Jones laid out the framework for the organization together. Now fully equipped, major plans are in the works for the USC collective.

So many collectives have spent time raising money to secure recruits. But BLVD is setting USC up for success past this first iteration of NIL collectives. A donor system is in place, but the organization is working to secure partners for the student-athletes. That won’t be hard since Stay Doubted works with Verizon, lululemon and Amazon on a daily basis. BLVD may not be the collective to entice recruits to USC right now; the brand behind Lincoln Riley will. But BLVD has all the tools to be successful for years to come in NIL, thanks to the brands behind them.

Sources have told On3 that this could be the framework for what collectives look like in the years to come. Pete Nakos

7.   The Foundation (Ohio State)

John Ruiz and Spyre Sports made headlines early on, but The Foundation continues to deliver wins for Buckeye athletes. The group was founded by former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and longtime booster Brian Schottenstein. The collective recently brokered a $550k deal with Value City Furniture, American Eagle and Designer Shoe Warehouse, along with help by Columbus-based NIL Management.

C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Denzel Burke and TreVeyon Henderson all profited off the partnership. But the innovative ideas have not stopped there.

The group is holding a fundraiser in August where Ryan Day, Chris Holtmann and players will be on hand. A table for 10 including a photo with Holtmann and Day can be purchased for $10,000. Schottenstein previously told On3 that all profits from the event will go directly to student-athletes.

Bottom line: The Foundation is doing everything it can to live up to Day’s $13 million ultimatum. Donations are on the rise. That could be bad news for the rest of college football. Oh, there are also former Ohio State athletes and coaches on the board – including Urban Meyer and J.T. Barrett – who have a pulse on how to capitalize on NIL, too. Pete Nakos

8.   The Matador Club (Texas Tech)

It’s no surprise to see Texas and Texas A&M represented by power-house collectives. However, Texas Tech-focused The Matador Club might raise some eyebrows for those that haven’t been following NIL.

The Matador Club generated national headlines in mid-July when it announced it signed 100 Red Raider football players to a one-year $25,000 NIL contract. Collective leader Cody Campbell said The Matador Club will offer each player the same $25,000 contract. It’s an annual deal that will be renewable. Campbell said the contract is the same for stars like quarterback Tyler Shough and walk-ons on the team.

“Collectives have done things a number of different ways,” Campbell told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “You see some of them paying large amounts to individual players. You see others doing different things. But what we want to do, really, is support the entire program. This is kind of a base salary for the guys. They’re not going to be restricted from doing any other NIL stuff with anybody else. In fact, we’re going to encourage and help them to do that.”

That forward-thinking focus to help everybody in the program is why The Matador Club is on this list. Jeremy Crabtree

9.   Clark Field Collective (Texas)

Horns with Heart generated a ton of headlines – and rightfully so – with its NIL program that pays each Texas offensive lineman $50,000 a year. Yet, Clark Field Collective is the Longhorns collective that’s built for the future.

When it launched last December, the collective announced it secured an initial commitment of $10 million for UT NIL activities with the ultimate goal of having the largest dedicated fund in the country for college athletes. NIL observers agree Clark Field Collective is the template for deep-pocketed supporters of blue-blood schools nationwide. The $10 million pledge was the first financial shot across the bow in the nationwide NIL arms race.

“It is the game-changer,” said CEO Nick Shuley, a sports and music marketing veteran that’s been involved with Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza. “This is the program that Texas deserves. If we’re going to do something at the University of Texas, it needs to be done right. With Austin now home to some of the biggest businesses in the world, we knew there was an easy way to connect the business community to athletes while creating something that not only facilitates opportunity but also educates and helps prepare them for life after sports.” Jeremy Crabtree

10.   High Tide Traditions (Alabama)

It was somewhat shocking to see Alabama behind in the NIL arms race. But High Tide Traditions was launched in April 2022 and it is quickly working to rectify the NIL race.

When the collective started, it announced to the college athletics landscape that it would “harness the power” of NIL. Yet, the group was never going to rush into the new scene. Organizers were focused on taking a big picture look and creating a long-term strategy.

A big piece of that strategy was unveiled through a donor-driven model. Fans can make donations for as low as $9.99. Larger donations will result in exclusive benefits. HTT has also put plans in place for access to an “insider podcast,” member events and apparel.

Phillip Stutts, High Tide Traditions’ senior advisor, said the collective is not in a rush to roll out the entire group’s game plan. He opted to not go into details about Alabama’s partnership with Fanatics, which will open the first-ever team store in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The store will have gear from officially licensed outlets like Nike and Topps, as well as student-athlete NIL merchandise. Stutts did admit, however, that HTT did play a role in securing the deal.

“Really amazing opportunity,” he said. “We may be the first, but we will not be the last college that’s doing this right now.”

Yes, Alabama was late to the NIL party, but it’s quickly catching up and making moves to pull ahead. – Jeremy Crabtree

11.   Classic City Collective (Georgia)

Georgia coach Kirby Smart recently bragged about 95 Bulldog players receiving a NIL deal of some sort. And UGA-focused group Classic City Collective has played a major role in a lot of those deals.

Spearheaded by former UGA assistant athletics director and compliance officer Matt Hibbs, Classic City has provided opportunities for all of Dawg Nation to “contribute and engage with the athletes they passionately support through a variety of NIL activities, including social media endorsements, in-kind promotional deals, appearances, meet and greets, autographs and digital content.”

Yet, it goes well beyond that, too. Classic City partnered early on with DGD Fund and Icon Source to expand opportunities. The DGD Fund provides Georgia fans a unique opportunity to change the game of charitable giving by supporting causes in the local community. Icon Source is a digital marketplace that brings agents, athletes and brands together.

Plus, Classic City recently set up an office and studio in downtown Athens, which will allow them to create and provide exclusive content for UGA student-athletes. That original content approach is something you’ll see from more collectives moving forward. Jeremy Crabtree

12.   Champions Circle (Michigan)

Some knocked the Michigan fanbase for being seemingly a bit slow to react to NIL while rival Ohio State and other national powers pounced on it. Yet, once Wolverine boosters got on track, it didn’t take them long to make a major impact thanks largely to the Champions Circle collective.

Valiant Management, run by former Michigan football player Jared Wangler and former U-M hockey athlete Niko Porikos, launched the Champions Circle collective in June 2022. Valiant Management is a successful Michigan-based sports marketing agency. The collective used connections from the marketing agency to quickly catch up with other national collectives. Plus, they pushed the envelope with creative deals throughout the Midwest, including a deal with 120 Michigan student-athletes with the Army National Guard.

Wolverine coach Jim Harbaugh is adamant that he’s not going to pay recruits to sign with Michigan. But prospects can surely rest easy knowing they have an ambitious collective working to represent one of the nation’s largest alumni bases. Jeremy Crabtree

13.   East Lansing NIL Club (Michigan State)

The first of a slew of YOKE-powered collectives, Michigan State is the birthsite of the first player-driven organization. While more than 10 other similar collectives have popped up across the Power 5, the East Lansing NIL Club was the inaugural group.

YOKE’s website describes the company as the “premier web3 company providing technology for athletes to build community and receive equitable compensation” for NIL. The ELNC launched with an access pass model, allowing fans to gain access to online meet-and-greets with the team, members-only tailgates and an online community where they can interact with players.

Other YOKE collectives that have launched have opted to switch to a donor model. Players are not required to join the Michigan State collective. They have the option to opt out and not take a cut of the profit.

As YOKE has increased its scale, its platform fee has dropped from 25% to 18%, according to co-founder and CEO Mick Assaf. How this will all come into fruition in the fall will be a major watching point. But if it is successful, more and more schools could see similar organizations as the East Lansing NIL Club. Pete Nakos 

14.   Hoosiers for Good (Indiana)

Hoosiers For Good is different than most collectives because it partners with Indiana student-athletes and uses their NIL to generate exposure and awareness for their respective charitable causes.

The group was also one of the first collectives in the country to receive 501(c)(3) status and earn a Federal tax exemption. Hoosiers For Good essentially wrote the playbook for collectives that support student-athletes and local charities.

“This allows us to continue to advance our goal of amplifying the mission of our charitable partners through Indiana University student-athletes NIL, platform and influence,” Hoosiers For Good executive director Tyler Harris said.

In the spring of 2022, Hoosiers For Good partnered with 14 IU student-athletes. They support causes like the Indiana Region of the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington and Recycle Force. Hoosiers For Good leaders say the class of student-athletes will change each semester, further expanding their footprint in the community. The group announced NIL partnerships with 11 new Hoosier student-athletes on Wednesday as part of its Class of Summer 2022.

“We partner with student-athletes who have an influential voice and are passionate about becoming community-minded leaders through partnering with a local charitable organization,” the group’s website says. “Our Incubator Program will encourage any student-athlete who is passionate about charitable work and interested in developing their voice to submit a proposal for funding.” Jeremy Crabtree

15.   Athlete Advantage/The 15 (Kentucky)

The 15, which derives its name from Kentucky being the 15th state in the Union, is a unique collective because it does not plan to allow boosters to directly contribute to University of Kentucky student-athletes. Instead, The 15 works with its parent company – Athlete Advantage – to allow corporations and businesses of all sizes to partner with student-athletes from UK through multi-year marketing and endorsement programs and increase their brands.

It’s a vastly different approach to NIL than many other collectives out there. It’s spawned some of the most creative and clever deals out there. This includes deals like star quarterback Will Levis endorsement agreement for War of Will, a syndicated Thoroughbred stallion standing at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.

“We build personal brands that drive life-changing opportunities for our athletes,” CEO Fred Johnson said. “Through strategic marketing partnerships, the sky is the limit.” Jeremy Crabtree

16.   Garnet Trust (South Carolina)

Football coach Shane Beamer provided a spark of excitement to the South Carolina athletic department. Helping further kindle that fire is Garnet Trust.

GT was one of the earlier collectives to launch in the fall of 2021. Its two-pronged approach has been mimicked by others. One area of concentration allows supporters to contribute funds that will be used to fund legal and compliant NIL opportunities for student-athletes. Another arm of Garnet Trust is in place to provide media services through the heavily trafficked GamecockCentral.com platform and social channels to businesses that want to have South Carolina student-athletes feature their products or services in front of a large audience.

Creating unique content for players through NIL activities is becoming more and more common. Garnet Trust was one of the first to do it and do it right. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it already has strong NIL deals in place with many on the football roster. That includes a deal with star quarterback Spencer Rattler. Jeremy Crabtree

17.   Country Roads Trust (West Virginia)

Country Roads Trust has one of the most recognizable names in college athletics listed on its founder list – Oliver Luck.

Along with his time in the NFL and MLS, Luck spent time as the athletic director at West Virginia and also served as an executive with the NCAA. So, few know the landscape of college sports, recruiting and administration better than Luck.

But Country Roads Trust is also an innovator. It formed one of the first advisory teams of former star athletes to help support its initiatives. That’s something that’s been replicated across the country with other collectives. Within months of launch, Country Roads Trust says it’s working with more than 100 WVU student-athletes.

“Our focus is for them to just take care of the classroom, take care of the weight-room, practice, the games,” Stephen Ford, General Manager, said. “We don’t want them to be bogged down with any of this. That’s not what they’re in school for. What we are here to do is to handle the business side.” Jeremy Crabtree

18.   Pony Sports DTX (SMU)

It was recently announced that SMU topped the American Conference for NIL deals among INFLCR partners. A big reason for that success comes from the SMU-focused collective Pony Sports DTX.

After being left behind in conference realignment and losing football coach Sonny Dykes to rival TCU, Pony Sports DTX quickly ramped up to become one of the most aggressive and well-funded collectives in the Group of 5.

“That was the moment we knew that if the NIL wasn’t going to be something we invested in, then I think we were going to be left behind permanently,” Pony Sports DTX’s managing member, who asked not to be identified, told The Athletic.

The group claims to have raised seven figures from collective members through three forms of donations – annual contributions, NIL deal sponsorships and individual contributions. Pony Sports DTX has already signed a number of deals with players on the Mustangs’ football roster. Jeremy Crabtree

19.   Triumph NIL (Virginia Tech)

Virginia Tech boosters were among the most aggressive early on with collectives. So much so, that there were four collectives focused on supporting Hokie student-athletes through NIL activities. Yet, when Hot Route Marketing and Triumph NIL merged into the Triumph name, it announced that more than $500,00 in deals will soon be revealed for Hokie student-athletes.

Triumph has already announced NIL contracts with football players Dax Hollifield, Da’Wain Lofton, Kaleb Smith and Malachi Thomas. More look like they’re on the way with the newly narrowed focus.

“There has been robust interest in a lot of the area businesses and companies in the region, people who are passionate about Virginia Tech and also see the value of promoting their business interests or their charitable interests this way,” said Kelly Woolwine, the founder of Hot Route Sports Marketing who now serves as the CEO of Triumph. Jeremy Crabtree

20.   Friends of Wilbur & Wilma (Arizona)

Other than the building excitement at BLVD and the top-notch pedigree that Division I Street, many insiders say collectives in the Pac 12 have a lot of work to do to catch up with groups in the SEC and Big Ten. Yet, a deeper dive reveals that Arizona’s Friends of Wilbur & Wilma should also be getting national attention.

Founded by loyal Wildcat supporters Cole Davis and Humberto Lopez, Friends of Wilbur and Wilma utilizes Blueprint Sports’ technology to learn more about supporting Arizona student-athletes NIL opportunities and connect with them. But it’s the deals and the support for its teams that make Friends of Wilbur and Wilma unique.

Through NIL deals, the group has already provided laptops to the Wildcat football team, helped support numerous local charities, sponsored youth camps and generally gone about doing NIL with a forward-thinking viewpoint that many in the country have yet to figure out.

It also doesn’t hurt that it has support from legendary tennis star Andre Agassi and the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. Jeremy Crabtree