Collectives run the NIL world in college sports

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Breen made no money from Turbo’s Treats, but earned a few hundred dollars per month from her own name, image, and likeness, often by posting on social media. The most inhibiting rule she faced: Per school policy, Breen couldn’t wear the UMass logo or imagery when she posted or appeared at an event for NIL purposes.
Breen became the first woman to sign with The Massachusetts Collective, an organization aiming to support UMass basketball players through name, image, and likeness (NIL) agreements, on Jan. 12. The partnership led to the creation of Turbo’s Treats — dog treats sold under the brand of Breen’s dog, with all proceeds directed to the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield.
Sam Breen graduated in the spring as the career leading scorer for UMass women’s basketball, but she reached a significant milestone earlier in her senior year.
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“I think the most surprising thing was kind of the leniency surrounding it all, because you could really do almost anything as long as you’re doing something in return for payment,” Breen said.
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She enjoyed the process of working out agreements with The Massachusetts Collective and valued the modest income.
“I would have been appreciative of, like, $20, just because we weren’t even allowed to get a penny before,” she said.
Collectives — organizations that raise money from donors and use it to support NIL deals for athletes — have become a dominant force in college sports as schools enter the third academic year in which athletes have been able to profit off their likeness.
According to data from transactions on Opendorse, a leading NIL marketplace, nearly 80 percent of all NIL compensation comes from collectives, even though they account for less than 20 percent of NIL-related agreements with athletes.
Several young stars carry projected NIL valuations of more than $1 million, including basketball prince Bronny James, Louisiana State gymnast and TikTok celebrity Livvy Dunne, and LSU basketball champion Angel Reese. But their eye-popping reported agreements with brands overshadow how NIL moneymaking works for most college players like Breen.
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Collectives are funding the estimated $1.17 billion that will be spent on NIL deals in the coming year. They’re loosely regulated and wildly different in size around the country, but their impact on today’s student-athletes is undeniable.
“I think collectives are definitely important and definitely a positive thing,” Breen said. “Whether you’re making $10 per athlete or thousands of dollars per athlete, it’s more than we would have gotten before.”
“Whether you’re making $10 per athlete or thousands of dollars per athlete, it’s more than we would have gotten before,” Sam Breen said on the rise of collectives. Mitch Alcala/Associated Press
College athletes have been allowed to profit from their NIL since July 2021. As the NCAA’s NIL policy enters its third year of existence, longtime coaches in college athletics are still grappling with its effects on the one-time transfer portal and building a program.
“There’s kind of your state of union on the situation of what all coaches are dealing with around the country — really, a poor system that isn’t getting better and now is going to get worse,” Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin said in July.
Some wonder if collectives maintain and even exacerbate funding gaps between men’s and women’s athletic programs. Per an Opendorse report from January, only 34 percent of collectives nationwide have supported women athletes. Less than 10 percent of NIL deals for women come from fans or donors.
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Hesitancy around NIL isn’t stopping collectives’ rise. Opendorse counted 222 nationwide in its June report. More than half are associated with Power Five programs. Two Massachusetts schools have publicly partnered with collectives: Boston College has endorsed Friends of the Heights, and UMass has endorsed The Massachusetts Collective, the Midnight Ride Collective, and Go Mass NIL.
In March, Boston College athletic director Blake James sent out a short but noteworthy press release calling on BC fans to support student-athletes looking to profit from their NIL. The letter also addressed, and essentially endorsed, Friends of the Heights.
The message might seem odd at first — how could BC promote a group it legally can’t control? But these public endorsements are common.
“When we released our statement, it was really to inform our alumni, friends and fan base that Friends of the Heights did exist, and that it was important for our young men and women to be able to monetize and capitalize on their name, image and likeness opportunities,” James told the Globe.
Boston College athletic director Blake James says the athletic department has a great relationship with Friends of the Heights, the NIL collective endorsed by BC. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Universities cannot manage collectives themselves, but the groups are allowed to communicate. The BC athletic department meets with Friends of the Heights about once per week to check in, answer questions, and make sure the collective and its NIL deals are meeting NCAA rules. James hired deputy athletic director Craig Anderson, a colleague from James’s time as Miami athletic director, in part because of Anderson’s expertise on NIL compliance.
“I have great communication with Friends of the Heights,” James said. “We’re very blessed that we have a group that truly loves Boston College, and wants to do the very best for the institution, that are in regular communication with me and our department.”
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Joe Popolo, CEO of Charles & Potomac Capital, is a Friends of the Heights board member. He’s the second of three generations who attended BC and he grew up watching Doug Flutie. Popolo has donated more than $100,000 to Friends of the Heights.
“I would not ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself,” he said. “The whole NIL issue was fraught with a lot of uncertainty and challenges … and so I wanted to let other alums and interested folks know that this is not being run as some for-profit organization.”
Friends of the Heights controls about $1 million in funds — small for a Power Five school (Auburn’s On to Victory collective has reportedly raised $12 million) but notable in the larger Division 1 world. Aside from one-time donations, the collective also generates money from monthly memberships that offer merchandise and discounts for events. Some BC coaches have promoted these memberships on social media.
If a BC athlete wants to get involved, Friends of the Heights can connect them with one of their nonprofit partners and arrange the compensation in exchange for the athlete completing a service for the charity. Or, a donor or business can reach out to Friends of the Heights in search of a deal with an athlete or team, which the collective can then help facilitate.
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Popolo says Friends of the Heights has helped work out deals with players on six BC teams so far: men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s hockey, women’s lacrosse, and football.
“We require everyone to get tax advice and investment education as part of it,” Popolo said. “So when you sign up as a student-athlete to participate in the Friends of the Heights, those two things are required of you. We have to explain that this is taxable income to you, and we want you to understand that and be prepared for it.”
Other New England universities have jumped on the collective bandwagon. Want to support a Providence athlete? Fans can go right to the school’s rosters, click on a person’s Opendorse profile, and pay for an autograph, social media shoutout, or other service through the online NIL marketplace — and Providence also has support from the Friar Family Collective. UConn has the D’Amelio Huskies Collective —founded by Marc D’Amelio, father of social media megastars Charlie and Dixie D’Amelio — as well as the Bleeding Blue Collective.
The Ivy League has no collectives but is viewed as an untapped gold mine with some of the richest alumni bases. Couldn’t supporters pool vast amounts of funds together and simply overpower other schools?
To Yale athletic director Vicky Chun, that’s just not how the alumni are thinking. They’re inclined to donate to the athletic department or contribute to the school’s endowment, and they haven’t seen a reason to change.
“I’m sure many alums are looking at the [return on investment],” Chun said. “And the millions that are being spent — I don’t exactly see an ROI because I still see the same teams winning. And it puts mid-majors in a precarious position because they’re trying to raise an enormous amount of money that would really benefit the programs versus going to a handful of student-athletes.”
Chun likes the idea of a collective that allows a student-athlete to aid philanthropic causes while still earning income for themselves. But she would prefer donors support athletic programs instead of specific players. She also worries that collectives and their leaders — not the schools — control the money from donors.
“It’s very difficult, in terms of communication, when money is exchanging hands but you really don’t have direct oversight over it,” she said. “It’s almost an AD’s nightmare.”
Chun estimates that approximately 20 percent of Yale athletes are profiting from their NIL, either through their own companies or with small agreements. She doesn’t see a rush to partner with a collective just yet.
“We’re not into getting a student-athlete who will take the highest bidder,” she said. “That financial incentive — it’s not the decision-maker, and we know that, which is good and bad.”
Northeastern has not endorsed a collective. But athletic director Jim Madigan estimates approximately 100 athletes at the university have worked out NIL deals — typically small agreements that might involve payment for running a camp, or a social media post in exchange for a gift card to a local restaurant. The school has help from an NIL marketplace and education platform called INFLCR, and Madigan has had conversations with people interested in putting a collective together.
“I understand that we need to be in this space at our level, the mid-major level, because it’s the mid-major levels getting more and more active in NIL opportunities,” he said. “So I understand that loud and clear. Now it’s making sure that we partner, Northeastern athletics [and] Northeastern University, with the right collective — that our goals and values are aligned.”
Northeastern athletic director Jim Madigan (right) says that while the University has not endorsed a collective, he has had conversations with people interested in getting one off the ground. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Given college hockey’s regional status, could a school with a collective here gain an edge on nearby rivals? Hockey teams in the Big Ten are at a perceived advantage with powerhouse collectives already in place, but the sport as a whole doesn’t generate much NIL profit.
Madigan, who coached the Northeastern men’s hockey team for 10 years, says college athletes face an uphill battle against the pro-centric local sports ecosystem, but he expects the NIL opportunities in hockey to grow as more schools get involved.
“I absolutely do see it growing in hockey,” he said. “I see the opportunities growing, maybe not across the board at all 60 schools, [but] I see it growing a little bit, and maybe in certain conferences.”
Madigan can see how recruiting has changed. Even when NIL rules prohibit collectives from using money to reel in high school talent, the presence of a collective or other opportunities adds to the appeal of a program.
“Recruiting used to be an evaluation, right?” he said. “So we’ve moved a little bit from an evaluation model — coaches go out there and they recruit, they evaluate, and they try to attract the student — from an evaluation to an acquisition model. Who can provide the largest NIL opportunities in certain sports? The student athletes are asking, ‘Hey, it’s great you’ve got great academics. You’ve got great facilities. What are also your NIL opportunities?’”

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