Atlantic 10 newcomer Loyola Chicago takes big step into NIL space with 'Keepers of the Culture' collective

When Loyola Chicago made its Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018, the phrase “Created by Culture” became a staple of the postgame news conferences. Of course, the “culture” started long before that season, and the “Wall of Culture” remains in the Ramblers’ locker room even after a coaching change and a conference switch.

Now, it’s associated with the new NIL venture on Chicago’s North Side.

Last week, Loyola Chicago announced its first NIL collective, appropriately called Keepers of the Culture. Its first event took place Sunday at Misericordia Heart of Mercy, a not-for-profit developmental home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood at which Loyola Chicago has volunteered for some time.

Led by fans and alumni, Keepers of the Culture also partnered with Blueprint Sports, one of the nation’s top collective-operating companies. Loyola Chicago already had partnerships with INFLCR and Opendorse, but this is the next step in maximizing opportunities as the Ramblers’ first year in the Atlantic 10 Conference wraps up.

“We wanted to make sure we were positioned to maximize opportunities for our athletes,” athletic director Steve Watson told On3. “… We were pretty aggressive out of the gate to make sure that our student-athletes would have as many opportunities as possible.” Loyola Chicago calls on two former Ramblers to advise athletes as part of new collective

Two former Loyola Chicago men’s basketball stars are on board Keepers of the Culture as alumni advisors, serving as liaisons between the men’s basketball program and Blueprint — although, in accordance with NCAA rules, not facilitating deals.

One is Christian Thomas, one of the top players of the Porter Moser era at Loyola Chicago; he played from 2011-15 and is one of the top scorers and rebounders in program history. The other is Chris Knight, who played for the Ramblers under Drew Valentine in 2021-22 after transferring from Dartmouth and helped them to last season’s NCAA tournament.

Knight played before and after the NCAA allowed players to benefit from NIL, which provides unique perspective when he works with the athletes.

“You get to see the positives it gets if it’s done right. … I think when it’s done right and in the right way, it can be a real huge benefit to a lot of kids,” said Knight, now an investment banker after finishing his MBA. “Kind of life-changing, too. I think having an athlete’s perspective, it definitely helps. “A lot of people say we (athletes) have

scholarships, et cetera, but we’re not working. It’s really hard sometimes when everything’s attached to your school, but you can’t carry anything with you in the future. I think it’s really important for them to build a foundation for themselves.”

For Thomas, it’s a little different. Eight years removed from his playing career, he currently works as the color commentator for Loyola Chicago men’s basketball broadcasts on Learfield IMG in addition to his day job as a supply chain manager for S.C. Johnson.

He still wants to make an impact on the program, though, which is why he jumped at the chance to work with the collective.

“For me, I just saw it as an opportunity to really understand more about what it’s all about because even when I was playing — I’m not that old, but still — when I was playing, the idea of players accepting and getting money for anything, it was considered dirty or cheating,” Thomas said. “Now, you see that it’s legal and that’s the way the college athletics landscape is going.

“I think it would be an opportunity for me to just get a first-hand look at it and also finding other ways to give back to the program. I’m still a big Loyola Ramblers fan and I want to see this program continue to do well.”

Those different experiences are why Watson said Thomas and Knight are good fits to work with the athletes.

“These are guys that we know well,” Watson said. “They’re both in Chicago. Obviously, Chris just finished playing last year, so he knows the staff, he knows the players. CT’s a little bit older, but he’s doing our games on Learfield IMG. … So, close to the program, close to us, two guys that we know and trust.

“They’ve got instant credibility with our players because they were pretty damn good when they were wearing the maroon and gold as well. So, for us, it’s a great fit to have two guys like that heavily involved with the collective.” How Loyola Chicago can still capitalize on NIL opportunities despite rough first seasonr in A-10

This season is Loyola Chicago’s first in the Atlantic 10 after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference. The Ramblers struggled mightily, going 4-14 record in A-10 play, and enter this week’s conference tournament as the No. 15 seed. Still, the A-10 brings more exposure, notably with more national TV games and a conference tournament in Brooklyn compared to the MVC’s “Arch Madness” in St. Louis.

From an on-court standpoint, Thomas was part of a Ramblers team that took the leap from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley in 2013 — and that move went like this year’s to the A-10. Loyola Chicago was 4-14 in the Valley in 2013-14, which is why Thomas can pass along his experience as the program increased its level of competition. He also can advise the athletes on maximizing their value amid the struggles.

“Obviously, this season didn’t go as well as anybody would’ve wanted,” Thomas said. “But it’s just an opportunity for them to use that as motivation in the offseason so you see all the benefits of us moving and all the opportunities that you have to continue building the Loyola basketball brand.

“Also, from an individual standpoint with the way that NIL has gone, you have a chance to build your own personal brand. The best way to do that is make sure you’re doing your job on the court and putting your team in position to win games. From there, a lot of that will take care of itself.”

Even though the basketball teams struggled in year one in the A-10, other Ramblers sports handled the jump well. The cross country and women’s volleyball teams won conference titles. The men’s soccer team lost in the A-10 championship game on penalty kicks. And the men’s volleyball team, which competes in the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, is in first place with a 6-0 record after sweeping Ohio State and Ball State.

Attendance is up, as well, with women’s volleyball and women’s basketball setting both overall and student attendance records, senior associate athletic director Tom Sorboro told On3. That’s why Watson said there are plenty of opportunities for the other programs to benefit from NIL.

Nate Brown

General Manager

Nate Brown is the General Manager of Zags Collective, leading the charge to help amplify the opportunities for the Gonzaga student-athletes through NIL partnerships with local charities, fans and businesses. With over a decade of experience in the professional sports industry and as a former business owner in Spokane, Nate is a seasoned professional who knows what it takes to succeed. Most recently, he served as the National Sales Director for a prominent west-coast real estate company, where he was responsible for driving growth and retention. With a deep understanding of sales and marketing, Nate brings a wealth of knowledge to the table and is always seeking innovative ways to drive revenue and create partnerships.With a passion for ensuring the success of student-athletes both on and off the field, Nate is dedicated to providing the necessary resources to keep Gonzaga competitive on the national stage. He understands the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with the community and local businesses, and works to maximize opportunities for Gonzaga’s student-athletes. As the son of two Gonzaga alumni, including a father who was a baseball pitcher and also a coach for the school, Nate has a great connection to the university and a passion for ensuring its continued success. Outside of work, Nate enjoys spending time with family, including his wife Jessica and their 16-year-old daughter Brooklynn and 12-year-old son Marcus. When not working or spending time with family, you can find Nate at any one of the amazing golf courses in Spokane, honing his swing!

Mike Smith

General Manager

Mike Smith joined Micconope 1851 in March 2023 and is excited to be the General Manager and looks forward to working with Blueprint Sports increase NIL revenue generation for Florida State University student-athletes. Smith comes to Micconope 1851 from Catawba College where he held the title as the Senior Director of Athletics, Development. Prior to working in Athletics at Catawba College, Mike served as the Associate Athletics Director for External Relations at Charleston Southern University. Smith has an impressive background in the collegiate athletics industry, having held senior level development and corporate sponsorship sales roles at The University of Southern Mississippi, Limestone University, the Sun Belt Conference, Florida Atlantic University, and with multimedia rights-holders Tele South Communications at the University of Mississippi, Learfield Sports at UNC Chapel Hill, and with International Sports Properties at Georgia Tech. Smith is a graduate of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in Business Management from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In his new role here at Micconppe 1851, Smith will be responsible for raising major gifts for NIL deals as well as securing NIL corporate sponsorships for Florida State University student-athletes. Mike looks forward to helping ensure the FSU student-athletes have the resources and leadership opportunities to remain competitive nationally and positioned for success well beyond graduation. Mike is married to Katy Smith; the couple looks forward to relocating to Tallahassee, Florida, and becoming a part of the Micconope 1851 and Seminole family!

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