'Friends of Rocky' becomes 1st NIL Collective in Mid-American Conference

State coach Ryan Day made headlines on June 2 when he said the Buckeyes need $13 million per season to keep their roster intact.

A NIL Collective named Friends of Rocky made up of University of Toledo football donors is setting the market rate in the Mid-American Conference.

$1 million.

“That may be a reach, but you need to have a goal,” said Friends of Rocky chairman Cleves Delp.

“If you think about it from 10,000 feet, I personally enjoy doing and building things that haven’t been done before. That combined with my friendship with Jason Candle and the University of Toledo football program, and seeing the changing landscape of NIL and the transfer portal, the world is changing. You can either decide you aren't up for it, or you better embrace it because others are.”

The goal is to raise at least $1 million each year. Delp will match $250,000 in donations from any founding contributor. One hundred percent of the money will go to UT players.

A second Collective called Blue and Gold Legacy LLC, with the goal of raising $100,000 annually, will be linked with the men’s basketball program and marketed under the Friends of Rocky umbrella.

“Myself and my teammates are so excited about Friends of Rocky,” Toledo men’s basketball forward Setric Millner, Jr., said. “It is a great avenue for us to get involved in the community, learn financial responsibility, and grow our brands. We all love this great community and are grateful to those who support us and this initiative.”

And if someone else wants to create another UT Collective, Delp fully supports the endeavor.

“Great,” he said, enthusiastically. “I encourage that. Let’s go. If [Friends of Rocky] doesn’t suit your fancy and you want to build something different, go, go, go. I think it makes [UT athletics] stronger.”

Friends of Rocky is the first Collective associated with a MAC program.

“It’s the reality of where we are with college athletics,” Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair said. “The thing that gets me a little nervous is that there just aren’t rules. It seems like everyone is trying to toe up to the line but no one quite knows where or what the line is. I’m all for young people having NIL opportunities. I just wish we had a general set of rules so we all knew what we were doing.”

Delp, the CEO of TDC Companies, is a major UT athletics donor. The Toledo native connected with Blueprint Sports to help manage Friends of Rocky. Collectives allow fans, alumni, and businesses to create NIL opportunities for athletes.

NIL was approved last summer by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, making it legal for athletes across all divisions to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness.

“I think Toledo is uniquely positioned in the MAC in terms of its metropolitan area. The marketplace is greater perhaps than any other school,” Delp said. “And I think there’s a right way and a wrong way. There are going to be a lot of wrong ways. That comes with lots and lots of money. The good news is we aren't going to be tempted with that.”

Friends of Rocky is led by a board of advisors consisting of local donors, alumni, and fans, including general managers John Hoover and Kevin Jansen. Hoover is a former executive at The Andersons. Jansen is Delp’s chief of staff at TDC.

Response to the Collective’s formation has been overwhelming. About 20 people showed up at the first Friends of Rocky meeting. Delp hopes it becomes a gold standard in upholding strict standards for compliance reporting, structure, and organization.

“Our team will work tirelessly to engage with the community so that we may continue to support the fine student-athletes with permissible NIL programs across the region,” he said. “I believe that having these student-athletes out in the community will lift up businesses, brands, and youth future Rockets as they aspire to become DI student-athletes.”

Delp had meetings with Blair and UT’s director of compliance Brian Lutz. Blair wants to avoid rules infractions. But his chief concern is keeping the athletic department’s coffers full and avoiding a decline in donations caused by Collectives gobbling up the money.

“I’ve given our athletic department two guiding principles that we’re going to follow,” Blair said. “One, we have to be 100 percent unflappable in our integrity. That’s Title IX. That’s NCAA. That’s legality of federal and state laws. We cannot violate that. It’s really important to me that we uphold the integrity of this place and the proud brand that it is. And two, we cannot cannibalize our revenue stream. What you’re seeing at a lot of places is people asking, ‘Hey, donate to this Collective or that Collective.’ If you do that at the expense of money that typically supports our budget, we aren't a place that has a ton of excess to free up to give to other things.”

Those situations will be circumvented, according to Delp, because there are different types of fans that choose to spend their money in various ways. Collectives present a new opportunity for someone to support Toledo, perhaps for the first time.

“We’re going to find folks who aren't interested in NIL. It’s not for everybody, let’s face it,” Delp said. “But they would love to connect with the athletic program.”

The Friends of Rocky website — friendsofrocky.com — has multiple options to engage with Toledo athletes, streamlining communications between businesses, brands, and athletes for marketing opportunities, including online influencer campaigns, local appearances, youth sports coaching, and charity event attendance. One option features one-time or recurring crowdfunding and monthly “behind the red rope” memberships for exclusive access to athletes.

TDC Investment Advisory created a program called RightTrak, a self-paced, digital financial education curriculum that’s aim is to educate athletes on the fundamental foundations of managing, protecting, and growing their wealth. Every athlete who is part of Friends of Rocky will be enrolled in the program.

“NIL provides us as student-athletes with the freedom to actively learn how to market our own personal brands,” Toledo football safety Zach Ford said, “in addition to driving the Toledo Rocket brand to new heights, which is beneficial to every party involved.”