'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.”

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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