Nearly 21 months into the NIL era, collectives have come to define the space. There’s just one problem: Nobody appears to have a clear-cut definition of what they are.
Most are booster-led, but each group’s daily activities look widely different. Some facilitate brand deals; others cut checks in return for a social media post. Another crop has registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization, accepting tax-deductible donations while creating partnerships with charities. And some seemingly are focused on helping recruiting efforts and roster retention.
To help us get a better understanding, On3 is turning to collective leaders across the country to have them explain – in their own words – how they view NIL, what accomplishments they’re most proud of, whether they have a good handle on the market rate for student-athletes, how they’re supporting women’s sports and the potential pitfalls for collectives on the horizon.
On3 continues the series with Joey Medina, the general manager of Friends of Wilbur & Wilma, an Arizona-focused collective that was launched in February 2022. As a former football manager and letter-winner at Arizona, Medina has close ties with the Wildcat athletic department. He’s also a successful business leader in the community, which has helped Friends of Wilbur & Wilma establish itself as one of the most active collectives in the nation. With the support of the Blueprint Sports operating group, Friends of Wilbur & Wilma has signed the entire football roster – walk-ons included – to NIL partnerships and has an aggressive blueprint for the future.
Q: What does NIL look like during the 2023-24 school year for Friends of Wilbur & Wilma?
Medina: The biggest challenge that keeps me up at night – and Ray Wells, my executive director will attest to this – is making sure that we continue to fundraise properly so we can put money in the bank and continue to create the opportunities that we create for these kids. Our biggest success has been that the community has kind of jumped behind us and said, ‘Absolutely, how can we be involved?’ Whether it’s through corporate sponsors, whether it’s through individual memberships, whether it’s through multiyear capital type of campaigns, they’ve been really great. The founders have been great with continuing to make sure that we have that initial seed money or that big pot to start off the year right. It’s why we’ve been able to do the engagements that we’ve been able to do here in the spring.
What we’ve actually done as a company is that we’ve split up the school year into three different segments because we have to treat each part of the segments differently based on what time of the year it is and what the kids are doing.
So, our spring program was a four-month program – January through April. We have that set in stone. We know what that looks like. We know what we’re going to do with that. That’s going to encompass the spring game coming up. We have some great things planned. That’ll lead into our summer program, which leads into May, June and July. We have our engagements and our budget for that. We kind of back into that based on knowing what we need to accomplish. Then what will happen when we come back into the school year in August, or that pre-session of football right before the season starts – that’ll be a five-month program.
Our year is split up into four, three and five. And that allows us to build out the right type of engagements, fundraise properly and kind of stack our donors in particular places throughout the year to help fund our program and make sure we’re pulling off the most significant engagements for the community.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges with collectives across the country over the next year?
Medina: I think for any collective, the challenge is always going to be the level playing ground. You’re going to have universities that have larger donors. You’re going to have universities that have smaller donors and smaller donor bases. I think for any collective it is how do you compete with universities and collectives that have deeper pockets. In terms of support and engagement, the playing ground is level. But let’s just be realistic. Obviously, it comes down to dollars and cents.
Q: Do you agree with NCAA president Charlie Baker’s stance that “consumer protections” are needed around NIL? Do we need uniform or standard contracts, as he suggests?
Medina: That is hard to answer. I can tell you this. I personally would like to see a salary cap just like in baseball and football, to be honest with you. But I just don’t know what that is.
It’s hard. These student-athletes work really hard and tirelessly to create their image and obviously to put a great product out there. It’s no different than a teenage kid doing a commercial and getting paid their worth. So, it is hard. How do you take a kid who has done everything right and say, ‘Oh, you can only make $100,000 for the year.’ But then again, how do we go tell professional football teams that they can only spend ‘X’ amount of dollars here?
It is tough. I tell you what, the person that solves this problem is probably a lot smarter than I am.
Q. What’s been the most rewarding part of working with Friends of Wilbur & Wilma?
Medina: Supporting student-athletes is always going to be the top thing. Whenever we can provide for these kids and give them opportunities and put them to work in the community, that’s always rewarding. But I think lately what I have started to notice in our community – the nonprofits that we’ve served and segments of the community that we have served have really benefited from our support. I would have to say right now where we sit, the ability to give back to the community and take something that could be perceived as negative – some say, ‘NIL, why does that kid get a million?’ – and turn it into a positive. To be able to take something that could be perceived as negative and turn it into a very positive thing for the community where they understand the overall goal and mission of the collective is a good thing.
We’re proud of what we stand for. We’re proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve done it. When we put our efforts toward doing anything for these student-athletes at this university, it’s always done with compliance first. I know a lot of other collectives are probably saying the same thing, but they probably don’t err on the side of compliance. But for us, the biggest thing is that we want to do it right. We want to be self-sustainable. We want to be long-lasting.
And if legislation changes the way that collectives run themselves, it’s going to benefit us knowing that we’ve done it the right way. That is the thing that makes me the proudest of how we run our collective.
Q: How have local businesses and donors in your community supported NIL?
Medina: At the onset, it’s all education because they want to know who, what, why, how and when. They want to know where the money’s going. They want to know who is going to facilitate things. How’s it going to work for the kids? There are a lot of questions.
What we’ve been able to do is what I call ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ We’ve put out great stories, articles, video pieces and social media that have kind of built the story and kind of show what we have done through that proof. Here’s what we’re doing in the community. Here’s how we’re servicing the community. Here’s how it’s impacting the lives of our student-athletes.
I think from the onset of having to do more education, now it’s more how do we get more people involved. We started with a collective where we had donors that have given us money to help create these types of opportunities. Now, what we’re starting to see is more businesses are starting to reach out and say, ‘How can we get more involved with the student-athletes on a one-on-one basis?’
A good example of that is Arizona Primary Eye Care. It’s a very well-known optometry company here in town. They did their first corporate sponsorship with women’s basketball. We had two women’s basketball players (do) a corporate sponsorship, which then led into a Bose corporate sponsorship with the football team. That has led into a few other corporate sponsorships that we will be eventually rolling out here in the very near future.
What that’s going to do in the business community in town, the business owners are going to see, ‘Wow, it’s being done. It’s being done well. It’s being done right.’ I think that’s just going to help us build the corporate side of what we’re trying to do with the community.
Q: Why did Friends of Wilbur & Wilma focus on football early on? What is the plan for supporting other sports?
Medina: I think when you look at the landscape of college athletics, you think a little bit about the business. You look at how football supports 90% of the rest of the sports when it comes down to income generated and revenue generated. I think naturally our vision was, ‘Can we get football in the right direction?’ Then what can we do as a collective – will it have an adverse effect on fans and ticket sales support? At which point that money kind of trickles down to the rest of the sports. Once we get football settled, can we slowly start to roll out the rest of the sports?
You’ve seen a lot of what we’ve done with football. It’s been very successful. Now that we have football to where we feel like it’s kind of on autopilot – obviously there’s still work to be done and there always will be – but I think it’s going to allow us to pivot and say, ‘Hey, let’s help out the other sports. They’re just as important as football. There are other student-athletes that need the support.’
I have a big heart for women’s sports as well. That’s why we’ve done the engagements that we have with women’s basketball. We’re looking to get more involved with women’s basketball, baseball and softball. We’ve even talked with women’s soccer. So, there’s going to be a more natural progression toward helping those sports in the future.
Q: What has been the appetite for supporting female student-athletes from donors and businesses?
Medina: Absolutely there has been. Arizona Primary Eye Care was that first example of a company stepping up and saying, ‘Let me be the stepping stone toward that progression with women’s basketball.’ We’ve had conversations with donors already, who have approached us and said, ‘Hey, how can we help women’s sports?’ So, yes, absolutely 100% women’s sports is an absolute priority for us. We’re pushing really hard to figure out that balance on how we can serve the masses. You look at our collective name: It’s Friends of Wilbur & Wilma for a reason. Wilma is there. That’s a huge part of our goal – to make sure that women’s sports are as equally as supported as our men’s sports at the University of Arizona.
Has the school supported your efforts to raise money from donors?
Medina: I think the biggest thing for any collective is that they look for support in an endorsement. What we’ve seen from the University of Arizona is that support and that endorsement. They have publicly come out and said they are in support of Friends of Wilbur and Wilma. They are not afraid. They do not fear any, seemingly, competition from a fundraising perspective.
Because of that public support, it’s made it really a little bit easier for us to approach business owners who would typically give 100% of their contributions to athletics or to the Wildcat Club (booster group). It’s made the conversation a little bit easier. It’s also made the conversation easier when we find contributors that say, ‘We still give 90% of what we do for athletics, but we’ve been able to find a little extra for you guys to help support what you’re currently doing.’ I think they realize that the effect that we have on athletics in a third-party capacity, is extremely beneficial and also very important.
Q: Do you feel like you have a good handle on the market rate for football players?
Medina: We look at what On3 puts out as far as valuation and we take that into consideration. The hard part about putting a value to a student-athlete is that it’s so subjective. That’s especially true when you have an incoming student-athlete.
Obviously, there should be zero pay-for-play. But I think what makes a great student-athlete and increases the valuation in our eyes is their engagement and their willingness to go out into the community and make themselves a part of the community when we put these engagements together.
We’ve noticed that our student-athletes, whether they are a starter or not, they all have the same opportunity. They might not be the starter on the field, but in life, they’re still a starter. When we have a walk-on that’s willing to put in the same amount of energy into an engagement, do the social media posts, help promote our nonprofits and help be engaging in the community, their opportunities are just as large. We’re working on a corporate sponsorship for a walk-on, and it’s a significant one. If that comes to fruition, it’s going to be ‘proof in the pudding.’ It’s going to be proof that if you do what’s right, you have just as much opportunity as anybody else.
That’s why you look at the way we’ve structured ourselves – friends of the program – we really, truly, sincerely want to be all-inclusive and make sure that these kids understand that we’re here to take care of all of you. We’re here to help build as many opportunities for all of you. Go out there and give that extra 10%, and it will eventually pay its dividends from direct requests, corporate sponsors and those that have seen what you have done for us. Obviously, because you’re a starter and get notoriety you’re going to see a few more phone calls than the average Joe. But we want everyone to have that ability to insert themselves into the best opportunities that we can provide.
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 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!