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 a visit with Chris Vurnakes, general manager of Pack of Wolves, an NC State-focused collective. Vurnakes also is an employee of Blueprint Sports, one of the top collective operators in the country.
Q. What’s been the most rewarding part of working with Pack of Wolves?
Vurnakes: As a graduate of NC State, the most rewarding part of our work at Pack of Wolves is the connection we make with our student-athletes and our community. Our student-athletes commit to engagements with local non-profit organizations, like the Boys and Girls Club, Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and others as part of their NIL activities for Pack of Wolves.
What does NIL look like during the 2023-24 school year for Pack of Wolves?
Vurnakes: As we continue to grow as a collective, we would like to continue to add more NC State student-athletes from across campus to our collective. To sustain that growth, we need to identify more sustainable and recurring revenue opportunities and willing partners.
What do you see as the biggest challenges with collectives across the country over the next six months?
Vurnakes: The biggest challenges for collectives will be overcoming the cynical perceptions of potential supporters due to the traction of negative headlines on NIL. Questionable activities by some NIL representatives across the country, unfortunately, have overwhelmed the conversation. An overwhelming majority of those involved – like Pack of Wolves – are simply working hard to provide legal and compliant NIL opportunities to student-athletes to help make ends meet.
What is your relationship like with NC State? Has the school supported your efforts to raise money from donors?
Vurnakes: I’m proud to say our athletic department has actively supported Pack of Wolves, within the framework of the rules and guidance of the NCAA. We meet regularly with athletics, compliance, student-athlete leadership and engagement and other departments on campus. Coach (Dave) Doeren and Coach (Kevin) Keatts have both completed endorsement videos on our behalf. And athletic director Boo Corrigan is an advocate of our work as well.
Which sport at NC State have you had the most success in facilitating deals with and why?
Vurnakes: Currently, we have had the most success facilitating NIL opportunities for our men’s basketball and football programs. These programs are full of personable student-athletes with growing personal brands. They have all quickly become fan favorites among Wolfpack Nation.
How have local businesses in your community supported NIL?
Vurnakes: From the start of Pack of Wolves, we’ve had local businesses with NC State connections immediately become involved to offer NIL opportunities to partner with our student-athletes. As the NIL landscape has continued to change, we have adapted to continue to offer meaningful and relevant opportunities to our student-athletes through sponsorships and endorsement opportunities with local organizations.
What has Pack of Wolves done to support female student-athletes?
Vurnakes: We currently have agreements with members of the women’s basketball team and women’s soccer team. We recognize the need for more comprehensive and inclusive opportunities in the NIL space, and this will be a goal for us as we continue to grow as a collective.
What has been your experience dealing with athletes’ agents: good, bad or a mix of both?
Vurnakes: My limited experience with agents has been mostly positive, with some mixed success. Most important to me is that our student-athletes have good mentors, providing proper guidance and direction in their NIL agreements.
Do you feel like you have a good handle on the market rate for football and basketball players?
Vurnakes: I’m fortunate to work for a company (Blueprint Sports) that manages collectives all over the country. This scale helps us create appropriate ranges for fair market value for various student-athletes based on the comparable NIL deals at similar schools.
What is your approach with players who have signed letters of intent with your school but haven’t arrived on campus yet?
Vurnakes: In accordance with my interpretation of the NCAA guidelines, and at the request of NC State athletics, we do not communicate with student-athletes until they are officially enrolled at NC State University.
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!