Tucson business leaders launch NIL collective to connect Wildcats athletes with endorsement money

Tucson business leaders announced Thursday the creation of a collective that will connect student-athletes at the University of Arizona with business opportunities under the NCAA's new Name, Image and Likeness rules. The aptly named Friends of Wilbur and Wilma is backed by several longtime UA boosters, including Cole Davis and Humberto Lopez. The collective will be backed by UA alumnus-led Blueprint Sports, a marketing and management agency. Blueprint was started by Francisco Aguilar, who was born and raised in Tucson. "My favorite memories as a child are of Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr," Aguilar said Thursday.

Aguilar's family couldn't afford season tickets to attend Wildcats' football or basketball games. When he started attending the UA, those doors were wide open. "I started being able to attend the events and I fell in love," Aguilar said. After graduation, Aguilar moved to Las Vegas and eventually got a job working with tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. He's been involved with the celebrity couple for 14 years. The Andre Agassi Foundation for Education is Blueprint Sports' key investor. "I'm a big believer in empowering our next wave of athletes. I see the incredible potential in what Blueprint Sports delivers here," Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, said in a news release. "It's incredible to see and support this technology. And I know that University of Arizona student-athletes will benefit greatly from this newly organized support."

Aguilar said he began to understand how much — or how little — athletes make a few years ago. It started with minor-league baseball, which is popular in Las Vegas. "I thought if there was a way to give them opportunities to engage in the community or with charities they love and generate some additional revenue, that would be wonderful," Aguilar said. That's the idea behind Friends of Wilbur and Wilma: to provide interested community members with more information about student-athletes and explore the best ways for the parties to work together. The collective will focus first on football before moving on to women's basketball, softball, baseball and other sports. Aguilar says Arizona Assist, an LLC formed earlier this month by Michael Saffer, Thomas Conran and Adam Lazarus, will focus on men’s basketball.

Arizona Assist Club's services include a member-driven website where fans can purchase merchandise, memorabilia and opportunities to engage with players at VIP events and experiences. Arizona Assist and Friends of Wilbur and Wilma join the athletic department's Arizona EDGE program, which was created in conjunction with the UA, the Rogers College of Law, Eller College of Management and INFLCR, among others. Blueprint Sports' platform, meanwhile, will organize "community engagement opportunities" for UA football players while community members "(rally) behind a myriad of ideas which (we) can implement under the new NIL rules," Aguilar said. The collective is designed to be a hub for alumni, fans and businesses who want to do business with UA student-athletes, who can now be paid in exchange for endorsing products. Organizers say it can galvanize the UA's nationwide fanbase to support the student-athletes financially.

Blueprint Sports developed an automated process to connect pro athletes with businesses right before NIL was announced. Aguilar quickly realized that same process could be applied to the college market, but in a smarter way. "We can build a program here that supports athletes in a way that gives them the opportunity to be the best they can be," Aguilar said. "Even a small amount of revenue to improve training, their quality of food or their overall living situation is incredible." Aguilar said that with only the top 10% of athletes being able to afford professional agents and marketing teams, the idea behind automating the process is to improve the lives of that bottom 90% of athletes. "There's been significant interest over the last two weeks in the Tucson community about this project," Aguilar said. "It's impressive how fast the interest spread."

That's thanks to the on-the-ground efforts of Davis and Lopez, who quickly signed onto leadership roles within the collective, Aguilar said. Lopez said in the news release that the collective provides a real opportunity to make a difference. "We recognize these student-athletes have numerous commitments and many pressures, and our goal is to support them as they overcome challenges and empower them to accomplish their goals on and off the playing field," Lopez said in a news release. Aguilar said he hopes the collective helps open the door for new recruits by demonstrating Tucson's commitment to help them thrive. "Student-athletes are going to realize Tucson is serious about sports, it's serious about athletes and they're going to say, 'I want to go here,'" Aguilar said. "Having the opportunity to engage in the community is going to build a stronger university and make the student-athlete a better person for the rest of their life."

"If the community can continue to follow the lead of Cole and Humberto, the possibilities for these athletes are endless. The UA gave me everything I have, so to have the opportunity to return the favor and be part of the process to support these athletes is critical."