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The next evolution of NIL collectives and the battles that await: ‘This is a big inflection point’

The next evolution of NIL collectives and the battles that await: 'This is a big inflection point'

ATHENS, Ga. — Belly up at the bar of this college town watering hole, Matt Hibbs sips on a brownish cocktail before explaining what sits before him. There, resting on the mahogany bar, is the bible of Georgia football.

Hibbs taps on the four-inch thick binder, “Oh,” he says, “this?”

The manila folder, stuffed with wads of hand-scribbled notes, stacks of printed excel sheets and reams of loose paper, holds the information that keeps the Bulldogs football program humming: a document of the team’s roster and statistics for each player — as in, salaries. The roster is color coded, grouped by position and marked with notes: who’s expected to transfer, who’s not; who’s worth a raise, who’s not.

He flips through the pages without revealing many specifics of the sensitive information inside.

“It could all be done on a laptop or iPad,” he says. “I use this binder. What if I have an agent or coach call me? I need to write notes quickly.”

Hibbs is a dapper 39-year-old, charming with a warm smile — a pleasant enough fellow whose personality fits perfectly for his position: the chief operating officer of the Classic City Collective, the entity that funds one of the country’s most talented college football rosters. The collective, believed to be one of the more well-paying, distributes to Georgia athletes — mostly football players — more than $1 million. Per month.

Though he has two full-time coworkers and an assortment of student interns, Hibbs is a jack-of-all-trades. In one sense, he is a fundraiser — organizing donor events and patronizing wealthy boosters. In another, he is a general manager of a team of unrestricted free agents — strategizing with coach Kirby Smart on salary structure, negotiating with agents on new deals and fielding midnight calls from players themselves.

He’s also a husband, father of two and, perhaps, in this football-hungry region, one of the most important people in the entire state.

“It’s the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend,” he says, “and I’ve communicated today with four players, two coaches and an agent.”

In the next 14 months, college sports lurches, begrudgingly, into a revenue-sharing model that intends to eliminate collectives. As soon as fall 2025, schools themselves are permitted to fund their own rosters. They will manage their own salary structures, fundraise for their own salary pools, negotiate with agents and field those midnight calls from their own athletes.

Well. Maybe.

“Our collective,” an SEC athletic director told a group of school donors this spring, “isn’t going anywhere.”

The NCAA and its power conferences all voted to approve a settlement last week. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The NCAA and power conferences are in the midst of finalizing a historic settlement of three antitrust cases. While featuring nearly $2.8 billion in back damages and overhauling the NCAA’s scholarship structure, the settlement creates a future model in which schools can disburse millions of dollars annually to athletes.

The new model features a maximum salary cap (as high as $22 million annually), a to-be-developed enforcement arm and, most importantly, authorization of rules that prohibit athletes from striking compensation deals with boosters.

Plenty of questions remain unanswered. But one of them stands apart from the rest: Will schools continue to use third-party entities, such as collectives, to distribute cash to athletes?

“I don’t see collectives going away immediately,” says Casey Schwab, a former NFL Players Association executive who is CEO of Altius Sports Partners, a firm consulting with dozens of athletic departments. “There is going to be potential for collective leadership to challenge the new rules.”

At the top of college sports, the collective space is a multi-million dollar, hotly competitive industry. School-affiliated collectives, pitted against one another in what often evolves into a bidding war, use booster funds to promise and pay prospects salaries disguised as agreements to use their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Starting as disorganized mom-and-pop shops, collectives have professionalized. They’ve hired staff, opened offices and have grown close with their school administration. Most recently, they have very publicly recruited and negotiated with athletes over deals before their enrollment — permitted to do so through a court injunction related to a lawsuit filed from attorneys general in Tennessee and Virginia.

This is big business. The Collective Association, a trade group incorporating 35 power conference collectives, has a combined annual payroll of more than $200 million.

Some of the most lucrative collectives in the country, many of them within the Southeastern Conference, are gearing up for their next evolution.

Often with their schools’ support, the collectives are planning to, or have already, transitioned into marketing agencies, funded not solely by booster dollars but by the athletic department itself or the university’s fundraising foundation. For some, the wheels of such an evolution aren’t just now cranking to life. They’ve been rolling for a while.

In Mississippi, for instance, university and collective leaders led a campaign this spring to change their state statute to permit such a move. In Missouri, a state law has existed for more than a year permitting the school’s collective to receive institution funds for distribution to athletes. Other states, as well as the collectives within those states, are marching toward a similar goal, said Walker Jones, a former agent and apparel executive who leads the Ole Miss collective, The Grove.

On July 1, The Grove will transition from a booster-funded collective to a school-financed third-party agency.

“Our major gift donors will be thrilled to death with it,” Jones said. “Now, the money, instead of only coming from John Doe’s pocket, also comes from the university. We then go hunt out deals for the athletes and get them active in the community to satisfy [NIL agreements].”

According to the settlement terms, third-party NIL compensation to athletes outside of the revenue-sharing structure does not count toward the annual cap. The method, using an outside party to facilitate athlete pay, affords schools the ability to exceed the cap, distance themselves from legal issues around Title IX and continue operating as many of them do now — with the school’s influence but outside of its umbrella.

Hibbs says this method is “the best of both worlds.” In this new model, funding for a roster would mostly move within the university, where donors receive tax deductions and priority points for required donations as part of their football season ticket packages — not the case with collectives.

Even before the finalization of the settlement, schools — always searching for a competitive advantage — are devising ways to bend the rules. It is a tale in college sports that is as old as tackling.

Historically, it transpires the most in the SEC footprint, where conference leaders gather this week for their annual meetings on the Florida panhandle.

This debate is expected to be a central theme.

“How do we disburse payments?” asks an SEC university leader. “Who is going to oversee it and make sure we are complying by the rules?”

College leaders contend that the settlement-related injunctive relief grants the NCAA the ability to continue their near century-old fight to prevent performance-based pay for athletes through boosters.

Schwab has reviewed certain portions of the settlement agreement, including those related to booster involvement in NIL payments.

The settlement terms prohibit recruits or current athletes from entering into any arrangement with a booster unless the deal can be expressly proven as a genuine agreement for use of the player’s likeness, Schwab said. If a booster owns a business, that booster and athletes must show that a deal is related to a “valid business purpose” with compensation that is similar to agreements with other individuals, documents say.

Deals must be “true NIL” and pay what is described as “fair market value,” something officials hope to determine based on disclosure data and other means.

The NCAA, Hibbs said, is fighting a losing battle — for the umpteenth time.

“Booster payments… you can never completely legislate that away,” Hibbs said. “If a booster owns a business, who's to say he doesn’t see value in this?”

Mit Winter, a sports attorney based in Kansas City who assists both collectives and schools, believes the NCAA will have “legal issues” in enforcing rules about booster pay. Others agree.

“It’s not clear how a court can reaffirm legality of any rules in a settlement,” adds Gabe Feldman, a sports law attorney at Tulane and an expert on NCAA litigation matters.

All of this further complicates duties and decisions from athletic administrators, some of whom support the continued existence of collectives.

“You’ve got this battleground with multiple factions and you’ve got these athletic directors right in the middle of it who have to navigate this battlefield,” Schwab said. “How do they balance all of this? Your collective has been supporting your program for the last three years and helping it succeed. What do you do? This is a big inflection point.”

The NCAA’s settlement decision last week will alleviate some problems while opening the door for other complications. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Administrators are caught in a burgeoning battleground of advocacy groups fighting against the new settlement terms, not just collective leaders but player association and labor executives who are gearing up for legal challenges and unionization efforts.

Brian Davis is the CEO of Forward Counsel, a California-based law firm that operates an agency, Power Up Sports, representing high school and college athletes in the NIL space. With the settlement emerging, he’s now speaking out against the NCAA’s attempt, he believes, to regain control of athletes.

“Any effort to try to eliminate what’s been created by collectives has a significant risk of violating antitrust laws and the protections of the Sherman Act,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “You can be certain that we are following things closely and have a team ready to enforce the rights in court if necessary.”

Davis’ agency represents more than 100 players, many of them highly rated high school athletes, such as five-star safety DJ Pickett out of Tampa, Florida, and four-star linebacker Noah Mikhail of California. Much of his firm’s work involves negotiating with collectives.

The potential elimination of collectives would obviously impact his business, but it also disadvantages athletes who are reaping the benefits of donor-led recruiting battles.

The market value of the top athletes is not truly “realized” through this NCAA-manufactured system, said Brandon Spurlock, the vice president of fundraising for Spyre Sports, an agency that operates Tennessee’s collective.

“There needs to be a differentiator,” he said. “Collectives should and can exist to be the differentiator.”

Nick Garner, a former longtime executive for the multi-media rights company Learfield, now oversees the Every True Tiger Foundation, Missouri’s unique and successful NIL collective.

The “Mizzou Model,” said Garner, is gaining enough attention from others that he expects several schools to organize in a similar fashion soon — as a marketing agency that finds organic NIL for athletes.

But what really separates Every True Tiger is the financials. The agency is not only booster-driven but is instead at least partially funded from direct university support — a possibility because of the state’s NIL law, one of the most advantageous in the country. Garner declined to get specific on the finances, but said he and his team transitioned to this new model months ago in anticipation for the arrival of a revenue-sharing model that attempts to eliminate collectives.

“We are a year ahead of others,” he said.

More than a year ago, Texas A&M attempted something similar. The Aggies announced the opening of a new NIL entity, the 12th Man+ Fund, under their existing non-profit fundraising arm — the 12th Man Foundation booster club — where donors’ contributions were expected to fund payments to players. Those donors would also receive tax deductions and priority seating points.

The relationship between the two entities — the 12th Man+ Fund and the foundation — drew the interest of the Internal Revenue Service and, ultimately, shuttered the idea.

Missouri took a more savvy and quiet approach. Many around the country — and the SEC — have noticed.

“You have places like the Missouris,” said Auburn coach Hugh Freeze. “That’s very advantageous. We’re all not on a level playing field.”

Winter, the attorney who consults with schools and collectives, estimates that at least half of the collectives in the country will remain in operation in some form, perhaps as marketing agencies. In theory, the other half would be shuttered, some of their staff possibly added to a new wing of their affiliated athletic department that manages athlete salaries.

Many collectives, struggling to sustain the fundraising necessary to continue competing, support this measure.

Others do not.

“The idea that a school can do everything internally that we do is insanity,” Garner said.

Said Jones, of the Ole Miss collective: “Look at Fortune 500 companies and see how many of those guys use marketing and ad agencies. They all use them. Why do you have to bring it in-house? You’re going to put such strain and stress on an athletic department and put it in a situation to do something it is not equipped to do.”

Beyond avoiding the expense and time of managing a roster salary structure and exceeding the cap limit, schools may use a third-party agency to distance themselves from, perhaps, the most significant issue in all of this: Title IX.

School administrators are hesitant to split millions of dollars, most of them generated by two sports (football and men’s basketball), with Olympic and women’s sports that lose as much as $40 million at a given school. Equally dividing the revenues could, in fact, trigger another legal challenge — claims from football players that they are not receiving enough of the revenue that they generate, said Davis, the attorney in California.

How Title IX operates in a revenue-sharing model is, for some, an unanswered question. It’s the “big unknown,” says one college president. “It’s the trump card,” says a power conference athletic director.

It’s not a mystery to Arthur Bryant, one of the leading Title IX attorneys in the country. He believes schools must follow requirements around Title IX even if payments are classified as market-based NIL deals.

“Title IX is not based on the market. If the market discriminates, the schools cannot,” Bryant said.

That goes, too, for third parties in close alignment with schools. “The school can’t use a marketing agency to avoid Title IX,” Bryant said flatly.

But why can a school pay a men’s basketball coach more than a women’s basketball coach? Because they are employees. That’s the critical difference between the two, Bryant said. While there is a federal law, Title VII, outlawing sex discrimination in employment, schools often justify compensation based on the distinct roles of the two sets of coaches and the varying degrees in which their sport generates revenue.

Jeffrey Kessler, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the NCAA settlement case, believes the Title IX issue will need to be resolved in the courtroom. In fact, Bryant is already leading a lawsuit against Oregon and its collective for violating the federal law.

Eighty-percent of Bryant’s past Title IX cases have settled.

“I always try to settle before trial,” he said, “but Oregon has not been interested in that.”

NCAA president Charlie Baker (left) and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti appear before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Name, Image, and Likeness, and the Future of College Sports,” on Oct. 17, 2023. (Tom Williams/Getty Images)

At Georgia, Hibbs is like many collective leaders: He is raising money any which way he can.

This spring, the collective held an event with a silent auction. It generated $1.6 million — or about enough to fund the roster for six weeks.

The auction featured high-priced dinners with Smart and athletic director Josh Brooks, a film breakdown session with a UGA assistant coach and a golf outing with a portion of the football staff.

“If you’re a top-15 program, where would you be if you didn’t have a collective?” Hibbs asked. “I work seven days a week, phone never stops and I have to read this stuff from the NCAA: ‘We have to kill collectives!’ That’s annoying. We’re not the ones who opened up the box, but we have to manage it.”

Many of the boosters donating to the collective are doubly donating to the school to maintain their priority-point system. However collectives transition must feature the ability to contract directly with schools in a way that permits donors to earn points and tax deductions, Hibbs said.

There is, however, a built-in incentive for schools to manage and operate their athlete compensation system in-house. Schools that purchase their athletes’ NIL rights can sublicense those rights to a third party — sponsors or businesses — to generate more revenue for that particular athlete.

Those deals, like all other third-party NIL deals, are not expected to count toward the revenue-sharing cap. This means that schools can increase their cap space by finding organic NIL deals for their athletes outside of the revenue-sharing framework.

One administrator described it like this: A school plans to spend $100,000 to purchase a specific athlete’s NIL rights; that school strikes a $50,000 deal with a third party to sublicense those rights for their use; that $50,000, presumably to be paid to the athlete through the school, will not count against the cap.

It’s an interesting wrinkle and further incentivizes a school’s involvement in the process, but it doesn’t discount the benefits of an outside entity, said Blake Lawrence, the CEO and founder of the NIL marketplace Opendorse.

He believes that the new revenue-sharing framework will only serve as a “base” compensation for athletes while a collective, or another third-party agency, provides “bonus” compensation. There does exist “true NIL” for third-party entities to capture for athletes, he said.

But how much?

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” said Spurlock. “At most places, there is not $20 million of true NIL deals for athletes. I’ve heard terms like ‘false economy’ and ‘pay for play’ and ‘true NIL.’ How much longer are we going to do this? The players should be compensated for what they do on the field and court.”

That may emerge in player contracts, through the school or another entity.

Conversations with coaches paint a picture of how future deals might be structured. In the current environment, new players to a team — a high school prospect or transfer — are often the beneficiaries of the recruiting process: They are paid more than those who have been on the roster for years.

Perhaps that ends, says Smart, the UGA coach.

“We should reward positive performance and people that are doing it right, getting education and not the… I don’t like the solicitation,” he told Yahoo Sports. “‘If you come here, you get this!’ As opposed to you’ve been here and done really well. Your true NIL, your ability to generate money occurs when you start performing.”

The most valuable organic NIL deals feature an athlete donning his or her school logo and colors, said Learfield CEO Cole Gahagan, whose company owns and manages the multi-media rights — intellectual property (IP) — of more than 160 school properties. If an agency outside of the school were to use that property, they’d need to sublicense it from Learfield.

Learfield itself is poised to potentially play a significant role in the revenue-sharing structure. For years now, multimedia rights companies have generated millions in new sponsorship revenue that they split with schools. Why couldn’t they begin doing it for individual athletes?

Learfield is already dabbling in the NIL space. Over the past year, more than 2,000 college athletes have earned $13.6 million in cash and trade value, the company said.

“The reality is, if this is what’s going to play out, if in fact there are going to be required services for NIL monetization of student-athletes, there is no organization better equipped than the multi-media rights company that’s on the ground,” Gahagan said. “We have the existing relationships with local, regional and national brands, and we have staff already in these college towns monetizing intellectual property on behalf of the schools.”

The NCAA’s landmark settlement has been billed by some as a move to bring stability to an unruly recruiting landscape. While offering solutions for some problems, the new model creates others.

Now, even more than before, a host of factions jockey to position themselves in the next evolution.

The battles lay bare. Collectives vs. multi-media rights companies. Labor unions vs. universities. And, most notably, the NCAA and conference leaders vs. boosters and collections of them — a decades-long fight that, it appears, will slog onward.

“I wish the NCAA would get off this ridiculous and outdated notation and drive to kill collectives that are actively working to achieve what they want and what schools want,” Jones said. “They’ve got to put this vendetta down. We’re trying to do the very thing they want — provide a system and process using our expertise and relationships to truly recognize our athletes' market value.”

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