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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

College football coaches are begging fans for NIL money. Does it work?

Washington State coach Jake Dickert grabs a high-five from offensive lineman Brock Dieu (65) as he takes the field to face the Washington Huskies last month in Seattle.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jesse Dougherty Washington Post

What do Deion Sanders, Mack Brown, Jim Mora, Mike Elko, Dave Doeren, Jake Dickert, P.J. Fleck, Dave Aranda and Tom Allen have in common? It’s not that they’re all college football head coaches. (That would have been true before Nov. 26, when Indiana fired Allen.) And it’s not that each of them was a candidate to replace Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. (Without a full scan of the deep state college football message boards, only Sanders had to put out a vague statement saying he was staying put before the Aggies hired Elko away from Duke.)

The answer is that, in recent weeks, every one of these coaches has publicly asked fans to donate money to his efforts to retain and recruit players this transfer season, which officially started Monday and will be the talk of college football for the next month. The way to do this, as many of the coaches explained, is to give money to the name, image and likeness (NIL) collective that supports each school’s athletic department.

The schools, under the current rules, can’t pay players directly, shifting the burden of fielding a competitive team to fans and the collectives that target them to fundraise. This could change in the not so distant future, because NCAA President Charlie Baker proposed a new economic model Tuesday that if ratified would eventually permit schools to directly pay athletes through NIL deals and uncapped education-related funds. For now, though, cash goes to the collectives, collectives negotiate with players and their agents, then the players weigh their options in the transfer portal, whether they’ve already chosen to change schools or are deciding whether they will. Then the process repeats.

Welcome to major college sports in 2023, the world of NIL and seven-figure payments to top quarterbacks on the move. But what happens after a coach puts his hand out, pleading for fans to throw money, that is often tax-deductible, in the dark?

In short: It’s worked. It has just totally warped the pace of fundraising in major college sports.

Before retiring, John Malfettone, president of the Bleeding Blue for Good collective supporting University of Connecticut athletics, worked in fundraising for the university. He would court donors over a period of years, not minutes or hours or with a social media clip of a frustrated coach. That’s no longer his game, especially during transfer season.

“I used to take a potential donor to dinner, to a game, sit in great seats and talk about the value of their commitment to U-Conn athletics,” said Malfettone, who saw a spike in donations to Bleeding Blue For Good after Mora went off about a lack of resources late last month. “Now I call, and it’s like: ‘Can I interest you in wire instructions?’ ”

Dickert, Washington State’s head coach, said in early November that the Cougars were “not even competitive in some aspects of NIL” and could thus get crushed by the transfer portal. According to Tim Brandle, treasurer for the Cougar Collective supporting WSU, there was an immediate spike in contributions, leading to $25,000 in one-time donations and much more in recurring money from people who joined the collective’s 1890 Club.

Monthly payments for 1890 Club members range from $18.90 to $5,000. Since Dickert’s news conference, the collective has added more than $100,000 in recurring donations. Brandle had to start a blank spreadsheet to track all of the money. Dickert’s comments were like lighter fluid.

“The growth has been immeasurable,” Brandle said. “OK, the money is measurable. But the overall impact for our collective really isn’t, since this has gotten a lot of people more interested in NIL and even donating specifically for other sports.”

Dickert’s ask came with an odd wrinkle: Because the state of Washington doesn’t have specific NIL laws, he and WSU’s other coaches and officials can’t directly endorse a collective, because schools and collectives are technically separate entities. At North Carolina State, however, Doeren was able to steer fans straight to Savage Wolves and Pack of Wolves, both collectives that support his program.

Tim Livolsi, one of Savage Wolves’ co-founders, noted a “massive, massive uptick in not only donations but inquiries” in late November, after Doeren asked 5,000 fans to donate $1,000 each for the team to “recruit, retain and develop” players. But for however long this model exists, Livolsi will never get fully comfortable with fans footing the bill to keep rosters together or recruit replacements. His peers feel the same.

“Fair or not, NIL and collective money is the most impactful component of college athletics right now,” Livolsi said. “You have the success of these coaches, who get paid astronomical amounts of money, really depending on retaining and recruiting players using donors and the average fan’s money. Think about that. It’s not sustainable.”

“Football coaches are typically the top paid public employees in every state,” Brandle said. “So it’s hard to describe that to an accountant in Spokane, like: ‘Jake Dickert needs your money for players.’ Why? Well, the schools can’t do anything at this point from an NIL standpoint.”

“You explain it to them, and in the end, your final remarks are that there is no other avenue, there’s no other choice in the current environment,” Malfettone said. “No one likes that. You have to bite your lip and just do it. Otherwise, you don’t have a competitive program.”

Months before the portal opened, Malfettone told Mora the collective would raise $500,000 for him and the staff to retain players and recruit new ones. By the middle of last week, after Mora’s pointed comments, Bleeding Blue for Good was almost 80% of the way to that goal.

Maybe more than any other coach, Mora laced his NIL comments with frustration, telling fans in colorful terms that they can’t complain about losing to rivals “if you’re not going to help us get the players to beat them …” (Or more simply: Put your money where your mouth is or close it.)

Mora urged fans to give to the mission of beating Duke, Syracuse, Maryland and Wake Forest next year. The Huskies had just finished 3-9.

With the portal swirling, with big name quarterbacks on the move – with all the players who have transferred or will decide to soon – collective money will keep separating teams heading into next season. Eventually, if Baker’s proposal moves NIL efforts in-house, raising that money would no longer fall squarely on donating fans. But that wouldn’t be the case for a while yet.