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COLLEGE SPORTS INSIDER

NIL collectives can put college fans and their checkbooks at a crossroads

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Mizzou presents Reed-Francois as 21st athletic director

Desiree Reed-Francois gives a high five to Truman on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, as she is introduced as the University of Missouri's 21st Athletic Director at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo. Reed-Francois is the first woman to hold the position. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. — As long as American universities have been playing sports, they’ve been begging fans for money. It’s a tradition as old as leather football helmets and peach baskets.

On the heels of its first season of organized football, the University of Missouri formed its first athletic association in 1891 and charged 62 students $1 each to join.

The fundraising was just getting started.

For generations, college programs have asked their alums and supporters to fund their endeavors, namely the athletes’ scholarships, the coaches’ salaries and all those palatial stadiums, arenas and weight rooms.

The tap never seems to go dry — that global pandemic was just a flesh wound — but now there’s a new demand for your cash.

Last summer, when the NCAA dropped its archaic rules prohibiting athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness, the most ambitious fan bases pounced on the opportunity to launch the newest trend in college sports: the NIL collective.

These newly formed corporations differ from town to town, but their essential purpose is universal: College alums and boosters pool their money into mega accounts that the company then distributes to athletes under NIL deals as a third-party agency. Donors can earmark their contributions for specific athletes in specific sports. Technically, the collectives are unaffiliated with the universities they support, but the money they raise is exclusively designated for athletes at that specific school. The most successful collectives have raised millions and millions of dollars in the last nine months.

Last July 1, the day NIL deals became legal, a small group of Mizzou supporters filed for an LLC under the title Advancing Missouri Athletes. In March, the collective hired former Tigers basketball player Laurence Bowers as executive director to recruit donors and promote the fund. While other collectives around the Southeastern Conference and the rest of the country have aggressively pushed forward with their programs — the Gator Collective at Florida is the industry’s gold standard — the Mizzou group is still growing its base and getting organized under Bowers’ leadership.

Despite the little authority the NCAA has left in the NIL age, endorsement deals can’t be contingent on a recruit signing with a specific school, which means pay-for-play deals remain illegal as always. (Wink wink, flutters every coach’s eye from coast to coast.) But it’s uncertain how much oversight and enforcement the NCAA can manage under the new world order.

All of which puts college sports fans at a crossroads: Where should they give their money, to the schools or the collectives? Should they shovel money toward the scholarships, the coaches and the facilities or stuff cash directly into the athletes’ pockets through NIL deals?

The way Missouri athletics director Desireé Reed-Francois sees it, it’s not a zero-sum game.

As she canvassed the state this week as part of Mizzou’s meet-and-greet “Come Home Tour,” Reed-Francois said supporters don’t have to choose one over the other.

“Philanthropic support is critically important,” she said Tuesday night in Maryland Heights in between handshakes and photos with some of the 500 fans at St. Louis Music Park, where she joined coaches Eli Drinkwitz, Robin Pingeton and newly hired Dennis Gates. “We still have a scholarship bill to pay. We have a responsibility to provide all the resources for our student-athletes. And while NIL is a continuing evolution and something that we want to be continuing to grow and support, it’s a …”

Challenge? No, not in her eyes.

“An opportunity,” she said.

“If someone is going to support Mizzou athletics it’s our job is to align their passion, wherever that may be,” she continued. “We don’t control the collective. We can’t by law. We can’t directly or indirectly control that. So what we do is we go and we build relationships. We go and connect to people in the community. That’s why we’re doing 25 events over the next two and a half months. We’re going to be within 30 miles of every single season ticket holder because we need to go to our community so that we can bring people back. We were intentional calling it the ‘Come Home Tour’ because we can’t consistently win championships if we all don’t come together.”

Reed-Francois, who came to Mizzou last August, has set ambitious goals for the Tiger Scholarship Fund, the fundraising arm of the athletics department that finances scholarships and other expenses. MU had around 7,000 donors when she took the job. That number is closer to 8,100 now, she said. Her next goal is 10,500, then 20,000, all of which is possible, she insists, even while donors also support NIL collectives. Outreach efforts like this spring’s events around Missouri, she hopes, will unify the state and encourage more donations to any outlet supporting Tiger athletes.

“When I was at Virginia Tech, we were at 7,000 donors,” she said. “We set up an audacious goal to get to 25,000. They just hit 29,000 last week. It can be done. But it has to start with grassroots. It starts with incremental gains. We’re going to get to 20,000 donors.”

The portal deadline is coming. You can bet every coach’s office in the country has a countdown clock to May 1. That’s the deadline for athletes in fall and winter sports to enter the NCAA transfer portal if they want to immediately play for a new school in 2022-23. Teams can continue to recruit transfers after the deadline, but once May 1 passes, the portal is closed.

That doesn’t exactly provide much comfort.

“I’m glad that there’s a deadline to enter the portal,” Pingeton said this week. “So you know who’s on your bus and what that locker room is going to look like. Then I just think it’s so important that as a coach that you’ve got to vet through those recruits and figure out who aligns with your vision and your culture. Then you go through the process. April is a really hard month because there’s a couple of dead periods, there’s a couple of evaluation periods where we’re actually on the road. And then on top of that, you’re bringing in recruits on official visits. By the way, you’ve got some spring workouts that you try to sprinkle in, too. So April becomes a very, very busy month for college coaches. But, you know, that’s just part of it.”

Drinkwitz likened managing the portal to “a slow, delicate dance.”

“You’re trying to make sure that you’re not offending your roster by saying that they’re not what you want,” he said this week. “But you’re also trying to always add competition to your program.”

Speaking of the portal, this week’s MVTPP (Most Valuable Transfer Portal Player) is Detroit-Mercy guard Antoine Davis, whose departure proved that family ties aren’t strong enough to overcome the power of the portal. The Horizon League player of the year left behind his dad, head coach Mike Davis, to pursue greener portal pastures. Only a dozen players in Division I history have averaged more points per game than Davis’ 24.6 over his four years in Detroit, including four members of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame: Pete Maravich, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes and Larry Bird.

New Mizzou hoops assistant Kyle Smithpeters has the longest surname for a Tigers assistant in program history, eclipsing Howard Crittenden, a staffer from 1965-67. … Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson passed Anthony Peeler and Larry Drew this season to become the most prolific NBA scorer among former Mizzou players. Clarkson finished his eighth NBA regular season with 9,216 career points, now ahead of Peeler (8,077) and Drew (8,110). Clarkson also has the highest NBA career scoring average (15.4) among former MU players, just ahead of Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (14.1). … A new seven-round NFL mock draft by CBSSports.com projects two Mizzou players being taken in next week’s draft: running back Tyler Badie to Baltimore in the third round and cornerback Akayleb Evans to Chicago in the fifth. … A Mizzou running back hasn’t been taken in the first four rounds since Tampa Bay drafted James Wilder in the second round in 1981. … Jim Turpin, longtime radio voice of the Fighting Illini, died April 10 at the age of 90. He called countless games for the Illini across six decades but also played a role in Mizzou sports broadcasting history: It was Turpin who gave Mike Kelly, voice of the Tigers for more than 30 years, his first radio job out of college, at Champaign AM station WDWS. Kelly looked at the veteran broadcaster as a second father and was among the many who attended Turpin’s services Tuesday in Champaign.

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