As college athletics at ASU and across the country continue to endure an era of unprecedented change, perhaps no change has been more substantial than introducing name, image and likeness payments for athletes. Due to the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in NCAA v. Alston, players previously barred from being compensated for participation in collegiate sports are now allowed to cash in on their NIL.
The emergence of NIL has fundamentally changed how big-time football and basketball schools build their programs and has become one of the most essential elements of a school’s recruiting pitch. ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham said in October that NIL is “over 80-85% of the process” of building a program by recruiting and retaining players.
It is difficult to measure a school’s success in NIL since there is no requirement for deals to be disclosed publicly, but coaches of ASU’s most high-profile teams have been open about ASU’s struggles out the gate developing an NIL regime.
Dillingham told Axios in September that NIL efforts around ASU were improving but still “extremely behind.” Men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley said that after this past season, the program had “lost guys to NIL” to other universities that “had a serious commitment” to their NIL programs. Baseball coach Willie Bloomquist, who has been outspoken with his criticism of the lack of regulation around NIL, said that “(ASU has) to try to start raising some funds in order to retain our guys.”
But ASU’s NIL fortunes may be changing due to work from people internal and external to ASU athletics, who are committed to ensuring ASU becomes more competitive in NIL.
The Collective Makes Headway
A school’s NIL success starts with the strength of its NIL collective, a third-party organization whose primary job is to collect donations from boosters, fans and alumni and distribute them to players through NIL deals. Per NCAA rules, collectives cannot receive cash directly from universities but can be affiliated with specific schools.
Brittani Willett is the executive director of the Sun Angel Collective, ASU’s NIL affiliate, which was among the last to be established in college sports' big-time, or “Power Five,” conferences. She acknowledged that the collective has been behind in raising funds but is working on new projects designed to find revenue outside of individual donors.
“We’ve been kind of laying a lot of the foundational work to continue to grow,” Willett said.
Sun Angel is actively searching for ways to innovate in the emerging world of NIL. In August, it joined The Collective Association, an organization of collectives nationwide designed to help its members navigate NIL regulations and advocate NIL reform to Congress on behalf of collectives.
It also advocates for a revenue-sharing system in college athletics that would involve providing revenue generated to schools from television contracts directly to athletes themselves. Under the association’s model, collectives would serve as intermediaries between TV companies, conferences and athletes.
Willett said much of the collective's activity remains in flux due to a memo from the IRS indicating that NIL collectives may not qualify as 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organizations, meaning some donations to NIL collectives that ultimately end up with athletes may not be eligible for tax-exempt status.
The Sun Angel Collective has filed for 501(c)(3) status but has not received a determination. Willett said those applications are in a holding pattern while the IRS develops official regulations regarding the tax-exempt status of collective donations.
“That causes some challenges, especially when people are making a more significant donation,” Willett said.
This challenge was not impossible for ASU’s most recognizable booster, Nap Lawrence, who famously promised a $1 million donation at Dillingham’s introductory press conference.
“We wouldn’t have a football team without Nap Lawrence,” Dillingham said in August. “Nap Lawrence built our football team because of what he did the first day I got hired … That dude is as valuable to the program as anyone on the field.”
Activating the Valley
Activate Sports Management, which went by “ActivateASU” until it announced a name change on Wednesday, has been more visible in its efforts to establish NIL compensation for athletes. It is run by its founder and CEO, Peter Boyle, who said he was inspired to become involved in ASU athletics by Dillingham’s introductory press conference.
The group was not initially involved in NIL activity, but instead started with setting up deals for fans to receive free and discounted items from local businesses by showing their ticket at purchase. Boyle said these initiatives struggled to gain traction.
“It just plainly didn't work,” Boyle said. “No one went to these deals that we offered. I mean, no one. I would call the restaurant the next day and say, ‘How many people came through?’ ‘Zero.’”
Boyle said getting involved with NIL clicked when former ASU softball player Jazmine Hill, who has since transferred to Texas A&M, texted him wondering how she could partner with local businesses. Boyle then realized Activate could use the connections it had established with businesses in the Valley to help facilitate deals with ASU athletes.
Since then, Boyle said Activate has helped arrange over 55 deals between businesses and athletes. Activate’s internal modeling indicates around a 7% return for businesses entering these deals, according to Boyle.
Boyle said he does not consider Activate to be an NIL collective.
“When you think ‘collective,’ you think of a group like Sun Angel that collects money from donors and then, behind closed doors, distributes it to athletes,” Boyle said. “We're more like a brand agency than a collective, in the sense that we do what an agent would normally do.”
Activate's website now describes itself as a "full-service NIL agency."
Boyle described the work as “constant” and said that besides bringing athletes and companies together, he and the Activate team try to stay aware of the broader trends in the rapidly changing NIL landscape. He cited a recent meeting with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly’s office amid calls from industry leaders for Congress to pass NIL legislation.
Boyle said ASU’s NIL regime was “a little slow out of the gates,” but that ASU was not alone.
“That’s true of a lot of universities,” Boyle said, noting that he had spoken to people at other Power Five schools who were on similar footing. “It’s not unique to ASU.”
ASU Becomes Involved
NCAA regulations strictly prohibit universities and athletic departments from arranging or negotiating NIL deals themselves. However, universities are vested in protecting athletes from "bad actors" and ensuring compliance with NIL activities.
To help ASU’s administration and athletes navigate NIL, ASU has taken on a NIL “General Manager,” Rachael Bacchus.
Bacchus, who previously oversaw initiatives and programming at a nationwide NIL collective, is an employee of Altius Sports Partners and was appointed to ASU in May. ASU announced a partnership with Altius Sports Partners, a nationwide NIL consulting and strategic planning firm, in August 2022 to assist in developing ASU’s NIL program.
Described by Willett as the “point guard” and Boyle as the “quarterback” of ASU NIL, Bacchus said her job is closer to “traffic cop” than anything else. She said she provides education and resources to athletes while serving as liaison between Altius’ expertise on the national NIL landscape and ASU administration.
“That’s how you succeed in this space," Bacchus said. "Making sure that you are constantly evolving, constantly pivoting, aware of what the changes are, and being prepared for those."
Bacchus said she does not provide legal advice but can help student-athletes understand legal jargon and tax implications in contracts before they decide to sign a deal. This can involve upwards of 20 one-on-one meetings with athletes per week, as well as meetings with coaches and their staff.
“Athletes need to know they have that resource at all times,” Bacchus said. “They need to feel comfortable being able to say, ‘Hey, I need advice on this. I need help on this. Can you point me in the right direction?' Being able to be that resource is the most important part of my job.”
Bacchus described ASU’s NIL program as “making strides” and moving in the “right direction,” but said the partnership with Altius allows ASU to be at the forefront of the rapidly changing NIL landscape and ultimately become a leader in the space. That may be why Dillingham said in October that ASU was “very close to turning a corner” in the NIL space.
“It’s my goal that, at the end of this all, when I decide to retire from this place, whether it’s 50 years from now, we would have built the most innovative NIL program in the country," Bacchus said. "That’s my goal. ASU is the most innovative university. Why not also have the most innovative NIL program?”
Edited by Walker Smith, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.