Inside BYU’s NIL collective: High-powered coaches have called out shady deals nationally — but local players and donors paint a different picture

Players voice frustration with coaches for calling out collectives, just as they gain a bit of power

Orem • Jake Brandon cocks his head back and lets a smile spread across his face when the comparison is first presented to him. He’s never thought of it this way before, but he doesn’t necessarily mind being likened to a character in “The Sopranos”.

He’s sitting in the backroom of a daycare, making deals that will see tens of thousands of dollars change hands.

But Brandon isn’t up to anything sinister.

He’s just trying to get college athletes paid.

And that very idea, now legal under the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness rules, has more than a few people upset. NIL collectives have been thrust into the forefront of college football vernacular of late, with groups of deep-pocketed, highly motivated donors being pegged as college football’s public enemy No. 1. Brandon certainly knows that by now.

Just take his last week as an example. On Wednesday, the college football world was dominated by a screaming match between Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, two multi-million dollar coaches, with one calling the other a narcissist who thinks he’s God, and the other denouncing NIL collectives as an illegal enterprise. All the while, Brandon — and others like him all across the country — have kept the cash moving from donors and businesses to 18-year-old college athletes trying to make a buck.

“So, yeah I get the comparison,” Brandon, the owner of BYU’s NIL Collective CougConnect, laughs. “I don’t know if it’s right. But I get it.”

The idea of NIL laws was to bring the backroom deals to light. But now that they are out there — the substantial figures on display — there is almost reflexive pushback from the high-powered coaches who fear donors will ruin the sport.

At BYU, there is just one NIL collective so far. It has bankrolled upward of 25 football players and a handful of basketball players. The most prominent athletes, like quarterback Jaren Hall, have made close to $100,000. The role players have made thousands.

In context, this isn’t very much. The highest-end NIL deals have been in the seven-figures. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young has made over $1 million. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has rivaled that, appearing in Dr. Pepper commercials.

But the thing Brandon, and many of the athletes he works with, don’t get, is why they have been made out to be the bogeyman. Why is that when players get the slightest bit of power, the coaches get upset? And why is it that coaches make collectives out to be shady figures? These aren’t no-name donors secretly undermining college football. They are the same people who have been giving to universities for years, just now they are giving to the players.

“I think this has evened the playing field,” said Hank Tuipulotu, a former BYU linebacker now committed to helping current players make money. “I’m sure coaches are frustrated. But it is better than it was in my opinion.”

A high school teacher

(Kevin Reynolds | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jake Brandon, the owner of BYU's NIL collective, holds up a sponsor's drink with former BYU player Hank Tuipulotu at a recent NIL event.

Brandon has heard it all at this point. He’s heard that NIL collectives are made up of millionaires who don’t care about the players, that these collectives are ruining college football. He’s heard stories about those people, sure. But that, he says, isn’t what he’s about.

Brandon is an eighth-grade Spanish teacher and former football coach at Spanish Fork, who says he just happened into this world.

Last summer, a group of his former football players came over to his backyard to eat smoked ribs. It’s an annual tradition, where Brandon’s former players and current BYU football players, such as Jacob Conover, Malik Moore and Masen Wake, come to reconnect with their prep roots.

As they were eating, Brandon made the joke that maybe next year they should pay for the food with the NIL money. That caught the athletes’ attention. The trio said they were barely making enough to “scrape by.”

The conversation morphed into a strategy session of how the players wanted to leverage NIL. And it ended with a plea: maybe Brandon could start BYU’s NIL collective.

“I was like, I know nothing about business,” Brandon said.

But he knew the players and had contacts in the business world. Dustin Davies and Tyler Griffiths, two BYU business men, joined after a dinner to talk. But Brandon had the vision the players wanted, so he went with it.

“I’ve known Brandon for a couple months,” said Tuipulotu. “I thought it was a great idea. I think these kinds of [collectives] are perfect.”

Making the money

It has been said by more than one coach and athletic director that NIL collectives have turned college football into the Wild West, with players becoming millionaires and bags of cash regularly passing hands.

“It’s just not true,” Brandon said. “That is like a handful of players.”

At BYU, most athletes with NIL deals make somewhere between hundreds and thousands of dollars. The top end of athletes, Brandon said, can make closer to six figures.

And the deals, thus far, have mostly run through the collective. Nearly every starter on the football team has worked with Brandon at some point. Trevin Knell and Spencer Johnson on the men’s basketball team have done so. Shaylee Gonzales on the women’s basketball team has also gotten into the mix.

Usually the deals are simple. Players have agreed to write monthly blogs for message boards in exchange for a couple of hundred bucks. Others have put on camps for their hometowns. And, if they stick around in Provo for the summer, most players have adopted playing video games on a Twitch-like stream in exchange for money.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Graves, left, a funder of Coug Connect, a name, image and likeness (NIL) collective, talks with BYU running back Jackson McChesney in Orem, Utah on Saturday, May 23, 2022. Several BYU and Utah football players gathered online and in person to compete in the game Warzone through Coug Connect, an early stage NIL collective for BYU to create financial opportunities for athletes.

“NIL has been cool,” said BYU linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa, who has only done a few such sponsored events. “We have been put on camps. … I think it is to be expected [how coaches have reacted to it]. But I like it.”

The oddest deals so far have been players asked to attend bachelor parties or go to private homes. Dave Graves, a prominent donor to the collective, paid to have BYU running back Tyler Allgeier over for dinner.

“This is America, the land of opportunity for everyone, including athletes. And to discriminate against them and tell them that they alone can’t live the American dream as long as they are college athletes is un-American,” Graves said. “Is it perfect? No, but it is the right thing and a step in the right direction. There needs to be some regulation, but it needs to be minimal.”

Questions ahead

BYU’s NIL collective doesn’t have all the answers, and certainly won’t with the NCAA bound to change the rules as it refines this new reality.

Brandon maintains the collective has not reached out to prospective recruits yet. But, he admits, he wants the collective to have a positive impact on recruiting. That is likely where future legislation will come from the NCAA, not wanting the perception collectives can “buy recruits.”

Rudi Williams, BYU’s most recent transfer basketball player, is the one player the collective has contacted prior to him officially being enrolled. However, the collective maintains it was Williams who reached out first. He is an international athlete, so he can’t make money directly from NIL deals due to visa laws. However, he will be doing branding work with the collective.

BYU’s compliance office has been in frequent discussion, Brandon said, about the rules for the collective.

There is also the issue of money distribution. Right now, the collective runs most deals. Businesses have been contracting with the collective, then the collective talks to the players. About 60% of the money the business gives goes directly to the players. The other 40% is kept by the collective to cover the cost of hosting events.

But for now, players want people to see what NIL is doing for them. That it can help pay for gas and cover food expenses. That it can help them avoid a graveyard shift at a Walmart. And that, at its best, it can help out families and ease the burdens that once kept college kids up at night.

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