Utah collective looks to ‘philanthropy-fans’ to raise funds for gymnasts

The new collective rewards gymnasts for participating in community events.

(Tony Gutierrez | AP) Utah's Jaylene Gilstrap competes on the floor exercise during the NCAA women's gymnastics championships, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas.

When former University of Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden began building the program in the 1970s, he wanted all the seats filled, not just the prime ones that go to high-dollar donors. He wanted families and everyday sports fans to be able to attend and be a part of his program.

It’s great to have wealthy donors who could help fund the program through facility construction, etc., but Marsden wanted Utah’s gymnastics program to be about connecting with the average fan.

Move forward to the present and the Utes believe their gymnastics program is still guided by the philosophy Marsden implemented.

The idea that everyone who wanted to be involved with Utah gymnastics should be involved is evident in the latest venture with the Red Rocks, the formation of the Who Rocks the House (www.whorocksthehouse.com) Name Image and Likeness (NIL) collective.

The collective was formed to take advantage of the NCAA’s 2021 change in policy that determined student-athletes can profit off their image. The move meant schools couldn’t pay student-athletes outright, but they could receive financial compensation for endorsements, autograph signings, participating in charitable events, working at camps, etc.

Leave it to the Utes to put their own twist on the financial opportunity. The Who Rocks the House (WRTH) collective encourages small donors to fund the program through monthly donations. The funds will then go to the gymnasts when they participate in community activities, such as a recent Girls on the Run 5k in Sugarhouse Park.

2022-23 Utah Gymnastics Schedule

Dec. 9 — Red Rocks Preview, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center

Jan. 9 — LSU vs. Utah, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center

Jan. 13 — Best of Utah vs. SUU, Utah State, BYU, 7 p.m. Maverik Center

Jan. 22 — Utah at Oklahoma, 6 p.m., Norman, OK

Jan. 28 — Utah vs. Washington, 1 p.m., Huntsman Center

Feb. 3 — Utah vs. UCLA, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center

Feb. 11 — Metroplex Challenge vs. Georgia, Illinois State, 1:15 p.m., Fort Worth, TX

Feb. 20 — Utah at Arizona St., 1 p.m., Tempe, AZ

Feb. 24 — Utah vs. Cal, 6 p.m., Huntsman Center

March 3 — Utah vs. Arizona, 7 p.m., Huntsman Center

March 11 — Utah at Oregon St., 3 p.m., Corvallis, Ore.

March 18 — Pac-12 Championships, Maverik Center

March 29-April 2 — NCAA Regional Championships, TBD

April 13-15 — NCAA Championships, Fort Worth, Tx

The goal of the WRTH is for all of the donations to go to the athletes. The administration fees are being covered by an advisory board and management team that includes prominent longtime backers of the sport including Marsden, who retired in 2015, Megan Marsden who retired as co-coach in 2019, former Director of Athletics Chris Hill and former gymnasts MyKayla Skinner and Missy Marlowe in addition to fans Dan Lofgren and Brent Wilson.

Former gymnast Kim Brunisholz (who competed in the early 2000s as Allan) serves as Executive Director.

Brunisholz, who is a researcher for Johnson & Johnson by day, said the collective is driven by the idea every fan can be a part of the program’s success, designating them as “philanthropy-fans.” The group believes so much in that term it has trademarked it.

“We want fans to feel confident that if they give $10, all of that $10 is going to support an athlete who is engaging in the community,” she said. “We aren’t the first collective, there are hundreds out there, but we learned a lot from them. We learned we wanted to stay true to our Utah roots and this program was built on the back of our legendary fans. We couldn’t do this without them, that isn’t the Utah way.”

Already the account is close to six figures, Brunisholz said, even though the collective is less than a month old.

“This has been one of the easiest sales jobs of my career,” she said. “This is allowing our amazing Utah fans exclusive experiences and letting them get to know the team in a different sort of way and it is gaining momentum the more people understand what an NIL is.”

The idea of paying student-athletes is still a foreign one for many, including Marsden who long dealt with all of the NCAA restrictions put in place to maintain the athletes’ amateur status, or at least the illusion of it. But having the driving force being the average fan and all of the collective money going to the athletes themselves makes Marsden warm up to the idea more.

“The cat is out of the bag at this point,” he said of athletes’ getting paid. “But hopefully we are going to get several thousand small donors, the fans who have long supported Utah gymnastics. We want to get as many fans involved as we can and use that money to impact the community in positive things.”

The Red Rocks are currently the only college gymnasts in the country with a dedicated NIL collective. Other programs are associated with larger collectives that encompass several sports. That makes it a nice recruiting tool for the Utes. Money may not be the endgame, but you can bet it matters.

“It’s a different atmosphere now,” Marsden said. “Athletes are getting opportunities to make a little money and whether that is good or bad, it is being used for recruiting. I am hearing from other coaches, too. They are being asked what kind of opportunities athletes are getting with NILs.”

As much attention as NIL deals and collectives such as WRTH are getting, right now the monetary amounts for NIL deals are minimal outside of the elite group of basketball and football players who draw the most endorsement interest.

According to NIL platform Opendorse, the average NIL deals range from $1,524 to $1,815 for college athletes. The average NIL deals for football players are $3,390, while the average is $1,084 for female athletes. Interestingly, women’s gymnastics fairs very well in the averages — $7,054 per athlete — due in part to the fewer number of participants compared to other sports and the wide exposure the top athletes have enjoyed from Olympic and national appearances.

Collectives such as Utah’s probably won’t make any gymnasts rich, at least not in the near future, but it is a nice bonus and it certainly doesn’t hurt recruiting. If anything, it is another example of the passion of Utah’s fans, coach Tom Farden said.

“We are so grateful that these fans have bonded together and created this initiative,” “Farden said. “This is one of the most storied college gymnastics programs and we have maintained that.”

Like the achievements of the program on the floor, Grace McCallum, a member of the 2020 Olympic team, said the gymnasts are proud of the collective.

“Our whole team loves it and working with the community is huge,” she said. “We love to support them after all the support they have given the program, it’s a cool opportunity.”