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Redbird boosters form collective to help ISU athletes score endorsement deals

fans cheering in the bleachers
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Illinois State University football fans support the team during ISU's game vs. Butler on Sept. 4, 2021.

Chad Mazanowski played basketball at Illinois State University 20 years ago. Now, he lives in Bloomington and sells medical supplies. He has stayed close to his alma mater.

“I’ve always had a passion for Redbird athletics and always been looking for possible ways to be a part and help out in any way I can,” he said.

Mazanowski goes to many of the games and he gives money to ISU athletic programs. He and a few business owners and alumni recently met with ISU athletics to see how the university could use Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules to help.

“They asked us, ‘Would you set something up? Would you get something going so that we can help our athletes profit from their image and likeness?'” Mazanowski said. “We took it and ran with it."

Chad Mazanowski
Chad Mazanowski

The Redbird boosters created “Empower The Nest,” the first all-sports collective in the Missouri Valley Conference.

The collective helps connect student-athletes with endorsement deals that can include contracts to sell clothing and apparel, or public appearances such as autograph sessions and skills camps.

Thousands of college athletes have cashed in on new rules that allow them to make money off endorsements. A growing number of colleges also think the new Name, Image and Likeness rules can give them a competitive advantage.

The first two collectives in the Missouri Valley are for specific programs — Bradley men's basketball and Southern Illinois University football. Mazanowski said ISU is different. He said the collective wants to support Redbird athletes across all sports.

“Once they get out into the world, they represent ISU themselves. We’re not just looking to cater to one sport. Ultimately that looks bad. That looks like you are just setting this up ... so that you can funnel some money to players,” Mazanowski said.

NIL collectives are growing

Mazanowski and six other Redbird supporters are part of the volunteer group. The other collective members are Chris McConnell, Julie Dobski, Randy Clark, Scotty Henrichs, Joe McDonald and Kendra Keck. Collectives are becoming increasingly common in college athletics, despite some initial resistance.

Maya Bulger is ISU’s first director of Name Image and Likeness and Community Engagement.

“I think all college administrators should jump right in,” she said, adding the most comment question she gets about NIL is what is it?

“If it’s coming from a student-athlete, it’s, ‘What can I do?’ If it’s coming from a parent (they ask), ‘How can you keep my child protected in this space?’ Everyone is just trying to understand what it is, how to utilize it and how to be safe navigating that space,” Bulger said.

Bulger said seven-figure deals some students-athletes get have created a stigma over the rules, noting big dollar events are not the norm. Most deals are much smaller and student-athletes also receive professional development. Bulger said the rules help teach athletes skills like how to market themselves, how start a business and how to do their taxes.

It all starts with marketing.

That's where Dayton Hammes comes in. She's ISU’s social media coordinator for NIL. Hammes said many student-athletes want to know how to build a social media following and how to turn that into money.

“A lot of them ask questions (such as) how do I get verified on Instagram? Just things like that,” Hammes said.

The bigger following a student-athlete has online, the easier it is to get endorsements. That's where the collective comes in. Mazanowski said business owners in the collective might sign a Redbird athlete to a contract to sign autographs for their customers, for example, but he is clear that there are no handouts.

Mazanowski said the collective wants to come up with creative ways to help student-athletes market themselves.

“We don’t have the resources that Power Five conferences do where you just have endless amounts of money and you can pay student-athletes to go do whatever, go to birthday parties and stuff,” Mazanowski said.

It's not all about lining the pockets of student-athletes. Bulger said several athletes have made agreements that benefit Bloomington-Normal charities.

“A lot of these deals are not the ones that get the media attention. You see the $1 million deals, but this is what NIL is, utilizing your name, your image and likeness to bring out your passions and your drives and the things you care about,” she said.

Bulger said Redbird athletes have signed more than 100 endorsement deals in the last three months and they aren't just in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball.

No pay-to-play

Part of the uneasiness some coaches and administrators have about Name, Image and Likeness rules is the potential for pay-to-play deals that schools could use to lure high school or transfer recruits. It's unclear how much the NCAA, college athletics governing body, will enforce the rules.

Jeff Jackson, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, said earlier this year he's not a fan of collectives.

“That doesn’t necessarily sync up with the idea that the activity should be organic,” Jackson told WGLT in January.

Jackson said he's concerned a lack of oversight will give bigger schools with more high-dollar boosters an advantage.

“Right now, we are hopeful for some type of federal intervention, but we also don’t have any rules right now from the NCAA that governs that activity,” Jackson said.

Mazanowski said the collective at ISU understands recruits are off limits.

“We’re not allowed to pay players just to come here. We’re not allowed to pay players just to stay here. Those are hard rules and those will get us kicked out of the university,” he said.

Mazanowski said it's hard to know how much the NIL rules will change ISU. He said he'd be ecstatic if the group can reach six figures in endorsements in the first year, even if it's just a few hundred dollars at a time.

“Even $500 to $1,000 for a student-athlete makes quite a difference. For the average person, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but I remember in college, $1,000 would have gone a long way toward better food, not just having to eat frozen pizza or Ramen noodles,” Mazanowski said.

Mazanowski said “Empower the Nest” wants to add boosters to connect more athletes to deals. For now, he said the group has to be selective in which athletes to help until its nest gets bigger. He said the group does not want to play favorites and pit teammates against each other.

Hammes said Redbird athletics has no choice but to grow its Name, Image and Likeness offerings.

“It’s not going away, so you either buy in now, or you get left behind. That’s the future of NIL for sure,” she said.

Redbird athletics hopes embracing NIL booster groups will improve the chances student-athletes have to be successful off the field. They suspect that will help them on the field, too.

"Empower the Nest" plans to hold more events during the school year because, Mazanowski said, many people don't understand how Name Image and Likeness rules work.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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