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Empower the Nest introduces new effort to target ISU men's basketball for NIL deals

Two men smiling at camera in radio studio
Eric Stock
/
WGLT
Jason Higdon, left, and Brennan White in the WGLT studios.

The Illinois State men’s basketball program has endured a 26-year drought since its last Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance — one of the longest in the MVC.

A group of Redbird boosters is focused on ending the streak. Empower the Nest, a collective that connects ISU student-athletes with endorsement deals through Name Image and Likeness [NIL], has created a subgroup specifically for men’s basketball called the 1998 Club, a nod to the Redbirds' last MVC championship squad.

Jason Higdon, president of Empower the Nest, said the group is exploring ways to make opportunities for individuals to donate to specific sports, and the 1998 Club is the first iteration of that idea.

“We want people who are interested in men’s basketball to be able to donate directly to men’s basketball. We want to start giving sport-specific opportunities as a part of your donation levels as a way to say thank you and to really focus on your money going to that particular sport,” said Higdon.

He also mentioned he thinks other ISU sports such as football, volleyball, and women’s basketball will start to have conversations to take the same approach.

Higdon noted a significant increase in fundraising for Empower the Nest, with a 170% jump from the first to the second year. The collective does not share detailed financial information to avoid giving any advantage to competing schools, Higdon said. There are no requirements to disclose either.

“At the end of the day, my goal would be to fund every student-athlete at ISU, but that takes money, takes time, and we're working and I'm excited for the future,” Higdon said.

Empower the Nest is currently conducting its 309 campaign, aiming to secure 309 donors who can each contribute $309. This campaign seeks to raise nearly $100,000 to support ISU’s lower profile sports.

“Football, men and women's basketball, and volleyball have more of a following to get specific donors," said Higdon. "They primarily take care of themselves. The 309 campaign is looking to fund everything else and that doesn’t mean some of those funds can’t supplement and help out donors where that money is needed.”

More than 100 ISU student-athletes signed NIL deals in the past year, with the average deal valued at about $1,800, according to Brennan White, ISU's Director of NIL and Community Engagement.

White said his role has changed multiple times since he was hired last August because NCAA rules regarding NIL keep changing. He notes the NCAA now allows college athletic departments to negotiate deals for student-athletes and work directly with the collectives.

White emphasizes the transparency and ethical approach ISU takes with their student- athletes regarding NIL deals.

“I can tell them everything they will have access to when they arrive on campus, but it’s certainly not something where we can offer them a specific dollar amount to come play for Illinois State. Other schools may be doing that, but that’s not something we have an interest in,” said White.

Gaige Owens is a student reporting intern at WGLT. He joined the station in 2024.