Is Penn State maximizing NIL opportunities? What to know about collectives, recruiting impact

Is Penn State maximizing NIL opportunities? What to know about collectives, recruiting impact

In March 2022, Penn State athletics took a leap forward when its first NIL collective launched. In the year since, Nittany Lions athletes have been more visible than ever, appearing around the state at various events while also popping up on billboards and in TV commercials.

In the past year, Penn State went from scrambling to catch up in name, image and likeness to having multiple collectives — with more potentially on the way. While more doesn’t necessarily mean better, much has changed with these collectives, leaving many fans confused as they try to keep up.

Where does Penn State stand?

In the past year, three main collectives have emerged. Each has undergone significant changes and restructuring since launch.

  • Success With Honor: Launched in March 2022 as the preferred collective of the Penn State athletics department. Supporters can contribute to all 31 varsity teams or select which team they want to donate to. With a 501c3 in place, this collective allows athletes to partner with charities where their name, image and likeness can be used to help support organizations that are important to them or their communities.
  • Lions Legacy Club: Launched in September 2022 as a football-specific collective. Memberships range from $5 to $25 per month or $600 to $1,200 per year. Last year, it raised money from Chad Powers T-shirts and distributed it among the football team’s walk-ons. It also has 501c3 status.
  • We Are NIL: Launched in March 2022 as Nittany Commonwealth. It rebranded to We Are NIL, focusing on providing insurance policies to select football players. Now, it hopes to be Penn State’s basketball-specific collective.

How Penn State’s collectives work

Thanks to NIL legislation, Penn State athletes are able to be compensated for participating in autograph signings, appearing in commercials and on billboards, hosting camps and selling their own merchandise. Some have arranged deals with businesses in their hometowns that allow them to drive Teslas and trucks. Some have posted on social media about restaurants and companies and partnered with various charities. Quarterback Sean Clifford even launched his own NIL company.

Beyond all that, subscriptions to a collective are meant to help support an athlete or team. In exchange for joining the collective, fans are allowed to connect with athletes, and this unique access helps drive NIL collectives.

“Certain companies, organizations and people are going to help do six-figure programs for it and certain people are comfortable being able to do monthly subscriptions,” said Rob Sine, co-founder and CEO of Blueprint Sports, which runs Lions Legacy Club, the football-specific collective. Sine is a Penn State graduate.

James Franklin has expressed his frustration with Penn State’s NIL efforts. (Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

“What we want to do is give them a relationship with student-athletes,” Sine said. “Yes, they’ll get some cool gear, it’ll build up their pride, but it’ll give them a relationship with the student-athletes and the team.”

Before the Rose Bowl, players attended a mixer with those who supported Lions Legacy Club or Success With Honor. In March, after winning a 10th NCAA team title under Cael Sanderson, several wrestlers participated in a youth wrestling camp where Success With Honor provided the athletes.

“This is great on so many fronts,” said Kerry Small, Success With Honor’s executive director. “The kids meet their heroes. These are things that really show Penn State in the light that we think it deserves.”

These two collectives believe that through having 501c3 status, the tax deductible element might make it more appealing for more people or businesses to contribute.

Sine said Lions Legacy Club hopes to show its supporters more of the personalities of the football team this season. They’ll see this through digital content but then ideally be able to connect at future in-person events with other members of the collective.

“Last year was just the beginning,” Sine said. “This calendar year and this season, you’re going to see a much different menu from us of different offerings. … That’s going to include collectibles. That’s going to include autographed items. It’s going to include merchandise for student athletes. It’s going to include collective merchandise.”

How do athletes get paid and how much have they made?

Trying to nail down specific figures has been the biggest challenge associated with reporting on Penn State’s collectives. For example, athletes who elect to work with Success With Honor sign non-disclosure agreements. We Are NIL doesn’t have its athletes sign non-disclosure agreements, but Krentzman said they are instructed not to discuss details and costs of their insurance policies with other athletes.

“We’ve done insurance policies with two players and the conversations with both have been, ‘I would really prefer it that you do not talk about what you make,’” Krentzman said. “I handle it in a gentlemanly way. … If you’re Penn State, you don’t want anyone to know what that player makes because you don’t want to be outbid. The less people know, the better.”

That thought process also makes it difficult to know how far behind Penn State might be in NIL. Head coach James Franklin was initially frustrated with Penn State’s NIL efforts, but then the football-specific collective launched and Sine said they’ve received “high marks” from Franklin and those in Penn State’s football program.

“We’d like to have a baseline monthly stipend for players going to engagements,” said former Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, who is in charge of business development for Lions Legacy Club. “That’s what James needs. That’s what we’ve got to do to be competitive. There are so many resources in the Penn State network. … We can bring big businesses directly into our ecosystem here.”

Players this winter, including running back Nicholas Singleton, a five-star recruit who was named Gatorade National Player of the Year as a high school senior, said he’s been satisfied with his NIL earnings thus far. Left tackle Olu Fashanu, who was a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft but elected to return to Penn State, said the same. Fashanu would be a prime candidate for an insurance policy like the ones Krentzman handles.

“An aspect of NIL that I’ve been really thankful for is just the opportunity to go and meet fans,” Fashanu said. “A lot of the events that I’ve gone to have just been meet and greets. … Before NIL we didn’t really have that many opportunities to go and show our appreciation to them, but because of NIL now we have that ability, so I’m really thankful for it.”

Success With Honor has paid out more than $2 million in the past year to over 350 athletes spanning all 31 sports, Small said. That money isn’t evenly distributed among the sports. Contributors can elect which team(s) they want to donate to or they can give to all 31 teams.

The non-disclosure agreement for Success With Honor was put in place to preserve the locker room dynamic so players don’t know how much money they are or aren’t getting compared to their peers. Athletes do not work exclusively with any of the three collectives.

What happened during the NCAA Tournament run?

When the men’s basketball team advanced to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, Success With Honor — Penn State’s only collective at the time that was associated with all sports, and thus basketball — was noticeably absent from the NIL conversation on Twitter. It was a golden opportunity for the collective to be proactive and capitalize on the success of a program that hadn’t played a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and whose head coach was being courted by other schools.

Behind the scenes, the timing was awful.

“We were in that transition period and we were focused more on talking to specific donors, specific supporters and groups, and we should’ve spent more time on the message boards and with social media than we did,” said Small, the executive director. “That was a lesson we learned. … It was an opportunity to educate our fan base that we missed. We learned to be more proactive on social media and message boards.”


Would Micah Shrewsberry still be the coach at Penn State if the program had more NIL opportunities? (Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)

The collective’s transition was significant. Jason Belzer, who helped launch Success With Honor and who also works with other collectives at other universities, is no longer involved. Success With Honor wanted to be fully run by Penn Staters and now is. However, that transition meant revamping the website and launching the 501c3, and the Nittany Lions went on their run in the midst of this overhaul. Small’s first official day as executive director was March 23, five days after Penn State lost to Texas and the same day Micah Shrewsberry left to become Notre Dame’s head coach.

Basketball supporters did step up during the run, with many calling and asking how the collective works and what they could do to help, Small said. Success With Honor won’t disclose financial figures from the tournament run but said it’s clear Penn State fans want to support basketball, too.

“It came from the hoops club,” Small said. “It came from people who had never really supported the program in the past who said we’re excited about this and it came from longtime supporters. So yes, there was an outpouring that kind of matched the enthusiasm that we saw for basketball.”

There was also enough outrage from fans that Krentzman, of We Are NIL, began thinking about making his collective geared toward basketball. With football having Lions Legacy Club and Success With Honor — and with a much smaller roster of players to work with for basketball — Krentzman believes he can make an impact with basketball.

“If you can provide a stipend for each player monthly in the $6,000 to $10,000 range, you’re going to get the kind of guy that Micah Shrewsberry would have wanted,” Krentzman said. “And, for the studs, you have to have a mechanism to take care of them. You have to have a way to handle that.”

Ideally, Krentzman would like to have a model in which players are paid more each year they are on the team so there’s value and a reward in having an athlete remain on campus for more than one season. Still, Penn State has a long way to go until it can get to that point. Obtaining financial commitments for all these collectives remains the challenge.

“The people that are complaining, absolutely, we want to make sure we’re responsive, and that we’re worthy of their support,” said Small, of Success With Honor. “Once they see we’re doing the right thing, then we need them to help out. We need them to help support these athletes. … It’s great to voice your opinion, but we also need people to say yes, we’re gonna get behind these athletes.”

How has Penn State educated the fan base?

It’s been a process. There’s been a disconnect between the collectives and the people they hope will support them financially. Getting fans on board has been more of a challenge than some initially thought.

“Any successful person with a collective will tell you what they’re doing is they’re educating the community and helping them understand,” Sine said.

Some of this blame falls on Penn State. There’s little information about NIL on Penn State’s official athletics website, and the information that is available is not prominently displayed. It’s buried under a dropdown menu between a link for job postings and the rugby program. For a fan base that wants basic, iconic uniforms with no names on the back, the thought of players making money while playing in college is difficult for some to comprehend.

“It’s actually alarming,” Mauti said. “People need to understand what it is that we’re doing and why. I get that some don’t believe in it and that’s OK, but when you look up in two years and if we’re 6-6 or 7-5 and you’re wondering why? Well guess what, that’s who we’re competing against, people who have this structure figured out. We’ve got to adapt and get people onboard.”

Small said during the basketball surge, Success With Honor learned that it needed to streamline the information it has and direct people to the website because they had so many questions.

Sine said Lions Legacy Club has fielded questions from fans asking if they’ll get priority points in their Nittany Lion Club account if they contribute to the collective. They will not. Potential contributors have also wanted to know about tax benefits if they contribute through the 501c3.

“Athletics is really stepping up to make sure that the communication is becoming more fluid and consistent because those are all questions people are asking,” Sine said.

Expect the collectives to use Blue-White weekend on April 15 as an opportunity to get in front of thousands of fans and their own supporters.

“You’re gonna see us more involved in the games this year,” Sine said. “Your storefront is open officially seven, eight times per year so might as well take advantage of that when you have that captive audience.”

Are these collectives competitors?

Small, Success With Honor: “Absolutely not. The way I view it is, collectives come, some consolidate, but the way I view it at the end of the day, we’re just focused on getting our message out there. If we’re focused on getting our message out there, everything else takes care of itself. … If somebody brings in money to the student athletes, that is great.”

Krentzman, We Are NIL: “I want to have a nice relationship with everybody. … I think everybody should have the same goal, which is to make the athletic department here as competitive as it can be with this tool while also being true to really doing the right things like helping kids through it as much as they can, helping them on the tax side and not being short-sighted on the good things that NIL can do.”

Sine, Lions Legacy Club: “No. I think everybody can help and there’s a lot of opportunities. I think athletics would like one (collective). A fan base might like one so it’s really crystal clear and they don’t have to pick and choose. But I believe in the interim it’s up to us and even the other collectives to show the value in what we bring and why we’re worthy of someone contributing to NIL through our program.”

What’s the effect on Penn State recruiting?

It’s been explained to the collectives like this: Penn State wants athletes who want to be here. Once they’re here, they’ll be plugged into the NIL program, not the other way around.

Sine said Penn State will not get into a “bidding war” over football players. They have financial figures that they want to hit for the football team, but Lions Legacy Club will not disclose them, he said. Penn State’s teams can direct recruits to the social media accounts for the collectives and their websites. Recruits and transfer targets want to have visual proof of functioning collectives.

“If a guy gets a car that’s promoted somewhere and you can see that there are guys that do get cars,” Sine said. “There’s a lot of programs that do stuff in a vacuum and nobody ever knows about it.”

Keep in mind, roster retention is as important as ever. If Penn State isn’t competitive with NIL, other schools will be.

Where does it go from here?

It would seem likely that one collective would be the preferred setup. Collectives could merge, but the reality is more may keep being created. Success With Honor now has a staff of employees and interns.

If basketball ends up with a specific collective in addition to Success With Honor, what about wrestling? Wrestling booster Ira Lubert started working on a collective that merged with Success With Honor more than a year ago. With 10 weight classes and 9.9 scholarships, the back-to-back NCAA champions would be beneficiaries of a robust collective — or they could continue operating under Success With Honor.

What is a head coach’s place in all of this? NIL is one of many recruiting tools. Though Penn State has to have a strong collective to be competitive, not every fan wants to hear about it. Among season tickets, parking, seat licensing fees and donations to the Nittany Lion Club, fans are already being asked to do a lot to support athletics.

It’s the new wave of college athletics, and while Penn State was slow to adapt initially when NIL legislation passed, it now has to figure out what a second year looks like with multiple entities.

(Top photo of Nicholas Singleton and Ola Fashanu: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)

Audrey Snyder has covered Penn State since 2012 for various outlets, including The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Patriot-News and DKPittsburghSports. Snyder is an active member of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) and is the professional adviser for Penn State’s student chapter. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audsnyder4

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