The Varsity Collective promises new model of NIL support for University of Wisconsin athletes. Here are the key points.

Mark Stewart
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The logo for The Varsity Collective, the University of Wisconsin's first donor-led NIL organization.

MADISON – With a promise to help develop the whole person of the student athlete, The Varsity Collective launched operations Thursday as the first donor-led name, image and likeness organization for University of Wisconsin athletes. 

The Varsity Collective will serve as a conduit through which businesses, donors and fans can support Badgers athletes. Its philosophy is based on helping UW athletes maximize their NIL opportunities while branding support and mentoring relationships that will go beyond an athlete’s time in college.

The nine-person leadership team of the collective includes UW hall of fame football player Brooks Bollinger, UW athletics donor Ted Kellner and Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin. Former All-American football player Joe Thomas is also supporting the group.

“While a student-athlete’s time in a uniform is temporary, we want to create a lifelong experience of impact,” Rob Master, the executive chair of the collective, said during a press conference to announce the launch Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn near campus. “The Varsity Collective experience is just that.

"That is why we’re committed to leveraging every bit of resource of human capital to help them develop a network that serves as a springboard to a lifetime of success.”

When the NCAA enacted NIL legislation in July 2021 it gave athletes the opportunity to earn money off endorsements as well as use their name in support of causes important to them. The legislation, however, didn’t provide a clear means for making that happen.

Enter collectives. Across the country groups have been created in support of athletic departments or teams to help donors, businesses and other groups interested in supporting a particular athlete or team to connect with that individual or group.

To bring this idea to life at Wisconsin, The Varsity Collective will be guided by what it calls a Four Pillar Playbook:

* NIL Support: Facilitating opportunities for student-athletes to support charitable partnerships as part of an effort to support community 501(c)(3) organizations.

* NIL Branding Support: Training through the program, Rep Yourself, to help student-athletes navigate the NIL landscape, develop their brand, unlock new earnings opportunities and build a profile for life after college.

* Life Currency™: This platform connects student-athletes to an extensive group of alumni athletes, business people and professionals for the purpose of mentorships during college and after.

* Future funding: Establishing a sustainable base of donors, businesses and charitable partnerships to support a growing need for NIL opportunities.

“I’ve always viewed the NIL financial component as just supplementary to your college experience,” said men's basketball coach Greg Gard, who attended the press conference. “To be able to package in all these other things … attributes that can add to the student athlete’s experience I think is going to kick this thing over the top."

While many of the NIL opportunities are star driven, the mentorship opportunities that are part of the collective will be open to all UW athletes.

“Wisconsin has something it can offer to the student athletes that money can’t buy,” Thomas said. “Networking and connecting those student athletes with people that are in the fields professionally that these student athletes are interested in, whatever that looks like, can be the most important thing the varsity collective does.”

In addition to Gard, UW coaches Paul Chryst (football), Marisa Moseley (women’s basketball), Kelly Sheffield (volleyball), Mark Johnson (women’s hockey) and Tony Granato (men’s hockey) attended the launch press conference at the Hilton Garden Inn near campus.

NIL deals can’t be used as a recruiting inducement. Coaches, however, can explain how their players are using the NIL and the tools available to help them navigate the process.

“It’s not just this quick money grab, but it’s really about the holistic approach,” Moseley said. “For me and my program in particular, that is how I coach. I talk to my current students about the whole person.”

The UW athletic department launched an NIL marketplace, YouDub, earlier this year that allows, among other things, athletes to use Wisconsin logos in NIL activities that involve existing corporate sponsors and receive royalties for football jerseys featuring players’ names and numbers.

Brian Mason, who was recently named UW’s director of Name, Image, Likeness Strategy, sees The Varsity Collective’s plan as one that builds on what the athletic department has in place.

“They’re going about things differently here, which should be no surprise to anybody who sees how things operate here,” Sheffield said. “These things are popping up all over the place ...."(They're) very transactional. It’s deeper here. It’s something that is talked about a lot. We care about the people here, so it’s more than just raising money.”