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Why Wisconsin’s NIL Collective Ran a Times Square Billboard

  • Head football coach Luke Fickell has The Varsity Collective thinking with national ambitions.
  • The collective also took out billboards in the hometowns of six early enrollees.
John Lamparski/Getty Images for The Varsity Collective

When The Varsity Collective launched in September — notably later to the game than many other NIL collectives — it wanted to do things differently. With the large majority of college athletes not going pro in sports, the NIL collective for the University of Wisconsin placed a heavy emphasis on preparing athletes for life after college rather than just paying them in the moment.

After the high-profile hire of head football coach Luke Fickell, though, Varsity wanted to advertise those values nationally and locally — doing so in style on National Signing Day.

The collective purchased a 15-minute block on a video billboard in Times Square to showcase the football team’s 13 transfers and six early enrollees, welcoming them to the program and showing that Wisconsin is serious about becoming a national contender under Fickell.

“A day that always kind of belongs to Alabama, Ohio State, and now Neon Deion [Sanders of Colorado], we kind of to some degree owned that day,” Varsity executive chair Rob Master told Front Office Sports. “It was meant to be a PR-driven day to plant the flag that the Badgers are a national program. We are sleeping giant, and we’re here now.”

While college athletes have appeared on billboards on behalf of brands before — and even in Times Square — this is believed to be the first time a collective has advertised this way to showcase its school’s athletes. Varsity paid the athletes to post about the billboard on their social channels, according to Master.

Varsity didn’t stop in New York City; it also took out billboards for the six early enrollees in their hometowns.

  • Jace Arnold (Marietta, GA)
  • Jonas Duclona (Naples, FL)
  • Tyler Jansey (Batavia, IL)
  • Cole LaCrue (Broomfield, CO)
  • Jordan Mayer (Jefferson Hills, PA)
  • Braedyn Moore (Hamilton, OH)

“You have this idea like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if Wisconsin led the way and put the players on the billboard?’” says Jeff Powers, a marketing professional, and UW alum who helped secure the billboards in Times Square and the local communities. “It’s cool for that community; it’s cool for every football player that played at that high school. It’s a way to look up and see where you can go and where you came from.”

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The Badger football program has gone into overdrive since Fickell’s arrival: The former Cincinnati head coach has attracted several high-profile transfers, including quarterback Tanner Mordecai (SMU) and wide receiver CJ Williams (USC).

The school’s first and only NIL collective has followed suit — and has gotten complete buy-in from Fickell.

“He came in and had a very specific perspective on NIL and collectives,” Master says. “And the good news is it was very much aligned with our mission and our vision.”

That vision is not just to get sponsorship deals for football players at local businesses — though it’s done that too; it encourages all athletes at the school to participate in charitable work and educate themselves for the future.

“We consider ourselves a purpose-driven collective,” says Master. “We serve all 800-plus athletes across 23 sports with two objectives. One is to maximize NIL for this moment in time for athletes for the four or five years they’re going to be in college. And then two is to help prepare them for the game of life.”

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