Cleveland State has taken a notable step towards competing in college sports’ Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) era thanks to the introduction of Vikings Unite, an NIL collective, on Tuesday afternoon.
For the uninitiated, NIL collectives are organizations run outside of, but in association with, college athletic departments. They exist to raise money from school boosters, funds that are then paid out to student-athletes in return for things like social media posts and event appearances. Obviously, a well-supported collective that becomes a dependable source of NIL income can serve as a major selling point in recruiting efforts.
Vikings Unite is a typical example of that model. According to its website, the organization will build its donation pool primarily through six tiers of memberships, ranging from $10 to $500 monthly. Members can direct their contributions to a specific sport or for general use, and the return for those payments will include invitations to team socials, exclusive merchandise, raffle entries and, for the pricier tiers, autographs and VIP experiences.
That setup is a bit different from Viking Ventures, the CSU-branded extension of the Opendorse platform. Opendorse is referred to as a “marketplace,” since it facilitates one-to-one arrangements involving specific student-athletes. Though Vikings Unite boasts that it can broker similar niche deals, its focus is on building a robust membership roll.
Collectives began popping up almost as soon as NIL money became permissible in the summer of 2021, and have become ubiquitous at the power conference level, with most of the largest schools offering more than one. They’re less common in circuits like the Horizon League, though collectives supporting most HL member schools have formed, including at Youngstown State, Robert Morris, Northern Kentucky, Wright State, Green Bay and Purdue Fort Wayne.
The NCAA regulations around the groups are complex – and still evolving – but one of the fundamental rules is that universities maintain a certain degree of separation from NIL activities. They’re permitted to promote the organizations and recognize an official affiliation, but the financial transactions and activations must be kept separate from the athletic department. Accordingly, Vikings Unite is run by a company called Student Athlete NIL, which administers more than 35 other operations around the country. SANIL’s portfolio also includes Robert Morris’ RoMo Rise and Purdue Fort Wayne’s Dons for Fort Wayne.
The long-term impact of Vikings Unite on CSU’s athletic teams is anyone’s guess at this point. After all, the school’s biggest donors have always been free to arrange NIL deals outside of organizations like Vikings Unite or Opendorse. Also, while Cleveland State has typically done very well raising money on its annual Giving Day, it’s possible that NIL donations could cannibalize some direct-to-CSU giving. Regardless of that, it’s tough to say whether the school’s often-fickle supporter base will be as generous with an outside organization operating in a space that many fans don’t understand or don’t support.
However successful Vikings Unite ultimately becomes, one of the cornerstones of the modern landscape of college athletics has finally made its way to downtown Cleveland.