The NIL Revolution | A Star Tribune series examining how the name, image and likeness era is transforming college sports:

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On a Friday in late March, Bob Klas sat down over a cup of coffee, scrambled eggs and toast and lamented the loss of Gophers men's basketball player Pharrel Payne to the transfer portal the night before. Klas, a lifelong Gophers fan, successful Twin Cities businessman and University of Minnesota donor, was meeting with Ben Johnson, Payne's suddenly former coach, to discuss NIL money that afternoon.

Payne's departure had surprised everyone with a vested interest — emotionally, professionally, financially — in Gophers athletics. The amount of money needed to keep a player of his stature in the NIL era had changed abruptly.

"Whatever number they had in mind, it isn't the number today," Klas said.

In the past two years, Klas has twice committed six-figure contributions to Dinkytown Athletes, the collective that helps negotiate and coordinate name, image and likeness (NIL) contracts for Gophers athletes. He has a photographic recall of the major sporting events he's attended and is more or less on call when Dinkytown Athletes needs an immediate donation for a specific player.

For decades, donors like Klas have been catered to by the Golden Gopher Fund — the fundraising arm of the Gophers athletics department. His parents, Robert and Sandra Klas, gave more than $1 million when the Gophers were building what is now Huntington Bank Stadium and those types of major fundraising campaigns and donations have been the most visible around college campuses.

But when the Supreme Court in 2021 ruled that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws in limiting how student-athletes could make money, NIL donations became a new top priority for recruiting and retaining players. That created a unique issue, because NIL money could not go through the colleges — which meant their donors were suddenly being pulled in two different directions.

Keep giving to the college, or start giving to the athletes?

U donors have been digging into that question, to understand how best to use their money to serve a thing they love — Gophers athletics.

"The world is full of people who are partially in with the one toe in the water and let's see how things play out," Klas said. "I'm not going to be a guy who talks about it — and I'm not saying I'll be the biggest donor — but I'll do what I can. Other people can make up their own decisions."

Separate but together

The Golden Gopher Fund sits within the larger University of Minnesota Foundation and doesn't just help finance major campaigns like building Athletes Village or Huntington Bank Stadium or remodeling Mariucci Arena. Donors contribute annually for things like financing overseas trips for teams, paying for recruiting trips for coaches, buying new equipment or funding scholarships.

They brought in $45.1 million in donations in 2023 and $40.5 million in 2022.

In the early days of NIL, there was a sense among donors who wanted to throw money at players immediately that University of Minnesota administrators were dragging their feet in getting donor money directed toward Dinkytown Athletes. The Gophers don't deny that initial hesitation, said Dusty Clements, a deputy athletic director who has overseen the Golden Gopher Fund since 2017.

"Initially it was a little taboo I guess is the word? Like a four-letter word," he said.

Dinkytown Athletes isn't even trying to compete on their fundraising level, co-founder Rob Gag said. This year's goal is $5 million in donations. He said they have three or four donors like Klas, and those people have been instrumental in helping them cultivate more robust donor relationships.

"It's been a massive challenge," Gag said.

Part of that is institutional — even if the University of Minnesota athletics department or Golden Gopher Fund wanted to share donor lists and phone numbers, the university's legal department has said it's not allowed — and part of that is educational.

"I am used to failure ... with sales my whole life," Gag said. "I have never had no's like I did with NIL. People are warming to it but the people you need to sell, the demographic, is over 65. They have most of the money. They are just slow to warm on it."

"The collectives that are most successful, it's not from the collectives being incredible sales people, it's because they're in alignment with the university's foundation, they're in alignment with the athletics department's foundation, and the dollars flowing that way."

The Gophers and Dinkytown Athletes are trying to show that alignment to donors. As Klas put it, "Quite frankly the separation of church and state has become a pretty thin line."

High atop Huntington Bank Stadium earlier this year, that close relationship was on display at an event to raise NIL awareness for potential donors to women's sports.

Gophers women's basketball coach Dawn Plitzuweit made a presentation with a tailored soundtrack highlighting where things had improved with NIL money for her program and how far they had to go to be competitive nationally. Softball coach Piper Ritter explained how emotionally rewarding it could be for her players to know donors wanted to support them in such a direct way. Volleyball coach Keegan Cook, noting that donors were suddenly being pulled in two directions, tried to play the middle between NIL money and athletic department donations.

"It's never a bad idea to diversify your investments," he said.

Sitting among the coaches was Gag; Jeremiah Carter, the senior associate athletic director overseeing NIL; and Kiara Buford, the director of alumni relations and NIL.

After the presentation, they fielded questions from potential donors that highlighted the murky areas of NIL. What kind of return could a small business expect from working with a player? How are contracts negotiated? Could you give to specific players? Would NCAA rules continue to change?

Buford, Carter and Gag presented a unified front, a separate-but-together mindset. These are two different entities for donors — the Golden Gopher Fund is a nonprofit, Dinkytown Athletes is not — but the university is encouraging donors to funnel donations to Dinkytown Athletes for one major reason: The success of the entire athletic department depends on it.

"It is a top priority for our coaches, that is our reality," Clements said. "We did a great deal of work: Athletes Village, the football stadium, other projects, the golf practice facility, wrestling update, all of that. Thank goodness the leadership of Minnesota made that happen when they did because we're in a spot now where we do have some bandwidth to focus [donations] on NIL."

Internally, everyone at the U is aware of the intensity around this topic.

"I would say our staff has never felt the sort of urgent pressure to fundraise as you have in the last year," Clements said. "Because we want Dawn Plitzuweit to have what she needs to be successful. And Ben [Johnson]. And P.J. [Fleck]. And Keegan."

"The number of donors didn't double, it's the same donors and really the same investment from them, we're just shifting it around a little bit."

'Support changes'

The host of the NIL event was Katie Harms, the kind of inquisitive donor that any college would covet. Harms' daughter Katherine was first-team All-America in volleyball under Hugh McCutcheon, and her husband, Dana is an orthopedic surgeon who received his medical degree from Minnesota. The family has committed a significant amount of money, including a major donation to build the volleyball team's training room, which bears their name.

"It has become part of who I am," Harms said of the U.

She does not work at a slow pace. When Harms learned about the seismic impact of NIL from Gretchen Ambrosier at the Golden Gopher Fund two years ago, she devoured everything she could on the topic. Harms was a natural conduit between the Gophers, where she has served as a booster club president, and Dinkytown Athletes, where she now serves as a consultant.

"Support changes," Harms said. "You look at how things were done 50 years ago and it's not the same. We are in this weird pendulum swing and I think it has to come back ... but where I want to put the focus back to is how do we support the athletes?"

For many donors, that question is the nexus between the Golden Gopher Fund and NIL.

Julie Jensen and Larry Shelley are devout Gophers fans, with the pitch of that passion around volleyball. They travel to road matches and have great seats at Maturi Pavilion. Julie is slightly more boisterous and happy referring to herself as "mama bearish" when it comes to her feelings about the program.

They have donated to the Golden Gopher Fund for decades — giving money for locker room remodels, the performance center, team trips and a scholarship in honor of former volleyball coach Mike Hebert. Those kinds of donations provide them with unique access, like attending private practices or coach's circle discussions.

"You feel like you build some personal relationships, so when they come and say we're going to build a performance center, you think, 'Yeah! We'll chip in some money,'" Shelley said.

But with NIL, the donors, like the athletes, now have a stronger hand in the financial model of how to improve an athletic program. The value proposition is clearer, a certain amount of money can help build a roster, but that doesn't mean donors want the relationship to simply be transactional.

"There isn't an established recipe for how to do this. We can create it and do it differently," Jensen said. "This is the way that we can still support the program but also have a way to support individual athletes on their journeys."

Athletic departments, which existed forever as both the financial boss and middleman, have no choice but to figure out their financial role alongside NIL. The U is no different.

"I harp on being positive about it," Clements said. "It's going to be here in five years, 10 years and 20 years, no matter what else happens, because there are standout student-athletes that are going to be able to profit off it."

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