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Wednesday, December 07, 2022

The story behind Florida’s NIL leader

Since its founding in August, the Gator Collective has soared to sign athletes like Anthony Richardson and Zachary Carter

The Gator Collective, pioneered by former Florida pitcher Eddie Rojas, has grown into a prominent NIL force in Gainesville.
The Gator Collective, pioneered by former Florida pitcher Eddie Rojas, has grown into a prominent NIL force in Gainesville.

Eddie Rojas never intended to enter the NIL market. 

The former pitcher who threw for Gators baseball from 1997-2000 moved away from the diamond and to an office in Altamonte Springs, Florida,, where he ran an investment firm with 40 employees.

However, after athletes began profiting off their name, image and likeness on July 1, Rojas witnessed an opening.

“After this whole NIL thing started, I saw no one was taking the bull by the horns,” Rojas said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if fans had the opportunity to get to know Anthony Richardson?’ Too often, fans only get to hear players through the media, but we don’t get to interact with them directly.”

Rojas determined that, if fans were willing to spend $6 on a coffee, they would pay $6 a month to hear directly from athletes. With that vision, Rojas launched the Gator Collective on Aug. 24 with five football players initially on board – Zachary Carter, Mohamoud Diabate, Diwun Black, Keon Zipperer and Gerald Mincey.

Fast forward four months, and over 60 athletes have signed on with the Gator Collective, which now boasts over 1,200 active subscribers. The collective rakes in over $13,000 a month in fees.

Rojas said he started the venture simply because he wants to see Florida win national championships.

“I am a Florida Gator through and through, I wear orange and blue to the office every day,” Rojas said. He described an old UF commercial, which told students and alums to achieve tasks like starting a Fortune 500 company, among other goals. He explained Florida maintains a culture of entrepreneurship.

While the lowest price options come in at $5.99 a month, Rojas said the average monthly payment lands at $40.27.

“I wanted to do it where the students could get involved, but if you wanted to give more, you could,” he said. “I want to get people involved, because if you don’t, we can’t be NIL U.”

When many people think of NIL, they conjure up images of college athletes selling products and earning a stipend in return, but Rojas looked to switch it up a bit.

“I don’t like brokering an athlete, I wanted this to be a little more interactive, more value-based,” he said. “Now, when Diwun Black comes on the field next season, all the fans are cheering for him as if he’s a friend.”

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Rojas attributed the organization’s success to staying aggressive while always looking out for new athletes.

Ben Troupe first heard about the Gator Collective on Twitter. The former Gators tight end hadn’t planned on getting involved, but he reached out to Rojas and expressed interest. Rojas, in turn, invited Troupe to join the advisory council, which includes other former Gator football players – Major Wright, Cornelius Ingram, Shannon Snell and Johnny Rutledge.

“I wish I would have come up with something like this,” Troupe said. “When people hear money is involved, they often think someone is benefiting financially, but that’s not why I got involved.”

Troupe  wanted to stay up to date with the program and provide mentorship to the players. As a former athlete, he understands the struggles players go through and wishes a similar service had been available to him during his time in Gainesville.

“Having it would have been bigger than the money,” Troupe said. “I could have gotten advice and been able to ask people questions. I didn’t really play until senior year, and I had so much time between my freshman and junior year, and I could have spent that time building my brand.”

Troupe attempts to help players comprehend the opportunities offered to them at UF once their playing career ends.

“Most of these young people don’t know how big UF is because you’re in it,” he said. “You can use this to help you in your career after football. When I was in college, I wanted to know what the coaches can’t tell me, and I think that’s where I now step in.”

Many players experience the peak of their fame at Florida, Troupe said, and they aren’t ready for the downfall that accompanies them after graduation. Troupe assists them in preparing for that moment and what will come next, molded by his example as he now writes, speaks and works with nonprofits.

Defensive tackle Antonio Valentino is rapidly approaching that point as the redshirt senior just concluded his first and last season with the Gators. His teammates were the first to tell him about the Gator Collective, which he now uses to combat rising homelessness in Gainesville.

He said the concept confused him at first, but when peers like Gervon Dexter and Jacob Copeland brought him to a Gator Collective event, he said the vibe impressed him.

“I met this little boy, and he was asking us a million and one questions,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of when I was a kid because I am from Columbus, Ohio, and I know what it feels like to look up to guys. You played for the Buckeyes; you were my best friend.”

Valentino said those interactions with fans stood out to him the most about the Gator Collective, not the NIL benefits.

“Miscommunication is something that really bothers me a lot,” he said. “Most of the time, people only hear about me from the internet, so I want to take advantage of the limited amount of time when people actually want to know me.”

Outside of the connections with fans, the Gator Collective helped Valentino adjust to live in Gainesville and the south. The Penn State transfer struggled with his new community at first, but the Gator Collective gave him a shot with the people he’s met in the community.

Above all, Valentino believes he is prepared for what will hit him after graduation.

“I’m very thankful I was able to build this support system now and not have to fend for myself after I leave,” he said. “Life after football is a scary thing, and you don’t know if people will still care about you, but the more you connect with people now, the more they will understand you as a human being.”

Valentino said he plans on staying involved with the Gator Collective and repaying all the kindness UF showed him during his playing career.

Rojas still harbors lofty expectations for the collective, determined to prove the university will become “NIL U.”

“I am the first one to coin that phrase, and to me, it means we are a community of Gator fans who have the opportunity to create relationships with our favorite athletes,” he said. “We want to help create the future for the University of Florida.”

Fans can find out more information and subscribe to the Gator Collective at thegatorcollective.com.

Contact Noah Ram at nram@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1.

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Noah Ram

Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.


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