Ben Hubbard remembers the old days.
Back when Hubbard first started attending Mississippi State women’s basketball games at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs weren’t the established power they came to be.
Instead, MSU struggled. Games were a family affair with maybe 500 people in the stands.
Then Vic Schaefer built on the success of Sharon Fanning-Otis, helping make Mississippi State into a national powerhouse. The Bulldogs made the national championship game twice and even beat UConn in the Final Four in 2017.
All of a sudden, those cheap seats vanished.
“You had 10,000 people showing up and a scramble to get (tickets),” Hubbard said.
Hubbard, a Mississippi native and MSU graduate, and Dr. Douglas Tucker — an anesthesiologist based in Jackson — saw an opportunity. Last July 1, when the NCAA permitted college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL), the two developed a plan.
“I’ve been around for a lot of Mississippi State games myself,” Hubbard said. “We understood that there’s a crowd there, a fanbase.”
In November, they launched CrowdPush, which offers crowdfunded NIL deals to college athletics programs. For example, Mississippi State fans can contribute to a campaign for the football team, and the total pool of donations will be spread evenly throughout the active roster.
A team or player accepting the funds is non-exclusive, and CrowdPush’s rights are non-transferable.
“I think we’re an easy way for local businesses to get involved without having to go through an actual NCAA-compliant NIL contract and to be able to support the team that the community cares about,” Hubbard said.
It’s an interesting strategy, one started in early 2020 by Denver-based StudentPlayer.com in advance of any NCAA NIL rules. For devoted fans, there’s plenty of upside.
Mississippi State executive senior associate athletic director for compliance Bracky Brett called NIL an “ever-changing” space.
“I don’t know that it’s any riskier than anything else out there,” Brett said of crowdfunded NIL deals. “The risk is, ‘How is it administered and who’s in charge of running it?’ That is the risk.”
Spreading the word
In the case of CrowdPush, Hubbard and Tucker initially set out to create a crowdfunding venture, but they weren’t sure where to turn.
Both devoted college football fans — Hubbard to Mississippi State and Tucker, a Louisiana native, to LSU — they noticed NIL was on the verge of changing the game in college sports. When the NCAA approved NIL on July 1, it became what Hubbard called “a blue ocean” to sell into.
He and Tucker brought aboard chief marketing officer Josh Goodin, a Fairhope, Alabama, native with two decades of sales and marketing experience. In November, they launched CrowdPush, promoting it on social media and message boards.
The site allows fans to contribute via either one-time or monthly recurring payments. Hubbard said CrowdPush is hoping to offer ACH payments soon.
But right away, the new company — with its payment form prominent on the site — ran into an issue.
“One of our first problems we had when we launched in November was just letting people know that this isn’t a scam and that this is legitimate,” Hubbard said. “We made the decision to leverage some of our dollars and efforts in order to sign some athletes so people knew.”
CrowdPush currently has 10 Mississippi State athletes listed as ambassadors on its website — six from the football team and four from the softball team.
Ambassadors are paid separately with CrowdPush marketing dollars to use social media to “educate the fanbase on what we’re trying to do,” Hubbard said.
Brett said social media-focused deals are par for the course, particularly at Mississippi State.
“Of all the deals our kids have done today, about 70 percent of them are social media related,” he said. “That’s by far the most common, and that’s pretty much the way it is nationally.”
Other sports in the spotlight
Brett noted that one player ambassador’s CrowdPush deal was worth $300 — relatively little compared to some Mississippi State athletes with NIL deals worth $1,000 or even $2,000.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable to the players scoring some extra money to help ease their way through school, he said.
“These crowdfunded deals aren’t, comparatively speaking, big-money deals — but they are deals,” Brett said.
That can help considerably in sports that don’t receive the revenue of football or men’s basketball, the big-time money-makers at nearly every school. Brett acknowledged not every athlete in every sport has the same market value — something Hubbard and Co. hope to rectify.
“That’s our whole problem statement: There is no ‘I’ in team, but there definitely is in NIL,” Hubbard said. “(Star players) can command massive deals. Most everybody in a lot of these sports is not going to get that.”
Brett said Mississippi State’s baseball team has been the most active of the Bulldogs’ programs when it comes to NIL — no surprise given its national title in 2021.
But crowdfunded deals can give other sports a chance to shine.
Of CrowdPush’s three campaigns related to the University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide men’s track and field team has received the most money — $900 as of Friday. Women’s gymnastics is second at $440, even ahead of football ($350).
But not every smaller sport is getting the same traction. While the Mississippi State football team has received over $8,100 so far and the baseball team nearly $2,000, the “push” for the Mississippi State softball team has resulted in just $78.
“I’d say I’m a little intrigued by how it just seems to be baseball, basketball and football to be the ones that we see that get the most support,” Hubbard said. “That’s what it’s been like.”
A new approach
That could change, of course. NIL already has and seemingly always will.
“You’ve got to recall, we haven’t been in this space a year yet,” Brett said. “What we knew in July was very little, and we know a little more today, but a month from now, you and I could have this conversation and it be totally different.”
Just Wednesday, Brett and the Bulldogs’ compliance department saw a change when Gov. Tate Reeves signed an updated version of Mississippi’s NIL law. Universities will now be permitted to communicate with third parties hoping to sign athletes; they can facilitate but not participate in discussions with athletes.
“That involvement is very important because it lets us put our hands on the deal a little more, and it allows us to communicate with our alumni and donors who have shown an interest in this space, and it allows us to educate and work with them a little more closely to make sure that what they’re doing is within the law,” Brett said.
Those final three words are paramount when it comes to NIL — and particularly to crowdfunded deals, Brett said. He said targeting specific athletes via crowdfunded endeavors can become “very problematic real quickly” and cast doubt on the team model practiced by CrowdPush and others.
“If everything is done within the law, I don’t think team-wide deals are financially sustainable unless some business, that’s really what they want to do,” Brett said.
It all comes down to who’s in charge — whether it’s at CrowdPush or other companies with similar missions. A company called TeamPaper offers fans the ability to sign up for a $10 monthly subscription, with the money going toward their favorite college team.
Only time will tell how CrowdPush and its competitors fare. After all, it’s been less than six months since Hubbard and Tucker launched the company. There’s plenty of time to let things play out.
“It’s a new approach in a new world,” Hubbard said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.