Eggers – Lapped in the race? Dam Nation doing its best to prevent it
Published: Jul. 14, 2023
By Kerry Eggers | www.KerryEggers.com
Tim Shelton’s hit-and-run farewell to Oregon State came in a June 14 article in The Oregonian.
In the piece, Shelton revealed that part of the reason he left his job as assistant coach for men’s basketball at OSU for a like position at Colorado State was NIL disparities.
Among Shelton’s comments concerning the situation with Beaver basketball players and NIL:
“We’re asking them to (play) for from very little to nothing… We didn’t get those kids because of money, but we need to be able to retain them. We’re not going to be Arizona. Not going to be Washington or Oregon. That’s fine. That gives us an extra chip on our shoulder. But we can’t be last in those resources. When it came down to my decision, I was worried about that… You’re like, ‘Man, are we going to get lapped before we get in the race?’”
What appeared to be a damning of NIL collectives “Dam Nation” and “Giant Killers” required further explanation. Did Shelton, who left after his first year at OSU, mean last in the Pac-12 in NIL resources? Does he believe Colorado State is able to offer its athletes more NIL opportunities? Or more likely, that the Rams will be able to compete better against the likes of Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State than the Beavers can vs. Arizona, Washington and Oregon?
Shelton wasn’t talking when I reached him by phone a few days later.
“I’m not answering any more NIL questions,” he said. “I’m over that. I’m working now.”
When I started to ask him if he could simply clarify his position, Shelton cut in with, “You have a nice day. Talk soon.”
Oregon State responded quickly with a release featuring statements from head basketball coach Wayne Tinkle and athletic director Scott Barnes.
“We disagree with (Shelton’s) sentiments regarding NIL as it pertains to Oregon State and the ongoing efforts being made in this space,” Barnes said. “We continue to retain the vast majority of our student-athletes and provide multiple opportunities for education, understanding and connectivity to NIL opportunities.”
When I spoke with Tinkle, I asked if Oregon State basketball is last in NIL resources in the Pac-12.
“I don’t know that exactly,” Tinkle said. “What I do know is, we have a lot of positive things coming down the pike. Our players are excited about the work that’s being done. That’s shown by the fact we lost none of our core freshman group.”
Oregon State lost its best overall player, sophomore Glenn Taylor, to St. John’s. The Beavers retained freshmen Jordan Pope, Tyler Bilodeau and Michael Rataj, keys to the program moving forward.
There is a distinction that needs to be drawn before any discussion about NIL and Oregon State. Some schools are using NIL as a recruiting tool, both of high school and junior college athletes but also out of the transfer portal. Not the Beavers.
“We really haven’t gotten after guys in the portal who are asking for a lot in the NIL,” Tinkle says. “We want it to help us retain the guys we have. Down the road, would there be an instance where it’s the right fit? Maybe. But mostly, we want to take care of the guys we’ve got.
“We are very confident that the ‘Dam Nation’ people will have some exciting stuff for our program and other Oregon State programs.”
That’s certainly the way Kyle Bjornstad sees it. Bjornstad, co-founder of Dam Nation with former Nike executive Dick Oldfield, read Shelton’s comments with interest.
“I definitely disagree,” said Bjornstad, who played basketball at Oregon State from 2007-09 under coaches Jay John and Craig Robinson and later served 13 years in the OSU athletic department. “We are actually in a very good spot. The way Dam Nation is set up, the support we have gotten points directly at what is important to us — retention of student-athletes.
“Look at our rosters and you will see we have been able to do that, including basketball. We feel good about what we have done to date. We have made a lot of progress with the help of Beaver Nation, but the need for more is not going to go away. We are going to need more resources to continue to do what we’re doing.”
The NCAA put Name, Image and Likeness rules into effect on July 1, 2021, legitimizing what had been done under the table at SEC, er, some schools for years — paying their student-athletes.
In May 2022, “Giant Killers” became Oregon State’s first collective. Former OSU baseball/football player Scott Sanders organized a small group of boosters who put up the money themselves.
On its website, the collective offers four levels of contributors: All-American ($2,501 and up), All-Conference ($1,001-$2,500), Scholarship ($101-$1,000) and Walk-On ($10-$100).
Despite a management team that includes Sanders and former OSU football players Dave Montagne, Bill Swancutt and Yvenson Bernard, Giant Killers never caught on. The collective is still in operation, but has deferred to Dam Nation, which is considered by Oregon State as its “preferred” collective.
“We have scaled it way down,” Sanders says. “We are laying low and seeing what projects we need to help Jonathan and Mitch with. Kyle has done a great job, and Oregon State is promoting them as the main collective, which is fine for us. If Kyle needs help from us, we’ll do it.”
Sanders read Shelton’s comments about Oregon State being last in NIL resources.
“I don’t think he’s right,” Sanders says. “Kyle has done a heck of a job helping out our athletes. And (Giant Killers reps) have done what we can.”
During its first year, Giant Killers — aimed primarily to help coaches Jonathan Smith in football and Mitch Canham in baseball — provided $5,000 apiece for 22 football players and two baseball players at a cost of about $125,000. Through Kiefer Nissan of Corvallis and Albany, Sanders and Co. also helped facilitate a dozen cars used by football, men’s basketball and baseball players.
“They have to pay insurance,” Sanders says, “but it helps.”
Last November, Giant Killers sponsored an NIL event at Jim Fisher Volvo in Portland, featuring eight football players, including Jack Colletto and Damien Martinez. Several hundred Beaver fans came by for conversation, photos and autographs.
Next year, Sanders intends to provide a campus annual parking pass (worth $500) to all 105 football players.
“It will be our Oprah Winfrey moment,” he says. “We want to make sure the locker room is happy.”
Sanders doesn’t have the time or wherewithal to run a major operation, however. His plan was to help out on the two sports in which he had the most interest. There was a need for a bigger entity that could help on a grander scale, one that could contribute funds to all sports. That’s where Dam Nation comes into play.
“Scott and I have had really good conversations,” Bjornstad says. “This goes back months. He has been nothing but great in that regard. He got first to the party, but we jumped in and wanted to help all sports and be able to put a lot of effort and energy into it.”
Soon after it went into operation last fall, Dam Nation paid a substantial fee to partner with Learfield, the college sports marketing company that works with Oregon State.
“It was a significant investment Dick and I made together as we got this up and going,” Bjornstad says. “It was not something donors paid for. We did that on our own. We felt it was important to do.”
Bjornstad and Oldfield consider the brand recognition critical, as well as the ability to promote the collective within Oregon State’s venues.
“Where NIL should evolve to, it should not be a donor-funded initiative,” Bjornstad says. “It should be funded by businesses and come from marketing dollars that help fill the pipeline so we can do our work. The connection with Learfield is a perfect example. Businesses that have identified with OSU sports support us. Strategically, it makes a lot of sense.”
For now, though, most of the Dam Nation supporters are individuals. On its website (damnationcollective.com), there is a “Wall of Honor” that lists contributors. There are 16 who qualify as Diamond donors ($5,000 and up), three Platinum ($2,500-$4,999), 20 Gold ($1,000-$2,499), nine Silver ($500-999) and more than 100 Bronze ($100-$499).
“By August, that list will grow substantially with business names, because we will have a lot of activity during July,” Bjornstad says.
Former football great Steven Jackson is Dam Nation’s chief ambassador. In turn, Jackson signed current OSU running back Martinez to an NIL deal. Jackson’s apparel company, OBS Lifestyle Brand, named Martinez as its first collegiate student-athlete brand ambassador.
Dam Nation ambassadors include alums from various sports, including football (Jackson and Ryan Nall), men’s basketball (Gary Payton II), baseball (Steven Kwan), women’s basketball (Mikayla Pivec), women’s soccer (Emmy Rodriguez) and gymnastics (Taylor Ricci and Yuki Igarashi).
On Dam Nation’s website under “Roster,” more than 50 OSU athletes are listed, including 36 football players, six basketball players (though two, Taylor and Nick Krass, have transferred), three women’s basketball players, four gymnasts and three softball players).
“We haven’t worked with every sport to this point, but that is our goal,” Bjornstad says. “By fall, the list of athletes we are engaging with is going to double, at least.”
Through Opendorse.com, Oregon State has its own NIL marketplace called “The Wood Shop.” Athletes from all sports advertise a willingness to perform a variety of duties (appearances, phone calls, autograph signings, etc.) for a minimum fee listed by their photos. Most set their starting price at $11 to $17, but others are higher. Quarterback DJ Ulagalelei’s price is “from $125,” while Olympic gold medalist gymnast Jade Carey’s standard is “from $492.” Through the website, athletes are on their own to make deals of their choosing.
Dam Nation, working outside the university but following its guidelines, is making no cash payments to Oregon State athletes.
“They have to do something in exchange in terms of an NIL activity for their compensation,” Bjornstad says. “Every deal goes through Opendorse.”
During the spring, a Dam Nation-sponsored grand opening event at a new Les Schwab store in Corvallis attracted 200 to 300 Beaver sports followers. In early June, more than 40 OSU athletes participated in a community event at Corvallis that also drew a crowd, a meet-and-greet that had the athletes signing autographs and taking photos.
Dam Nation is doing things to promote its brand. They have created billboards in and around Corvallis and on Highway 99 toward Junction City.
“We also have one in Eugene, a mile from Autzen Stadium,” Bjornstad says with a chuckle. “That’s kind of cool. Because we’re contracted through Learfield, we’re able to use Beaver marks — the Beaver head, the logo, athletes in uniform — in all that we do.”
OSU athletes have done radio spots during sporting events, or that air as advertisements on stations throughout the state.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Bjornstad says. “We promote individual student-athletes, but also Oregon State athletics.”
Giant Killers and Dam Nation are both LLCs, a business structure that offers limited liability protection to its owners. Like Sanders, Bjornstad and Oldfield are not taking a salary from their collective. On top of operating expenses, they are getting nothing. In fact, they both have made considerable personal contributions to the cause. And they have very little help.
“The ambassadors help, but in terms of the day-to-day grind, it really is Dick and me,” says Bjornstad, who served several years as chief of staff for OSU athletic director Scott Barnes. “This is a labor of love for both of us. We are doing this because Oregon State needs to be in the game. We mean what we say. Every dollar we bring in goes to create opportunities for our student-athletes.
“The big thing here is we’re trying to build this for sustainability. We need all hands on deck. We need Beaver Nation to rally behind us for this to be sustainable. We’re full-bore, putting out maximum effort. It’s an all-out war.”
The war is not being fought just within the Pac-12, but nationwide. Opendorse, the company that connects student-athletes with businesses, expects NIL earnings to top $100 million by the end of 2023.
Spyre Sports Group’s goal is to generate at least $25 million annually for Tennessee athletics. Miami booster John Ruiz’s Canes Connection has allocated $10 million to spend annually in compensating Hurricane athletes. Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama and Ohio State have collectives tossing around major-league money, and Oregon’s Division Street — with Phil Knight lending his financial heft — has the Ducks able to compete with anybody in terms of landing top athletic prospects.
SMU’s Boulevard collective reportedly is paying every player on its football and men’s and women’s basketball teams $36,000 a year — a total payout of $3.5 million annually — for NIL activity. Such compensation is unprecedented in college athletics.
Oregon State can’t begin to compete with such extravagance. And again, let’s emphasize: The goal is not to use NIL funds for recruiting. With Dam Nation, it’s about supporting those athletes who are already on campus, or at least letting recruits know that they will be taken care of once they arrive.
One report said that basketball player Jordan Pope signed a six-figure deal to stay at Oregon State. You may have heard that Ugalalelei received $1 million to transfer from Clemson. “Not true,” Bjornstad says to both.
“By NCAA rule, you are not to use NIL as a form of enticement for recruiting,” Bjornstad says. “Let’s not kid ourselves. Paying athletes (under the table) has been going on for decades. NIL is a vehicle that provides a path for it to happen more openly. (NCAA officials are) going to have to get their arms around this. When they do, we will be able to point that everything we’ve done has been the right way. We are not going to do anything to put Oregon State in jeopardy and get in the recruiting game. We know it’s happening nationally, but we are not going to go there.”
Last year, Oregon State was in the hunt to recruit Air Force right-hander Paul Skenes, who was in the transfer portal. He wound up at Louisiana State, where he won D1 Baseball Player of the Year honors and pitched the Bayou Tigers to the College World Series title — beating Oregon State in the Baton Rouge Regional. On July 9, the Pittsburgh Pirates made Skenes the first pick in the MLB draft.
“He could have been in a Beaver uniform,” Scott Sanders says. “He ended up going to LSU for the money. That’s the world we’re living in right now. We had him. NIL is the reason we didn’t get him. Strictly because of the money. The bigger SEC schools have unlimited resources. That’s tough to compete against.”
This year, the Beavers lost out on Sacramento State shortstop Wehiwa Aloy — the WAC Freshman of the Year — to Arkansas. And UCLA pitcher Kelly Austin, the Bruins’ No. 1 starter, to Florida. NIL money was at least a factor.
“We have seen it in the baseball landscape,” says Darwin Barney, the former OSU shortstop great now an assistant coach on Canham’s staff. “What a lot of schools are doing is using NIL money as if they are scholarships.”
The NCAA allows only 11.7 scholarships in baseball. Schools richest in NIL funds — hello, SEC — are filling in.
“They are paying the athletes as if it were a scholarship with NIL money, and that opens up roster flexibility,” Barney says. “That way you take care of your entire 32-man roster, and now you can reset your roster every year.”
Beyond that, there are financial enticements.
“Recruits are telling us, ‘They start with this number. What do you have?’ ” Barney says. “And we don’t have it. We don’t even have stipend money to give to everybody.”
Canham is not oblivious to the effect NIL has on recruiting. He admits he is not sure where Oregon State is on the spectrum.
“I talk to coaches all across the country, and I have talked with kids who were in the portal and heard their stories,” Canham says. “It’s hard to say where we’re at. There are a lot of schools that don’t have a lot of stuff going. They are still trying to get a collective set up and figure things out. We have had collectives now for a little while. I’d like to think it’s a good thing, but…
“There is a lot of money being thrown around. Some of those other conferences are pulling guys away and using their resources. Some schools can give a kid more than what they’d get in the (MLB) draft. We are going up against schools that have big collectives and money, and they are allowed now to negotiate above-board.”
Canham likes the idea of his athletes getting a chance to earn some money while in school.
“It’s great for kids to have a brand and get some (outside) work and get some resources,” he says. “We have to divide 11.7 scholarships up between 32 (players), and the roster size is 40. We take care of our guys, but it’s not like there is a lot of extra money to throw around.
“It does make it a challenge when other schools are able to offer extras. We have all heard the rumors. I watched one of the coaches talking on ESPN about how all the kids in the transfer portal are looking at things. It’s frustrating. It seems odd, encouraging kids to get out there and open up their commitment and go chase the money. Some of those conferences throw a lot of money at them. Why wouldn’t they if they have the resources and are allowed to do it?”
Canham’s heart is with Oregon State baseball. He was an All-America catcher and leader of the 2006 and ’07 teams that won back-to-back NCAA championships. He believes in what Pat Casey, the patriarch of OSU baseball, stands for. He is wholesome with a capital “W.”
“At Oregon State, we recruit guys who are looking for development and the top level of competition and what we bring to the table,” Canham says. “Once people are here, they fall in love with it and want to be here.”
Canham pauses, then continues.
“Baseball is continuing to change,” he says. “I like the idea of what it was when I was playing. Get your degree, learn how to be a better human being. It’s tough watching guys hop around from school to school now.”
Barney was a leader along with Canham on those Oregon State teams. He bleeds Beaver orange. He doesn’t want to accept anything but an attempt to be the best.
“Oregon State baseball is about getting to Omaha and winning national championships,” he says. “But when you run into a team like LSU that basically pays to put its team together with NIL money, and has the amazing resources…
“We don’t need to be in the top half of the conference (in NIL money), but we can’t be last. We are among the top five programs in the country the last 20 years. Look at our three outfielders last year (Wade Meckler, Jacob Melton, Justin Boyd). They all got drafted in the top 100 (MLB draft) picks, and not one of them played (regularly) all three years. We focus on development. By the time they are juniors, they are ready to go out and play every day and help us win a national championship. With LSU, they are going to go buy that guy. They are going to hit the portal as hard as they can.”
Barney isn’t sure what the future is like for Oregon State baseball.
“It’s an uphill battle, because there is not as much ‘old money’ out here as there is in the South,” he says. “It’s going to take the community to back our programs more. It’s going to take local businesses to sponsor guys and do NIL deals and use them in advertising.
“Oregon State can still compete. We can still do things the right way. We still have a Gavin Turley and guys like that who have NIL backing. But I don’t know how it’s going to work in the future. You have to hope that players love being a Beav.”
Dam Nation has done plenty of fund-raising with Oregon State alumni and fans and has received significant investments from regional businesses.
“I’m not going to talk about who is giving at what level,” Bjornstad says, “but a good number of people have jumped in and helped us. We are still a start-up. We need help these first couple of years. But we have a plan to execute that is going to work out well for Oregon State.
“We are asking folks to invest in what we are doing. It has been driven primarily by donors early on, and we have had very good response. But this is not sustainable, and it is not our business model. We want Oregon State’s donors to continue to invest in scholarships, facilities and things they have always done. As we got through the first year, we have leaned heavily on them.”
In recent months, Bjornstad and Oldfield have focused on meeting with local and regional business people for partnership opportunities in annual marketing campaigns.
“Oftentimes they are setting their budgets a year in advance,” Bjornstad says. “So as we meet with them, we are now talking about late 2023 or moving forward, which aligns well with our Year Two.”
Dam Nation began selling individual entry-level annual memberships for $100. Then Oregon State beat Oregon 38-34 in the Civil War game.
“For a few weeks after that, we did a $38.34 special,” Bjornstad says. “We had more than 300 people sign up. After the Vegas Bowl (a 30-3 victory over Florida), we ran a $303 special for a second-level membership (regular $500). We will continue to do fun things like that moving forward.”
After Shelton’s comments went viral, Bjornstad and Oldfield weren’t sure what the reaction would be in Beaver Nation.
“We were wondering what way that would go,” Bjornstad says. “Our first thought was, ‘That is out of bounds. We don’t agree with that at all.’ Scott and Wayne immediately issued a statement, and we got a lot of response. We heard from people who had already supported us and said, ‘What more can we help with?’ Then we heard from people we were in conversations with, and it seemed to light a fire, create a sense of urgency. So there was a positive element to it.”
Next month, Dam Nation will roll out a major marketing push and membership drive. They will ask alums, season ticket-holders and Beaver followers for monthly contributions to help Oregon State’s NIL war chest in exchange for “a number of perks,” Bjornstad says.
Dam Nation will have to be creative. Using alumni makes sense. Perks could include sit-down chats with Beaver sports celebrities such as Terry Baker, Steven Jackson, Gary Payton, Adley Rutschman, Jack Colletto and Mikayla Pivec. A photo shoot with 2007 Playboy Playmate of the Year Sara Jean Underwood (in the old days, we could have suggested a kissing booth; don’t think that works today). A business lesson from billionaire Wes Edens, a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, or the McMenamins, Mike and Brian. Inside the broadcasting world with former Blazer TV play-by-play guy Mike Barrett. A dive into what goes into writing a book with author…. Well, you get the picture.
I can’t say how successful Dam Nation will be in helping make Oregon State an attractive place for athletes, and preventing those on campus from leaving for what could seem to be greener pastures. Knowing Bjornstad and Oldfield, however, I am certain the collective will be organized and well-run, and the effort will be there.
“We get the right kids to Corvallis,” Bjornstad says. “They are not coming for NIL deals. But when they are in Corvallis and doing all the right things, we will find great NIL opportunities for them, which keeps them here. We believe by doing it the right way — the Beaver way — we are also contributing in the recruiting world. (Athletes) know if they come here, they are going to get those opportunities.
“The NIL is not going anywhere. We are going to do all we can to take care of business today.”