IOWA CITY, Iowa — It took time for Iowa supporters to build a collective. Too long for some inside the football and men’s basketball programs when juxtaposed alongside an $8 million quarterback at Tennessee, a legacy receiver choosing Oregon and seemingly every available rim protector finding another campus this spring.
There was a fear among fans of getting left behind peer programs throughout the Big Ten and Midwest. That anxiety grew in the spring when even a couple of prominent former football players who reside in Iowa couldn’t ignite a collective despite their financial prowess and name recognition.
Then stepped in Brad Heinrichs, a 1997 University of Iowa graduate and former golfer who now runs an actuarial business in Fort Myers, Fla. Known as “Tx_Hawk” on the prominent Hawkeye Report message boards, Heinrichs joined the mission, took it over and eventually it steered into existence.
In two months, Heinrichs launched “The Swarm Collective” as a nod to the football program’s four-decade game-day entrance. With a pair of former University of Iowa Foundation employees running the business, Heinrichs helped usher in a new era for Iowa athletics. On Tuesday in a sixth-floor hotel conference room overlooking Kinnick Stadium’s south end zone, football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball players joined their head coaches and a few assistants to welcome Heinrichs at the front of a room filled with community leaders and former alumni. Heinrichs spoke for 30 minutes and provided the calm along with The Swarm.
“I planned to just lend support,” Heinrichs said. “I noticed that we hadn’t formulated (a collective), and no entities have been created and there wasn’t as much traction as I would have expected. So, I joined in on a call or two of theirs, and finally, I said, ‘Just give me the keys for 30 days and let me set things up.’ And at that time, they wanted to be supportive, but they said, ‘It’s your car now.’
“I don’t know if I was reluctant at all, but it was not my intention to be in front of you. But it just so happened, and I’m happy to be here. This is pretty cool.”
At Iowa, it takes time to build a rapport and convince boosters to invest in an enterprise so new that 13 months ago providing financial support to athletes was a major NCAA violation. Since the US Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA’s abolition on athletes benefiting from their name, image and likeness, several players have appeared in local and regional television commercials. But the NIL remains a somewhat uncomfortable phrase after stories of programs claiming it as a recruiting inducement. But after waiting for someone like Heinrichs to take the lead, the business community and booster clubs are solidly behind The Swarm Collective.
Former National I-Club president and Des Moines attorney Jim Carney and former Iowa receiver and Aegon USA senior vice president Lon Olejniczak chose a gala this September to kickstart the collective. They’re selling tickets to celebrate 25 years of Iowa radio broadcaster Gary Dolphin behind the mic, plus honoring football sidekick Ed Podolak and basketball analyst Bobby Hansen. Their goal is to raise $1 million for The Swarm Collective.
“Between Lon and I, hell, we called 7,500 people,” Carney said. “It was never even a question. Yes. ‘What do I need to do?’”
On its own, The Swarm Collective will take a two-pronged approach. One vein is a 501c3 where every football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball player will receive a stipend in exchange for required appearances and services to nonprofits. The other is an LLC where either chief operating officer Scott Brickman or vice president for events and engagement Jayne Oswald contacts businesses first and then introduces them to athletes for promotional services.
“Brad’s vision is it’s the best of both worlds,” Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “There’s a collective aspect where everybody’s going to get rewarded. And then there’s going to be an opportunity to free market for those that have achieved and are notable.
“Our preference, our vision is to reward the players in our program. Hopefully, young players, prospects, if you will, look and see that players at Iowa do get rewarded. If you are a productive player, it’s going to be a good opportunity for you.”
Before the collective became official, Iowa’s football staff explained that philosophy up front to potential recruits. No prospect has approached Ferentz about NIL or collectives, he said. It’s completely different for men’s basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, who operates in a more cutthroat recruiting industry.
“It’s one of the first things that comes up, whether I bring it up or they bring it up,” McCaffery said. “It’s coming up every trip they make, not every conversation, though. But you have to get out front and talk about it.”
McCaffery has told recruits they’ll get paid through the collective but has avoided bringing up a specific dollar amount.
“It’d be nice if we could do it that way,” McCaffery said. “But you can’t lie. I’m not going to lie and tell him, ‘Here’s the number’ and we don’t reach that number. If we’re going to give him a number, we’re going to hit that number. And we will probably get there at some point.”
The cautious approach might scare away a few prospects, but those aren’t the ones likely to choose Iowa long term anyway. Men’s basketball player Kris Murray, whose twin brother, Keegan, was named the NBA Summer League MVP, could garner a major payday on the open market just for showing up. But he prefers Iowa’s method of compensating everyone for charitable work and allowing others to achieve financial success through commercial enterprises.
“We’re doing it the right way, in my opinion, which is a really good thing because you want to do it the right way,” Murray said. “We don’t want to kind of just throw money out and just say, ‘Here you go, here’s $100,000 to play for our team.’ That’s not what the University of Iowa is all about. It’s a community.”
For those who are concerned about NIL competing with the athletics department for funding, Heinrichs and other boosters shot that down. On the gala committee are some of Iowa’s most recognized donors, including Will and Renee Moon, who donated $10 million toward endowing the football head coach position.
“The same people who are supporting the foundation and the building projects are the same people that are on this committee,” Olejniczak said. “If it’s the right thing, they’ll step up for anything. And they felt this was the right thing. So, they’re stepping up.”
“Do I view it as a competition? No, we’re all Hawks,” Heinrichs said. “We’re all trying to further the brand and want all of our sports teams to be successful.”
Heinrichs cited Ohio State’s desire for $13 million annually to go toward the football players, and it’s unlikely Iowa gets there. But Heinrichs sees “several million dollars” annually as necessary to achieve his and the department’s competitive goals.
“My vision of a college athletics landscape is that the most successful programs will have a successful NIL program as well,” Heinrichs said. “I think you’re going to need a great athletics department. Good coaches, great players. You’re all going to need a strong NIL program. I think that’s the new world.”
That number might sound bold, but it will get there. Every time Iowa needs money for a new facility or to compensate a staff member, the donors step up. This process was initially disjointed, but it quickly built steam. Iowa might not turn into NIL superstars Miami or Texas A&M, but it doesn’t need to, either. With The Swarm Collective, at least it won’t fall behind. Perhaps next year at this time, it might even be ahead.
(Top Photo of Brad Heinrichs: Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)