Introducing: The Varsity Collective  

May 30, 2023by Hiebing

The rumbling of the bleachers, the blinding stadium lights and thousands of fans draped in their school colors – the anticipation of the game is electric. What is it about college sports that inspires such excitement? The answer is easy: the athletes on the rise.  
For decades, the NCAA enforced strict amateur status rules that rendered student athletes ineligible to receive paid endorsements for their name, image and likeness while on an athletic scholarship. In 2019, a movement to help student athletes monetize their fame without risking their eligibility began. After a long legal battle that culminated with a ruling from the Supreme Court, student athletes were granted access to monetization of their Name, Image and Likeness – NIL for short – in 2021.  
With the unprecedented nature of the newly implemented NIL laws, communities of alumni, donors and local citizens began to form collectives. These collectives are school-specific, independent groups that pool together money and resources to bring paid endorsement opportunities, educational support and personal branding best practices to these athletes on and off the field.  
True to their Badger mascot nature, the UW-Madison community rallied and got right to work – creating the first and only donor- and alumni-led NIL collective serving Wisconsin Badger student-athletes: The Varsity Collective Charitable Fund, Inc. – better known as The Varsity Collective (TVC).   
The newly formed Varsity Collective had to get the word out about their mission – and they had to do so in uncharted territory. We set out to solidify TVC’s arrival to the Wisconsin Badger community – and the collegiate athletics landscape at large – with a power-packed sports press conference.  

The Challenge:  

Given that we were introducing a previously unknown entity to a budding industry, defining a target audience and building an announcement strategy that could foster momentum for awareness and credibility became the primary challenge.  
Although NIL collectives are independent from the university itself, garnering support for these student athletes among the target audience – University of Wisconsin alumni, prospective donors and the general public in Wisconsin and beyond – would require a united front. Bringing together UW Athletic Department personnel and varsity sports coaches with notable leaders from the Varsity Collective was essential to bolstering credibility of not only the formal announcement of the arrival of the TVC, but also the value it could provide to the Wisconsin Badger athletes and community as a whole.  
We began crafting a strategy by conducting extensive research on the launch tactics employed by other major collectives at the time of their founding. We knew media coverage would be key – so we set out to find national media outlets and reporters who had established themselves as leading voices in NIL news.  
We created a media list of optimal contacts with a history of covering NIL news on a broad scale and crafted customized pitches around our chosen tactic – a live press conference, complete with a photo op and Q&A.  

By successfully landing coverage from these thought leaders, The Varsity Collective would not only increase awareness on the local and national scale, but also gain coveted credibility with their audiences. 

The Strategy:  

Little to no information about TVC was known to reporters prior to the launch campaign, so we wanted to give them time to digest the extensive information and prepare articles to be posted immediately following the launch of the press conference. To that end, we provided them with an embargoed press release 48 hours in advance.  
To get the event on the radars of local broadcast media and allow them to reserve a spot at the conference, we created a media alert with key information and sent it to relevant trade pubs one week in advance. The objective supporting these goals was set: Pitch the story of TVC to Wisconsin-based and national sports media outlets to garner upward of 3MM impressions.  
We grounded our strategy around providing tangible and extensive details around The Varsity Collective’s founding ideologies and their plans for future programming. With so many potential questions about the novel concept, we invited a blend of reporters, committed ambassadors, spokespeople and community leaders to the press conference. We provided an array of supplemental materials like fact sheets, FAQ documents and an infographic roadmap of The Varsity Collective’s charitable model.  

Now that our invite list was ready and our goals were set, our strategy had one more step to climb to catch media buzz: a stellar panel lineup that could play to the different zones of the holistic plan The Varsity Collective was bringing to the Wisconsin community.  

The Execution:  

We aligned a speaker lineup complete with several notable figures in the Wisconsin community, each of whom could speak to key portions of our audience:

  • Rob Master, TVC executive chair (and UW graduate)
  • Smita Reddy, TVC leadership team (UW graduate and Edelman US brand chair)
  • Joe Thomas, host of TVC’s “Badger Bigs” podcast (and former Wisconsin football player)
  • Ted Kellner, TVC leadership team (UW Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and longtime donor)
  • Lauren Cochlin, TVC Life Currency coordinator (and former Wisconsin soccer player)

By each focusing on a different topic zone, Rob, Smita, Joe, Ted and Lauren played a pivotal role in demonstrating the nature of The Varsity Collective’s programming and founding principles.

Throughout the press conference, the panel focused on the opportunities afforded student-athletes through the new NIL rules – and how The Varsity Collective could assist in creating an impact for the students, as well as the community, in the long run.  
Capturing the passion and emphasis each panelist contributed to the conference on video, we were able to quickly distribute The Varsity Collective’s message across platforms as a rallying cry to the Badger community. For 45 minutes following the conclusion of the official press conference, Varsity Collective leadership, UW Athletics personnel and a host of Badger coaches stayed in the room to answer questions from interested reporters on an individual and group basis.

The Impact:  

By all measures, the press conference (as a part of the broader launch campaign) was a resounding success. Over a dozen media members attended, including contacts from radio stations, television stations, online and print outlets around Wisconsin. This attendance includes all three of the largest TV newsrooms in Madison, which produce news programming for the local FOX, CBS, ABC and NBC affiliates. We exceeded our original goals by generating buzz with a total of 49 earned placements in local and national media outlets, resulting in over 5.4MM impressions – and counting!  

The opportunity for Varsity Collective leadership to personally meet with media and community members fostered the beginning of relationships that will certainly prove valuable as the collective becomes increasingly solidified in its programming and service for Wisconsin student-athletes.  


The Possible: Press conferences can create moments of community that drive awareness.  
The Proven: Well-planned PR has the transformative power to build awareness in a new sector.  

Looking for a partner that can generate buzz for your brand? Hiebing can help. Email Nate Tredinnick at to set up a call.

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