LOUDONVILLE — That Frank Ambrose, a 1985 graduate of Siena College, could sincerely describe the goal for Saints March On, the new name, image and likeness (NIL) collective he’s helping to spearhead, as “modest” was both striking and telling regarding how much has changed — and so quickly — in the world of college athletics.
“I think, out of the gate, we’re targeting $100,000 to get into the pool,” Ambrose said Thursday. “But I think we can . . . double [that goal], if not beyond, over the course of time.”
“There’s, obviously, no hidden secret that college athletics changes all the time — and it’s really changed significantly over the last year or two,” said John D’Argenio, who has served as Siena’s athletic director for the last three decades.
That change was on display Thursday inside the school’s Del Grosso Practice Court for basketball, the Franciscan college’s flagship sport. A day after one of Siena’s men’s basketball players — Andrew Platek, a former Guilderland High School star — took part in an endorsement event at a Dunkin’ less than two miles from the Saints’ campus, a launch event was held for the Siena-endorsed NIL collective, an organization meant to help ease the process of allowing Saints supporters to offer “direct compensation to student-athletes for their engagement across our community,” a practice previously antiethical for so long to the NCAA’s amateurism rules.
Saints March On was founded by Siena alumni Ambrose and Matt Moberg, the latter a 2009 graduate who played baseball at the school, as well as Ambrose’s wife, Sheila Ambrose. Frank Ambrose said he and his wife are “semi-retired; we do venture work, so we’re kind of investors at this point,” while Moberg is the general manager at Mohawk Golf Club in Niskayuna.
It was only within the last couple years that the NCAA — under mounting legal, political and public pressure — relaxed its rules to allow student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. Student-athletes are able to pursue those financial opportunities on their own, such as Platek with Dunkin’, but NIL collectives — which operate independently of their aligned college — allow for donors, fans and boosters to pool funds that can find their way to student-athletes.
Siena is the first of the Capital Region’s colleges with Division I athletic programs, a group that also includes the University at Albany, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to have an NIL collective supporting its student-athletes. Some major-conference schools have multiple NIL collectives supporting them, and a database maintained by On3 — which describes itself as “the premier college sports digital media, data and marketing company for fans, media, coaches, athletes and brands” — included 206 known NIL collectives as of Thursday morning.
At Siena, Saints March On opened with the “men’s and women’s basketball teams as the lead,” but with the promise that the school’s other student-athletes will eventually benefit. Siena, though, has traditionally made no secret regarding the priority it places on basketball in terms of its athletic department and overall brand, and saintsmarchon.com — where supporters can sign up for memberships ranging from $50 to $500 — prominently features an image of men’s basketball players Jared Billups and Javian McCollum, sophomore starters that Siena fans want to see stay in green-and-gold uniforms for the next couple of seasons rather than hit the NCAA transfer portal like more than 1,000 players now annually do across the country.
The NCAA’s NIL guidance mandates that compensation for a student-athlete can’t be directly tied to enrolling at a specific school or athletic performance. That means student-athletes, in some form, are expected to exchange some type of service for compensation, rather than a pure “pay-for-play” model more akin to a true professional model. As part of Thursday’s event, it was announced that Saints March On had helped women’s basketball player Valencia Fontenelle-Posson — another former Guilderland High School star playing for the Saints — secure an endorsement deal with Hannoush Jewelers.
“It’ll involve me being in commercials, and doing photo shoots for them, and doing Facebook Lives to promote their business,” said Fontenelle-Posson, a sophomore. “I’m very excited.”
For that deal, Fontenelle-Posson’s compensation will come via Saints March On, which is arranged as a limited liability company and set up as a “not for profit” entity. Student-athletes “could just negotiate [deals] on their own if they want to,” Ambrose explained, “but there’s a whole lot of other pitfalls,” such as NCAA compliance and tax issues, that the NIL collective is designed to help them navigate. Moberg said Siena’s student-athletes “will receive, at minimum, 90% of all funds,” contributed to the NIL collective.
Moberg said Saints March On would “love to be able to provide [every Siena student-athlete] with some form of opportunity,” but acknowledged that a “select few . . . might garner a little bit more attention.” Moberg provided the example that if a supporter wanted to offer money to “a certain player to come to their kid’s birthday party,” those funds could go direct to that student-athlete, but Ambrose said such transactions are not the intended focus of Saints March On.
“I mean, it’s a collective. It’s not an individual thing, right?” Ambrose said. “But, at the same time, if people feel strongly like that, there’s a means for us to be able to do that.”
Providing those means has become necessary in the eyes of many to keep a college athletics program competitive in a revenue sport. Siena men’s basketball has long had a passionate fan base, and regularly leads its mid-major conference — the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference — in attendance and ranks nationally within the top 100. An email blast went out Wednesday to men’s basketball season-ticket holders promoting the creation of Saints March On, and Ambrose said an initial sales pitch to folks on the fence regarding contributing to the NIL collective is that the cheaper memberships are similar in expense to buying “an extra ticket or two” for a game.
D’Argenio said “it’s been interesting” to see how rapidly college athletics shifted from fiercely trying to protect amateurism rules related to student-athletes being financially compensated to a situation like Thursday that saw Siena’s campus host the launch of a group designed to help those same student-athletes make money.
He also described that change as “great,” in his view.
“We whole-heartedly support them. We endorse Saints March On,” D’Argenio said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to continue to be involved in athletics. It’s another vehicle, and this vehicle supports our student-athletes.”
Contact Michael Kelly at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMichaelKelly.
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