Connecting athletes to NIL money. Gophers boosters making it happen.

The NIL revolution: An occasional Star Tribune series starts today, examining how the name, image and likeness era is transforming college sports. The first story: Understanding NIL and how Dinkytown Athletes connects Gophers athletes to endorsement deals.

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If you see Dawson Garcia draining a three-pointer for the Gophers men's basketball team, 53-year-old Rob Gag might have contributed an assist.

If you see Darius Taylor dash 50 yards for a touchdown this fall, 45-year-old Derek Burns might have thrown a key block.

A small council of insiders in Minnesota works overtime to keep Gophers student-athletes as Gophers, to keep these young stars in maroon and gold, as opposed to red and white or black and gold. No two people are more involved in this effort than Gag and Burns, whose fingerprints are on most name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement deals being struck by Gophers athletes.

Burns and Gag are the co-founders of Dinkytown Athletes, one of the many so-called collectives hatched in the fledgling NIL era that is transforming college sports. NIL is simply shorthand for athletes getting paid for being who they are. And collectives are the middle entity between donors and student-athletes and athletic departments.

How important are Burns' and Gag's roles? Just ask football coach P.J. Fleck who sounded the alarm last September, warning that the Gophers' best players were potentially leaving for greener NIL pastures and pleading for fans to support Dinkytown Athletes.

"If we want to keep players ... all these guys we have, they won't be here next year," Fleck said during his weekly radio show. "I'm making sure everybody understands. ... We'll be a Triple-A ballclub for somebody else. That is the reality and the truth of the situation."

This is where Burns and Gag try to make a difference. There are well over 100 collectives across the country, and most major universities like Minnesota have at least one endorsed collective. Dinkytown Athletes is Minnesota's official collective, and its goal is to connect Gophers athletes to endorsement money.

"We're here to support them, and we want to win. That's why Derek and I do it every day,'' said Gag, a Stillwater native and St. John's graduate who became a Gophers fan through family ties.

Athletes can transfer schools with ease now, thanks to loosened NCAA transfer rules, making NIL deals crucial in retaining players. While the importance of NIL deals has become clear, understanding them is another challenge.

"You've got to do a lot of myth-busting because people's perception of NIL is for the most part really wrong," said Burns, an Eden Prairie native and former Gophers offensive lineman.

With three showcase NCAA events set to arrive in the Twin Cities later this winter — Big Ten men's and women's basketball in March and the NCAA men's Frozen Four in April — change is the only constant in this new era of college sports. Another, more jarring, example came Feb. 23, when a federal judge ruled the NCAA can no longer enforce its NIL restrictions in recruiting. Under the ruling, the NCAA cannot stop collectives from offering money to recruits.

"That's a big decision that changes things," Burns said. "That's certainly going to have an impact.''

Dinktown Athletes' origin story

For decades, the NCAA forbid college athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness, and limited their movement through restrictive transfer rules that required them to sit out a season if they switched schools.

In 2018, the NCAA adopted the transfer portal, a database in which athletes could enter their name and intent to transfer, allowing any coach to contact them. Athletes are allowed a one-time transfer without penalty.

The biggest game-changer came in 2021, with the NCAA v. Alston case in which the Supreme Court, via a 9-0 vote, ruled that the NCAA was unlawfully restricting student-athletes from earning money from their name, image or likeness. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, wrote: "The NCAA's business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America."

The NCAA responded nine days later by instituting a policy that allowed NIL opportunities. Suddenly, with student-athletes able to make money off themselves and to transfer with immediate eligibility, the college sports landscape took on a Wild West feel. A common one-liner in the business is that NIL stands for "Now It's Legal."

Burns and Gag were executives at St. Paul-based Tierney before selling their stakes during a 2021 merger. They planned to take a year off before starting their next venture. Burns, who played for the Gophers from 1997-2001, has a guest role on the Gopher Gridiron Radio podcast with Luke Buer and received a pitch from Buer to help start a Gophers collective.

"To be honest, we were a little bit apprehensive because it was a startup," Burns said. "Rob and I don't know startups."

Intrigued, they gave it a go, co-founding Dinkytown Athletes with Burns as president and Gag as vice president. Dinkytown Athletes launched in September 2022 and became the official NIL collective for Gophers athletics.

Minnesota's athletic department took a deliberate approach toward NIL rather than rushing into it.

"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," Athletics Director Mark Coyletold the Star Tribune recently. "We've been very strategic in how we built our partnership with Dinkytown Athletes. … And I'm very thankful and proud of our coaches because we haven't made false promises."

There were early bumps along the way, but the partners persevered.

"In our previous business, we've always talked about blocking and tackling, the fundamentals," Gag said. "That's what you have to do at this job. There are times we've gotten the crap kicked out of us, but you get up for the next play and get going."

How Dinkytown Athletes works

In their mission to fund NIL opportunities, Dinkytown Athletes (DTA) relies heavily on a grassroots movement. Monthly memberships to DTA for donors start at $10. Burns and Gag certainly want to land big-money donors and have some of them, but they're also trying to get as many fans involved as possible.

"We are not in a market where we can rely on a small handful of individuals to foot this effort," Burns said. "For us to do it here in Minnesota, we have a really robust number of fans — bigger than I think people think. … How I think we need to do it in Minnesota is through the memberships — many people contributing smaller amounts."

Since its inception, DTA has provided support to 222 Gophers athletes. Burns said the collective is most heavily involved with football, men's and women's basketball, men's hockey and volleyball.

"We have the structure in place to provide NIL support to all U of M student-athletes in all sports, and that is our goal as we grow our fan membership," Burns said. For competitive reasons, he would not divulge DTA's financial figures.

Student-athletes are paid through the collective for appearances, autograph sessions and social media video messages, among other ventures. There's an apparel store on the DTA website; people can order T-shirts, hoodies and jerseys featuring Gophers athletes, who receive a proceed of the sales.

One of the most popular of DTA's endeavors is its partnership with Gray Duck Spirits, which brews Duck Duck Beer, an American light lager, at Surly Brewing. Twenty percent of Duck Duck Beer's revenue goes to Dinkytown Athletes.

"That's been a lot of fun," Burns said. "We've probably gotten more exposure from our brand collaborations than anything else."

Max Forer, a lawyer and a former offensive lineman for Oregon, keeps a close watch on the rapid coast-to-coast NIL boom and has negotiated more than 400 NIL deals. He likes the approach Minnesota is taking with Dinkytown Athletes.

The membership model "is an effective model as long as the fans as members are getting something in return," Forer said "… the thought that you've had a positive impact on these kids' lives."

Gophers football gaining

The NCAA's rules say that university officials cannot directly give NIL money to student-athletes, so collectives serve as a conduit. In Dinkytown Athletes' case, the liaison in the U's athletic department is Jeremiah Carter, senior associate athletic director for NIL/policy and risk management.

Carter, who played played for the Gophers with Burns, moved to his new role last year after being compliance director since 2015. He also worked for the NCAA for six years. His dealings with Dinkytown Athletes are to inform and educate.

"We, under NCAA rules, don't tell them how much to pay certain players or things like that," Carter said. "At the same time, it's really important that we're in alignment with the coaching staff, administration and Dinkytown Athletes. We do have a lot of conversations about what are the priorities for the upcoming year."

"Coaches are not allowed to be a part of contracts or payments to athletes or get involved in the numbers, Burns said. "And that's respected at Minnesota."

Once the Gophers football regular season ended, the plan was to prioritize retaining the team's best players. Teams now are poaching players from other programs, offering NIL money as enticement. The practice runs counter to NCAA rules, but like holding in football, if it's not called, the program isn't penalized.

The Gophers, for example, lost standout freshman running back Bucky Irving to Oregon in 2022. Irving, whose NIL valuation was more than $800,000 in 2023, according to, went on to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Ducks and recently declared for the NFL draft.

Dinkytown Athletes was in a better position to help this offseason — Burns agreed with Fleck's estimation that DTA had roughly eight times as much money to work with in 2023 than 2022. The Gophers retained key players and DTA members such as Taylor, who starred as a true freshman tailback last year; wide receiver Daniel Jackson; cornerback Justin Walley; defensive end Jah Joyner, and linebacker Cody Lindenberg, among others.

Before the Feb. 23 federal court injunction that stopped the NCAA from enforcing NIL rules, Burns said Dinkytown Athletes did not get involved in recruiting or talk to recruits.

"We haven't changed our behavior as of yet,'' Burns said Monday, adding that DTA is waiting to hear from the athletic department on the matter. "That should come sooner than later."

Competing with Wisconsin, Iowa

Burns and Gag realize that Dinkytown Athletes isn't at the financial level of collectives at powers such as Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama, but they see the collective being competitive regionally.

"It's difficult to get hard data because a lot of these collectives are private companies," Burns said. "… They don't disclose their figures because of competitive intelligence reasons. But if you're to draw from anecdotes, it's fair to say that we're probably in the middle of the Big Ten. We are behind Iowa because Iowa started ahead of us. … I would say Wisconsin, we're probably closer — right there with Wisconsin as a direct competitor.''

Athletics Director Coyle pointed to the success that Iowa women's basketball star Caitlin Clark has had with national NIL contracts and how opportunities, big or small, can help.

"I'm excited to see [injured Gophers basketball star] Mara Braun on a billboard, getting her opportunity," Coyle said. "NIL has had a really good impact on our program."

Coyle considers himself a traditionalist when it comes to college sports and acknowledges the "disruptions" caused by all the changes can be a lot for fans to digest. He also knows there's no going back.

"We've talked internally with our staff," Coyle said, "and you either embrace it or you become a dinosaur."