'Unlike any other business': Making money for college athletes is new frontier

Mar. 23—MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If Richard Pitino is the undisputed face of the state's most visible sports entity and arguably the biggest name in New Mexico athletics, the silent partner you may have never heard of is hiding in plain sight not far away.

A proud alumnus of the University of New Mexico, Kurt Roth is the founder and director of the athletic department's name, image and likeness initiative, the 505 Sports Venture Foundation.

Consider the Brooklyn native the voice behind the curtain, the looming money man whose venture has funneled more than $2 million to UNM student-athletes since the organization's creation less than three years ago.

In short, he and his staff are the fuel that keeps the athletic department's latest moneymaking venture humming along.

"It's unlike any other business I know of in the United States," Roth said while watching a Lobo basketball practice at this weekend's NCAA Tournament in Memphis, Tenn. "Hey, but we hit the ground running and we started out ahead of everybody in the Mountain West. Now everyone else is having to catch up."

Roth is outgoing and friendly, quick with a smile and as passionate about the Lobos as any cherry-wearing fan.

That passion is rooted in his time as a UNM student a half-century ago. He arrived on campus in the afterglow of the Bob King era and was indoctrinated into the heyday of Stormin' Norman Ellenberger's mid-'70s teams. His career as a New York attorney never disconnected him from his love for Lobos sports.

Always a booster, he said the genesis for what is now 505SVF came from a golf outing where he and Pitino were in the same group. They were only a week removed from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed each state to open pathways for amateur student-athletes to monetize the use of their name, image and likeness.

The caveat was the financial benefit couldn't come directly from the schools themselves. It had to come from contractual or financial agreements between the athletes and the entities they represent.

Roth's plan was to build a third-party entity to facilitate those opportunities and generate a revenue stream that is quickly becoming the most-talked about part of college recruiting, post-NIL.

"By the end of the first hole, Richard said if you're going to donate $50,000 I'd rather you donate it to the NIL, so that's when it really started," Roth said. "Myself and some other boosters sat in The Artichoke [Cafe] and I said, 'Guys, I'll organize this but I need two years and a $156,000 commitment.' And they said, 'OK.' They did it and I started it. We got up slowly, but now I want to get to $1.5 million [annually]. That's the goal right now."

The fact that there is no playbook for NIL dealings reminds Roth of a similar venture bursting onto the scene when he was in college.

"It's like the computer industry in the '70s. No one was sure what was going to work in much the same way as this," he said. "There's no blueprint for this, which is one of the reasons I love it."

There are only about 1,000 contributors to the 505SVF, but that figure is steadily growing. Monthly contributions start at $25, but there are some whose totals dwarf that sum.

Roth pointed to a simple consumer transaction to illustrate the difference one small donation can make. The men's and women's basketball programs combined to draw approximately 300,000 fans to The Pit this season. A bottle of water on the concourse costs $5. If everyone who purchased water instead gave that money to 505SVF, it would funnel $1.5 million into the collective's coffers and allow it to use that money to target a higher level of recruit.

In an age where money is always part of the discussion, having more of it carries weight.

"When I first started in this profession, it was about facilities, and then it was about nutrition, can we build all this up, housing — it kind of changes every couple of years," Pitino said. "The biggest thing about NIL is if you don't have it, you have no chance. Is it the end all, be all? No, but if you don't catch up and compete, it's going to be very, very difficult for you. It's like everything in this profession, it's always going to be an arms race. And everybody is, I think, understanding it a little bit better now than when it first started."

Roth said coaches are not necessarily part of the final decision-making process of distributing funds to the players. That comes down to Roth and the 505SVF. Payments are as small as a couple hundred dollars and balloon to six-figure payouts to prominent figures in men's basketball and football.

That money is used to attract players off of the NCAA transfer portal and bring high-profile recruits into the program. Sometimes even that's not enough.

One player on UNM's basketball team opted to leave the team last season despite a six-figure offer from the 505SVF to stay.

As a third-party venture not directly affiliated with UNM, 505SVF is under no obligation to reveal its payouts. If an athlete chooses to share that information, it's up to them.

Several members of the men's basketball team have agents, including freshman sensation JT Toppin. He's represented by former NBA player Roman Sessions, so discussions regarding Toppin's interests are done between the 505SVF and his agent.

Others, like sophomore guard Donovan Dent, are represented by their parents or other family members.

"They're all free agents," Pitino said after his team's loss to Clemson in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. "We'll have conversations with them next week. I'm sure people are reaching out to them. They're people. They've got all the freedom in the world right now. And if we do lose somebody, the beauty of it is you can go get somebody.

"And it's just part of the ever-changing landscape," he continued. "I don't think anyone likes it. But it is what it is."

Roth said local businesses have been slow to jump into the collective, partly because it's still in its infancy and a number of prospective business partners are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"If there are many local companies that can afford a six-figure investment, get involved," Roth said. "That's the next thing."

Roth said at least a few men's basketball players have been contacted throughout the year by third parties from other schools, all of whom represent yet another gray area in the NIL multiverse: recruitment.

Once an athlete enters his or her name into the NCAA transfer portal, it opens a free agent feeding frenzy. The basketball portal opened March 13 and closes April 30. For the next month-plus, the gloves come off.

"We've built an NCAA team in basketball by being proactive," Roth said. "People outside the state will slowly know the difference between New Mexico and New Mexico State, and the future — the sky's the limit. The economic benefits of a successful team are obvious around Albuquerque. The Pit's selling out. Imagine if we can do the same for football. The more eyes on the program, the more opportunities for us."

Friday's loss to Clemson in the NCAA Tournament likely cost 505SVF a fresh windfall of potential donors, though small donations are still rolling in.

Former Santa Fe City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler once served as the president of UNM's Lobo Club, the fundraising arm used by the athletic department to raise money for scholarships. It's a separate entity from the UNM Foundation, which does the same for the school's general fund. All three entities operate independently.

Vigil Coppler agrees with the premise of the NIL movement.

"If they can make some money ... on their own and and have that opportunity, they're going to stay," she said.

"But I think the NIL is a good thing, but it's only going to be as good as the donations that it gets," she added.

And with that, there's the cavernous swath of additional gray area that skirts the line between ethical and legal. At the center of it all is the NCAA, an entity that has steadily lost its grip over the amateur status of its student-athletes.

Over the years, the rules that prohibit contact with players have diminished, particularly those already enrolled in college. Technically there's nothing to stop the interests of one school from reaching out directly to an athlete already on another team.

"I'm a businessman, if I wanted to go — can I tamper legally? In essence, sure," Roth said. "We wouldn't do that. I have eyes on kids I would like, but obviously the coaches, once they go in the portal, they can contact them and get them to visit. But the NCAA is basically like the former president of the United States: lose every case they're in. They've lost every case, and now they're basically ready to get hit with antitrust. Inducements, which [are] a normal thing in the business world, are perfectly fine. You can induce kids; the law says you can."

For now, moving forward means maintaining a steady cash flow. Pitino is already in the market for guards to replace Jaelen House and Jemarl Baker Jr., as well as a couple of other roster spots that are sure to open up before April 30.

They usually do.

This is, after all, a time of remarkable change and uncertainty in college sports, one that requires money to remain competitive.