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Man in the Middle

Walker Jones heads up The Grove, one of the country’s biggest NIL collectives thanks to loyal Ole Miss fans.

Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by Joe Worthem

Walker Jones is a big fish swimming in a big pond. Jones, who lives in Collierville, Tenn., is executive director of The Grove Collective, one of the hottest NIL collectives in the world of college athletics.

Collectives are private, third-party negotiators in the realm of Name, Image and Likeness. The Grove is one of the most profitable in the country. A report last year tagged its funding at $10 million.

“We’re north of there now,” Jones said.

And though reluctant to share a specific current figure, Jones was quick to point out that The Grove ranks among the top 10% of collectives nationwide. “We’re punching way above our weight,” he said. Then, he turned around and gave away all the credit for the success.

“I give a big shoutout to our fans,” Jones said. “It’s a tribute to our fans. We have a smaller fan base, but it’s a pretty mighty fan base. They’ve bought into this mission, and they’ve trusted us. They’ve stepped up. People have figured out the correlation between a strong NIL program and being successful, competitive.”

NIL collectives started in 2021, according to the website, when a lawyer and a former University of Florida baseball star teamed up and started the Gator Collective to help maximize NIL potential for athletes and athletics programs at the university. As of July 2022, there were at least 120 collectives across the country. In Mississippi, other notable collectives include The Bulldog Initiative for Mississippi State University and the To The Top Collective for the University of Southern Mississippi.

Collectives do any number of things. They pool money for businesses and individual boosters, help broker NIL deals and help athletes and programs figure out ways to brand themselves in the still-new universe of Name, Image and Likeness. Donors pay money to The Grove, which turns around and helps arrange NIL deals.

At a grassroots level, once an athlete has signed at Ole Miss, Jones said, an athlete may contact a collective or a collective may contact an athlete about NIL possibilities.

“No NIL deals are done in the recruiting process,” Jones said. “Once they’re on campus, they’ll reach out to us, and we’ll reach out to them. We talk to students every day.”

Jones said The Grove currently has about 180 contracts with the 400-plus athletes who study and play sports at Ole Miss, so “we’re getting close to 50 percent.” The collective, as well as local businesses, were reluctant to share information on specific deals. Part of that has to do with the newness of NIL and all the uncertainty that goes along with a change of that size, Jones said.

The Grove has offices at 9 Industrial Drive in Oxford, a staff of five and legal counsel, as well as Jones’ position as executive director. But Jones had made a name for himself long before he started working with The Grove.

A native of Jackson, he played football at Ole Miss when Tommy Tuberville was head coach and earned two degrees at the university, working as a graduate assistant coach while he studied for his master’s degree. After that, he did marketing work for the university.

Three years later, he went to work for Under Armour and moved to Baltimore. Between two stints at Under Armour, Jones worked with CAA Sports as a football agent in Memphis with the legendary Jimmy Sexton. Asked about the movie “Jerry Maguire” in light of his experiences as a sports agent, Jones laughed and admitted that he likes it even though it’s not exactly realistic.

“Agents get a bad rap sometimes,” he said. “I liked that it put a positive spin on it.”

Jones’ next big break came with his involvement in Three-Step Sports in Massachusetts, which he described as the largest youth sports programming company in the United States. A year later, Oxford came calling for him to help with The Grove.

The Grove’s executive director said the collective’s success puts the university on the cutting edge in collegiate sports’ current environment.

“Athletes deserve compensation because of the value they bring,” he said. “There are some things that need to be tweaked. It’s not something I had to worry about when I was an athlete.”

The future of Ole Miss sports, he said, is looking brighter and brighter.

“College athletics still have their own traditions. They’re still there and will always be there. But it’s never going to be the way it used to be. (NIL) has added a more professional feel, but at the same time, there are still some definite distinctions,” Jones said. “Everyone respects how we operate in a professional and respectful manner. I’m proud of the voice that we have at the forefront. Ole Miss fans should be proud.”

The Current State of NIL

To say that NIL has recreated the whole landscape of college sports may be a bit of an overstatement. But things are different.

What is NIL, on the off chance that you follow college football but have never heard the term?

Name, Image and Likeness gives a college sports star the chance to cash in on, you guessed it, her or his name, image and likeness. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2021 found in favor of certain types of compensation for college athletes.

It works something like this. An athlete touts the benefits of Coca-cola, for example. Coke compensates that athlete based on a number of factors, including prestige. The ongoing process involves schools, student-athletes, agents, lawyers, businesses, as well as the third-party collectives that help negotiate agreements.

The upshot of all of this: Student-athletes walking around campus have extra money in their pockets, thanks to NIL.

“Student-athletes can be paid for their autograph, developing their own merchandise, promoting products or services and event appearances due to their personal celebrity. Now, athletes are starting their own brands, endorsing brands and becoming their own brands,” according to the website “The mutually beneficial relationship is built off the athlete’s fame in order to grow a business.”

Alongside NIL has developed another change known as the trade portal. The online portal allows student-athletes to switch from school to school with much greater ease than before, though with some restrictions.

Ole Miss head football coach Lane Kiffin made headlines this summer when he sounded off about the trade portal during SEC media days in Nasvhille. He described it as “the disaster we’re in,” according to a story in The Daily Journal.

“We’re creating free agency with the portal,” Kiffin was quoted as saying. Most of those involved in college athletics do admit that the new environment has threatened school loyalty, at least to a degree.

NIL is a rather touchy on-the-record subject, with businesses and boosters wary of creating a media storm or crossing some unseen legal boundary.

Invitation Magazines contacted numerous businesses and other sources for comment about NIL transactions. All of them declined to be interviewed, and the magazine could not confirm details of any individual NIL agreements at Ole Miss or Mississippi State. More than one website does offer listings on individual athletes, but such information changes almost from day to day.

One significant change to Mississippi’s NIL law came last year when Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill that gives community colleges and universities a more active role in helping guide athletes through NIL processes. Before that, state law prohibited schools from dealing with third parties.

One of the most important ongoing restrictions in NIL laws has to do with so-called “pay to play” deals: In other words, an athlete can’t sign with a school because of a specific business arrangement inked before the signing. NIL supporters say this helps keep college athletics from morphing into a full-blown professional enterprise.

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