SDSU's NIL Coordinator, Brenden Hill, at the 2024 Spring Showcase at Snapdragon Stadium. (Credit; X @Brenden__Hill)

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Aztec Link founder and former Aztec football player JR Tolver, along with other former Aztec players, hanging with fans during the 2024 Spring Showcase (Credit: Don De Mars/EVT)

At the November 29 press conference introducing SDSU’s new head football coach, Sean Lewis spoke about his ritual of playing the NFL video game Madden with recruits during the recruiting process. 

The 37-year-old will soon be able to play recruits in a college football video game for the first time as a head coach. EA Sports is bringing back the legendary college football game, set for release on July 19, after its last release in 2013. Lewis began his head coaching career in 2018 at Kent St.

It’s no surprise to hear that Lewis is at the forefront of celebrating the first version of the game in 11 years at SDSU. 

Hailing it “the brainchild of coach Lewis,” Brenden Hill, SDSU’s NIL Coordinator, organized a Launch Event on July 18 at Novo Brazil Brewing Company to celebrate the release of the game. The free event starting at 4 pm will give fans an early opportunity to not only play the game, but to play it against Lewis and SDSU players. 

Flyer for the Launch Event (Credit: X @AztecFB)

“I think that just says a lot about (coach Lewis’) approach to filling Snapdragon up and engaging our fan base and making sure that we really do have the Aztec advantage,” said Hill on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “I think our student athletes are going to be really excited to play with themselves in the game and we’re gonna have some consoles there up on some big screens so fans will have a chance to play the student athletes.” 

Hill noted that the event, which he hopes will become an annual occurrence, will include prizes, including possibly free copies of the game and autograph opportunities for fans. Fans are encouraged to RSVP at http://goaztecs.com/easports.

The game, and the event itself, is just another piece of the evolution of NIL. In past versions of the game and long before NIL, college athletes were not allowed to profit off their inclusion in the game. 

This time around, each player has the option to be included in the game in return for monetary compensation. Hill is the liaison between EA Sports and the players, helping them with their decisions to opt in or out of the game. 

“We will hang out there as long as we can and really just celebrate that moment and it’s such an iconic experience,” Hill said. “I have had the pleasure of being in an EA Sports video game way back in the day so I know what it is like to have that experience.” 

“This is the opportunity to engage our fan base and let them know how much we appreciate them (and) how much we need them.” 

Public events also allow the school’s partners the ability to market themselves to fans and alumni in attendance. JLab, a personal audio and office accessories manufacturer, has partnered with SDSU athletics and will be onsite at the event promoting a new wireless gaming headset and offering giveaways. 

Planning this event and working with partners is just another day for Hill as he heads into his second year at SDSU. 

Born and raised in Virginia, Hill played college football at Virginia Tech. When NIL entered the scene, Hill helped develop Virginia Tech’s Collective, Triumph NIL.

One day, on a whim, he applied for a job on the other side of the country, expecting to never get a call back. He didn’t even tell his wife about it not to get her hopes up because she always wanted to live on the West Coast. 

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“What’s the odds?” Hill recalled thinking. “They probably won’t get back to a guy from Virginia, and lo and behold, they got back to a guy from Virginia. And the rest is kind of history.”

Brenden Hill returns an INT for a TD as a member of the Virginia Tech Hokies in 2006 (Credit: X @Bluegrass504)

Despite his role at Triumph being external to the school, the experience set him up well for the internal position at SDSU because they managed the whole NIL ecosystem for the Hokie athletes.

His priority is always the student athlete. Whether that is helping them set up merchandise stores, connecting them to brands and resources, or answering compliance questions, Hill’s goal is to ensure the athlete’s experience is valued and maximized.  

He  took time in his first year getting acclimated to not just the university and its athletes, but also the fan and alumni base. He heard the murmurs out there about attendance woes, style of play, and even the heat (yes, some people are still talking about the stadium’s opening game). He immersed himself into the community and did reconnaissance in order to help be part of the solution.  

Coming from a collective, Hill is well-versed in the importance they play in NIL. With 80% of NIL money reportedly paid by collectives, Hill advocates for them internally and externally. He helps remove obstacles for Aztec Link and Mesa Foundation so they can be as successful as possible.

“If they’re successful, our coaches are successful, and if our coaches are successful, our teams are successful, on and on and on,” Hill explained. “(The collectives) are on the front lines of it … they become an extension of my department in theory. They help me become a force multiplier where when it’s time for a student-athlete to do activation or do a deal, sometimes the collectives are the ones that are managing the student-athletes because they have more staff and volunteers to help manage those types of things. … All the resources you pour into those organizations help us stay competitive. ” 

Jack Browning signs a jersey and interacts with fans a Fan Fest. (Don De Mars/EVT)

While fans love memorabilia, autographs, and spending time with their favorite players, ultimately, they want their team to win. When it comes to NIL, oftentimes, it is portrayed in the manner of financial compensation for acquiring or retaining an athlete. Hill understands the fan’s frustrations, especially after a Sweet 16-finish basketball team lost three of its top seven players via transfer to Kentucky, Ohio State, and Virginia. The football team saw a mass exodus of starters when the transfer portal opened in early December after a disappointing season despite a coaching change. 

Hill preaches patience and trust. 

“We’re all learning,” he explained. “We just finished year three (of NIL), so we’re going to have better information moving forward. Our coaches have a plan.” 

“I just want people to know that the sky is not falling. We have a really great ecosystem, and people trust our coaching staff. Sometimes, the noise, like I say, can speed us up as a community, and I just wanted them to know in the NIL space, we are doing just fine. Can we do better? Absolutely. But are we scrounging up the bottom of the barrel? Heck no!”

With a newer football coaching staff that embraces NIL and a basketball staff that is now more amenable to the notion that it needs to be part of the talent recruitment and retention process, SDSU hopes to apply what it has learned over these past three years to the present and the future. 

“I moved my family 3,000 miles across the country because I believed in the vision of what San Diego State will be here soon.”

With the support of the administration, the collectives, and the community, Hill’s vision can be here sooner than later. 

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