We Believe Network improving NIL ecosystem for SDSU student-athletes

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The Mission of the We Believe Network (@WeBelieveNet on Twitter/X)

“I believe that we will win.”

The famous mantra of SDSU Athletics permeates throughout Viejas Arena at the start of every home basketball contest (and other athletic events), providing student-athletes the jolt of energy and confidence they need to be successful on the court or field.

It’s no accident that a group of former alumni, led by founder Austin Bolton, created the We Believe Network (WBN) to provide student-athletes avenues for financial success off the court or field.

Officially launched in December 2023 under Aztec Link, the official NIL partner of SDSU Athletics, WBN was made available to all monthly subscribers of the platform, in addition to a standalone $6.99/month option. With a subscription comes exclusive content and invites to virtual and in-person events. 

Bolton and fellow Aztec alums held multiple conversations at last year’s Final Four in Houston that focused on ways to help spur NIL for SDSU athletes. Despite reaching the National Championship, SDSU’s basketball team was still several tiers behind in the NIL landscape of college basketball, evidenced by the loss of starting PF Keshad Johnson to Arizona shortly after the end of last season. 

“How we can feature the players in a grassroots way that expands the tent for everybody to be involved and then be able to reinvest those dollars back into the student-athletes,” Bolton explained to EVT last week about the intent of those early discussions. 

With a big help from Krish Coughran, President and Co-Founder of Ignite Visilibity, a full service digital marketing agency, the We Believe brand, logo and name was established. While not an SDSU alum, Coughran adopted the Aztecs as his team in the early 2000s when head coach Steve Fisher arrived on The Mesa. He has been a season ticket holder for both basketball and football for more than ten years.

Coughran, frustrated with the lack of NIL mobilization at the grassroots level at that time, knew he had to be involved upon reading Bolton’s and Kyle Kinslow‘s “call to action” on several on social media posts. He enlisted the help of his Chief Creative Officer at Ignite Visibility, Oscar Lutteroth, also a big Aztecs fan and supporter. 

“We combined forces with Oscar’s wife, Christina, to help fund and provide the We Believe branding, creative, and messaging,” Coughran told EVT. “I’m impressed with all the work Austin has done to establish the We Believe Network as a leading content curator for Aztec sports’ content. I look forward to continuing to support the cause in any way I can.”

DE Dom Oliver being interviewed during a taping of an exclusive content recording (@WeBelieveNet on Twitter/X)

The monthly subscription dollars are used to fund student-athletes who participate in content for WBN. While specific athlete earnings are not publicly released by Aztec Link, they are paid a flat fee for a podcast appearance or a written piece, while longer time-commitment events yield earnings by the hour. 

“We’re just trying to make it easy for them to not worry about their bills,” said Bolton while affirming that the amounts paid are nowhere near the levels more prestigious programs are paying star players such as Caleb Williams. “We’re just trying to make sure that all the student athletes are taken care of but it’s not a world-beater number or anything like that.”

Bolton prides WBN on making it as easy and smooth for the student-athlete as possible, given all the other time commitments they already have. For podcast appearances, Bolton sends the player a Zoom link so they are able to log in right at the scheduled time, answer questions for 20 to 30 minutes, submit their information on the background infrastructure for the website, and receive their payment for the appearance. 

“We’re here to support them so they can focus on school and their sport,” Bolton added. “We’re not going to (ask them) to come out for six hours on a Saturday afternoon to meet and greet and sign a bunch of autographs. That’s not really the ethos of what we try to do.” 

“We want to find avenues to get these guys easy opportunities so that they feel like they’re being taken care of from an NIL perspective because retention is so much easier than going to get new guys. Making sure those student-athletes feel the love and that we’re making it easy for them is a huge part of what we’re doing.”

One of the promises of We Believe is exclusive behind-the-scenes content of teams and players. Football has received the most insider access, which have included true freshman QB Danny O’Neil’s diaries of his first month’s as a college athlete, sophomore QB Kyle Crum’s hosted podcast interviewing teammates, and extended highlights of practices and the AztecFast Showcase. 

Another benefit of WBN is the opportunities provided to SDSU media studies students who have volunteered their services and provided the digital content for the site. Not only has this benefited subscribers, but it has given an avenue for development and recognition to those looking to enter the media industry as a profession.  

Tyler Perches, a recent 2024 graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, provided game recaps and articles throughout the basketball season. 

“We Believe Network has provided me with lots of opportunities to work at my craft and has allowed me to put what I learned during my journalism classes at San Diego State to use,” said Perches. 

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Aztec players sign autographs for fans after the AztecFast Showcase (Don De Mars/EVT)

Aztec Link

Founded in the summer of 2022 by Aztec Hall of Famer and former wide receiver J.R. Tolver, Aztec Link leverages SDSU logos and marks to promote the collective’s missions and goals to improve the lives of SDSU student-athletes while contributing to the growth of the city. 

At its onset, the collective focused primarily on football players, but has grown over the past two years into opportunities for all student athletes, such as podcasts, coaching sessions, autograph signings, social media endorsements, charity events and NFTs. 

“Our goal has always been to help the student athlete use NIL as a tool to focus more on school and sport, learn more about their NIL business and stress less about living expenses,” Tolver told EVT last week. “We have done deals with over 50 student-athletes across six sports, so we feel like we are pursuing and accomplishing that goal daily. We are grateful for all of the people in the community who have given their time, talent, and/or treasure to help Aztec Link support the student-athlete journey at San Diego State University.”

The volunteer-run organization also includes three other former Aztec football players, Bill Hammett (WR, 1999-2001), J.C. Mejia (K, 2000-2004), and Brendan Darby (OL, 1999-2004). 

While the primary intent is for local businesses to step up and fill the financial needs, individuals have played a large role to date. Three different monthly subscription tiers are available in addition to the standalone WBN option, with each higher price point bringing additional perks to the subscriber. 

Spear ($22/month), Shield ($55/month), and Warrior ($126/month) contributions are put towards NIL opportunities and payments to student-athletes. 

Credit: AztecLink.com

Individuals can also make one-time donations to the overall collective using the website or to a selective sport by contacting the volunteer board directly.  

Tolver has seen first-hand the benefits of WBN and the inspired work of its volunteers. 

“The We Believe Network has done an incredible job creating opportunities for the fans to get to know student-athletes outside of their sport,” Tolver stated. “Austin’s vision of providing a platform that highlights the athlete’s story has added immeasurable value to the Aztec Link community of fans, brands, volunteers, and supporters.”

For Bolton, supporting Aztec Athletics is a family affair. His wife, Carly House Bolton, the Director of Development at Aztec Link, is heavily involved as well. In addition, the husband and wife tandem co-host episodes of the Aztec Breakdown Podcast together, dating back to the start of the 2022-2023 college basketball season.   

“It’s important for the Aztec community to know that Aztec Link is a volunteer-run organization,” Tolver reiterated. “Our motto is ‘many hands make light work’ so for as little as $6.99 a month, Aztec fans across the globe can make a huge difference to the student athlete experience at San Diego State.”

Aztec Link currently has over 200 subscribers, 140 of which are enrolled in WBN’s content platform. Tolver tells EVT that the goal is to grow that 10-fold by the end of 2024. 

With the Mesa Foundation having exclusive NIL rights for the SDSU Men’s and Women’s basketball teams, basketball content has been limited to date at WBN despite being at the forefront of where the creative juices that started WBN began flowing at the Final Four. Bolton does not see Mesa Foundation as a competitor or an adversary but as complementary pieces together to further the overall mission.   

LB Cody Moon appeared on the We Believe Network Podcast (@WeBelieveNet on Twitter/X)

“We Believe Network is here to support San Diego State as a whole, the whole ecosystem, whether it’s NIL, media, broadcast journalism students, the student athletes,” Bolton explained. “We’re here to be additive to the system. We just think we’re one small piece of the puzzle that can help grow this thing because I think everybody understands how San Diego kind of operates, and I think we’ve seen this throughout the different campaigns that are going on that it’s not going to be one thing. It’s going to be ten things. The more subscribers we can get, the more opportunities we can provide so you get to know the players, it will make you feel more connected to them, and that’s really one of the bridges that we wanted to create.” 

“It’s for fans, by fans.” 

While Tolver and Bolton are excited about what WBN has been and what it can become with more individual subscribers, both see a major facet in improving SDSU’s NIL landscape on the backs of local businesses becoming more involved. Monthly individual contributions definitely add up and provide considerable financial incentives for players. 

Across the country though, the biggest NIL deals have been built off businesses investing financially into their local or alumni institutions. 

So far, SDSU has not seen that same surge across San Diego. But the more content available, the bigger opportunity for each student-athlete to market themselves for those potential businesses.

“When they do these podcasts for our subscriber base, those are potential business owners,” Bolton remarked. “This is an opportunity for them to build their brand as well with other people that are subscribers. So it’s just really getting their faces out there more for other NIL opportunities. It is step one of a snowball effect.”

While fans across social media discuss and debate about whether NIL has ruined college athletics, why a certain player transferred out, or whether any businesses will come to save their favorite school, a few members of Aztec Nation, led by Bolton and Tolver, put their time and money to use and actually did something about it.

All they ask from the rest of Aztec Nation is support that starts at as little as $7 per month. 

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