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The LOW Down: Men of Westwood NIL collective falls short of serving student-athletes

UCLA women’s basketball huddles together at the end of the court. The team utilizes third-party partnerships in order to navigate the NIL landscape. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Lauryn Olina Wang

Nov. 5, 2023 11:37 p.m.

A black T-shirt with the Men of Westwood logo displayed across the chest.

A blue baseball cap embroidered with a bear hoisting a MOW sign over its shoulder.

UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin has proudly donned Men of Westwood merchandise in two recent open practices.

“Got to be a billboard,” Cronin said Oct. 6. “I need the praying hands – support Men of Westwood.”

Cronin’s men’s basketball squad was the first team to partner with the independent name, image and likeness collective in July 2022. Football followed suit last November and then baseball 10 months later.

Born out of a desire to compete with other collegiate collectives raising tens of millions of dollars to support its athletes, Men of Westwood was established as high-profile donors wondered how to proceed in the wake of men’s basketball’s Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina in 2022.

It has since surpassed the seven-figure threshold in total donations and branded itself as, “the official collective for NIL opportunities for the UCLA Bruins.”

UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close has explicitly expressed support for the future Champion of Westwood extension to the Men of Westwood collective, which is set to cater to the needs of UCLA women’s programs and Olympic sports.

Close noted the distinction between the two camps of the collective and lauded the commitment that Ken Graiwer, one of the founders of Men of Westwood and a longtime UCLA Athletics donor, has demonstrated toward Champion of Westwood’s inception.

“The Men of Westwood is the men’s side of it. Champion of Westwood is the women’s side of it,” Close said. “Ken Graiwer has done a phenomenal job setting up the infrastructure of that. We are already partnering on many fronts. … It’s going to definitely be one of the major arms of what we’re doing.”

These developments beg a question, however: Why not title the collective “Champion of Westwood” from its conception and construct a united effort? Notably absent on the Men of Westwood’s website and marketing materials is any mention of women’s sports.

The organization’s failure to factor UCLA women’s programs into its mission from the outset is a disservice to female athletes, Bruin fans and the vitality of the collective itself.

The proposed segmented structure of the collective based on gender and revenue drivers may be a strategy to assure donors that their support will be funneled directly to men’s basketball and football.

Men of Westwood is at the behest of its donors, and Champion of Westwood will likely be as well.

“We hope that our UCLA community gets really behind Champion of Westwood,” Close said. “Knowing that we’re going to steward that money in a really productive way, not only for the short term and competitive greatness of our women for the better and for the longer term as well.”

(Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)
Coach Cori Close directs her team from the sidelines. (Joseph Jimenez/Photo editor)

In the meantime, individual programs are seeking resources elsewhere to help their players navigate the dynamic NIL landscape. UCLA women’s basketball is one such team that has embraced this obligation to its student-athletes since the United States Supreme Court ruled in July 2021 that NCAA athletes could profit from their NIL.

“We just promised that when this NIL thing came into play that we wanted to give our women every single opportunity,” Close said. “I want them to leave here going, ‘Nobody would have supported our NIL experience as much as UCLA does.’ And I want every player to feel that way.”

Close’s program exhibits this commitment by investing in third-party partnerships and outsourcing to companies that specialize in marketing, branding and deal flow.

Playbook Marketing works with individual UCLA athletes to demystify the NIL process and facilitate exposure to NIL deals, and Freewill Sports Group has established an official partnership with UCLA women’s basketball to connect the program with brand partners and shape the teamwide sports marketing strategy.

Melanie Shell, the founder of Freewill Sports Group, has worked with Close since last November in her role as the chief operating officer of MarketPryce, an NIL marketplace company. She said after founding Freewill Sports Group, she continued conversations in August with Close about how to best use the resources of her new sports marketing and consulting business to further the mission of UCLA women’s basketball.

Her responsibilities are twofold: working with Close in-house to create public-facing material that reflects team values, and engaging with individual athletes to develop their NIL reach.

“On the individual level, it relates to athlete marketing and getting their platforms in a position where they can strategically align with partners that make sense for their personal mission, how they want to market themselves and take advantage of this moment,” Shell said. “NIL is not one-size-fits-all. … We allow them to know what resources are available and opt into the level of resource they need specifically from my team.”

UCLA women’s basketball grew one step closer to realizing Close’s vision of unmatched NIL systems of support Oct. 17 when it announced its partnership with Wescom Credit Union, the official banking partner of UCLA Athletics.

“For Wescom to pour into us and invest in us that way is huge,” said senior forward Emily Bessoir. “A lot of women’s teams don’t have that, so we’re really grateful.”

The partnership signified the first teamwide deal in UCLA Athletics history, and Close said it marks the first of many NIL-related initiatives in store for her program.

“It’s a big leverage point for us in recruiting quite frankly to be in the number one media market in the world and to be able to leverage the alumni network that is so behind us, the companies that are in Los Angeles,” Close said. “Wescom are the trailblazers, but we’re not done. We have lots more to do, and we want to lead in the NIL space.”

UCLA women’s basketball has proven a leader in the NIL landscape while it awaits the promise of Champion of Westwood.

Only time will tell if Close has the chance to be Champion of Westwood’s billboard.

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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