Deion Sanders is not one for subtlety. But perhaps it’s his penchant for speaking his mind—cough, cough, cough—that buried one of his more important statements this past June.

At the time, Sanders’ University of Colorado Boulder Buffaloes were not just the talk of the Centennial State, or even the Pac-12; they were media darlings across the country, the excitement of college football. That’s when Sanders did an interview with Fox Sports analyst (and CU alum) Joel Klatt.

“NIL is not a problem with me,” Sanders told the sports anchor. “Collectives are.”

Coach Prime was referencing the NCAA’s recent changes to its name, image, and likeness rules. Since July 2021, student-athletes have been able to strike endorsement deals, profit off their social media accounts, and sell autographs and other memorabilia—activities that had all been banned before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier that summer.

In the three years since the court’s decision, outside money has flooded into NIL deals. For star players, that can mean millions of dollars. The flashiest partnerships tend to earn headlines: University of Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams becoming the face of Wendy’s newest cheeseburger; University of Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark inking a contract with Gatorade (and State Farm); Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson driving around a Lamborghini after signing with a car dealership.

Far less eye-catching than those one-off deals, but arguably more influential across college athletic departments, have been NIL collectives—what Sanders said he had a problem with.

These somewhat secretive organizations, which often claim to be unaffiliated with the universities they support, pool money from various donors and then use NIL mechanisms to redistribute funds directly to student-athletes. Some collectives funnel money to star athletes, while others distribute it to every player on a team—like salaries. To receive the funds, the players agree to exchange something compensable, such as an autograph or a social media post.

Many NIL collectives have also obtained nonprofit status from the IRS, which means that donors can write off their contributions for tax breaks. The New York Times reports it has already identified 140 NIL collectives operating across the country.

In that June 2023 interview, Sanders went on to say that even though he wasn’t against NIL deals, players were starting to expect money from collectives without “earning it” on the football field or in the classroom—and this was a problem. “They’re putting the bag before the game,” he said.

Midway through the football season, however, Sanders’ tone shifted. On October 10, he fired off a Tweet encouraging people to donate to an NIL collective in Boulder. Half a year later, he is quoted in a press release announcing the formation of a new NIL collective called 5430 Alliance: “WE HERE and we’re not settling for nothing! We need to DOMINATE in our NIL program. 5430 Alliance gives EVERY darn Colorado fan the opportunity to be part of HISTORY. IT DON’T STOP, BABY!”

Launched on Tuesday, March 26, the 5430 Alliance—so-named for the elevation in Boulder—collects money from donors to support student-athletes across all of CU’s sports programs. Fans can become members for a minimum of $15 a month (although “elite” passes cost $250 a month), which is pooled and distributed to Buffs.

In other words, it’s exactly what Sanders panned not a year ago. So why the sudden change of mind? And where did 5430 Alliance come from?

5430 Alliance…of What?

Deion Sanders
University of Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders receives the 2023 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award at the the Prime Video world premiere of “Coach Prime” season two in December 2023 in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Tom Cooper/Getty Images for Prime Video

Before this week’s announcement of 5430 Alliance, CU Boulder was the beneficiary of two different (albeit, lower-profile) NIL collectives: one run by Buffs4Life, a nonprofit support group for student-athletes that has been around since 2005, and 5430 Foundation, which launched in early 2023 specifically to benefit the football program under its new head coach.

In its press release, the 5430 Alliance says it’s absorbing both Buffs4Life’s NIL collective and 5430 Foundation to create a single, unified collective. The new organization is teaming up with Blueprint Sports, a sports management company that specializes in running NIL collectives, to help with day-to-day operations.

To me, the announcement wasn’t surprising. For months, I’d been looking into the 5430 Foundation. Back in January, I had sent a public records request to CU asking for all written communication between the head of its athletic department, Rick George, and the head of 5430 Foundation, a Colorado alum named Eric Belcher. I had also interviewed Belcher in February about the NIL collective and how it fits into broader trends. Belcher, who is now on the board of the new 5430 Alliance, explained to me how NIL collectives work and how they’re especially important in the context of college football today.

A National NIL Arms Race

In 2022, long before mainstream media broadcast the existence of NIL collectives, Belcher realized CU Boulder needed to have one supporting its football team. The journalism grad went to CU during the ’70s, when the Buffs had a dominant football program, and after serving as CEO of a payroll services company, he’d started donating to the athletic department under George.

Both men watched the college sports landscape shift with the infusion of NIL deals. And in December 2022, when CU announced that Sanders would coach its football team, Belcher saw other Division I programs—like the University of Texas—already utilizing NIL collectives. In fact, every player on Texas’ offensive line, known as the “Pancake Factory,” was making $50,000 annually through donor contributions to a collective.

Belcher knew that even with CU making college football’s biggest off-season hire, it was already behind in the new NIL arms race. “I felt like we needed to move pretty quick, and we needed to be really nimble,” Belcher said. So by January 2023, he was talking to donors and working with an accountant named Jason Weiss to get 5430 Foundation up and running. By May 2023, the organization received tax-exempt status from the IRS—that key piece that allows donors to write off their contributions. That’s when money started pouring in.

About That Money…

NIL collectives are not required to publicly disclose how much they pay individual players. To keep their nonprofit status, they are supposed to file statements with the IRS that detail total contributions and expenses, but as of press time, 5430 Foundation’s IRS filing for 2023 was not visible. Before the announcement of 5430 Alliance, however, I asked Belcher how much cash, in general terms, it raised—and got a hint at what we might expect from the newly minted NIL collective.

“What I would say is that when we first started, we thought it was going to be a few hundred thousand dollars [for 2023]”, Belcher said. “It ended up being significantly more than that. And I would say that our budget this year is going to be two or three times our budget for 2023.”

5430 Foundation’s money all went to the football team. An Excel document that was included in the response to my Colorado Open Records Act request suggests that 24 players, whose names were redacted by the university to protect student information, received payments from 5430 Foundation during the 2023 season.

Belcher said that payments to players varied. “No two deals are the same—it’s driven a little bit by budget, and a little bit by market.”

I asked if he or CU’s athletic department worries whether football players might tell others on the team what they’re making, which could create tension if there are inequities. “Every agreement has its own set of rules and restrictions,” Belcher said. “And certainly, that kind of behavior is addressed.”

In our interview, Belcher explained that, under NIL rules, athletes must do something to earn money from a collective. Last season, that meant supporting four local charities—Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver, Buffs4Life, Humane Society of Boulder Valley, and A Precious Child—through events that the nonprofit 5430 Foundation organized.

For example, in August 2023, players handed out backpacks and served pizza to kids at a Boys and Girls Club event. And in September, players signed 45 flags and two footballs to be sold at a charity auction.

Players are paid monthly for such activities, Belcher said, and that compensation can be meaningful. “When you meet these kids, some of them have hardscrabble backgrounds, and so you know that this is making a difference,” he said. “It’s making a difference in their life at CU. And it makes a difference in their life with their families in some situations.”

Unlike some of the one-off NIL deals that involve seven-figure contracts or sports cars, Belcher said 5430 Foundation’s payments were much more modest. I asked if it was competitive with, say, the University of Texas collective that was paying offensive lineman $50,000 salaries. “We’ll be competitive,” Belcher said of the upcoming season.

An “Arms-Length” Relationship with the University

Deion Sanders speaks after being introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Colorado during a news conference Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. Sanders left Jackson State University after three seasons at the helm of the school's football team.
Deion Sanders speaks after being introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Colorado Boulder during a news conference on Sunday, December 4, 2022. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Under NCAA rules, universities are not allowed to directly pay student-athletes for NIL activity (although this could change). For that reason, NIL collectives are supposed to be separate entities. Both 5430 Foundation’s old website, as well as 5430 Alliance’s new site, note that the collectives have no official affiliation with the University of Colorado.

Yet many documents I received from my public records request show emails connecting Belcher and George, who appear to have a familiar relationship.

An email from Eric Belcher
An email from Eric Belcher. Photo courtesy of a Colorado Open Records Act request

According to its own complicated rules, the NCAA doesn’t ban all types of communication between universities and NIL collectives; rather, it’s the type of communication that matters. For instance, collectives aren’t supposed to be involved in recruiting players. The emails I obtained don’t seem to reveal any violations, but they do show university officials trying to figure out the rules in real time, including requirements passed by the state of Colorado.

In one revealing exchange last season, Abbey Shea, CU’s assistant athletic director, talked about coming up with a solution to satisfy NIL reporting requirements to the state of Colorado. Together, she and 5430 Foundation’s accountant decided that the school doesn’t need to know exactly what its football players are making through NIL collectives, only what activities they’re doing in exchange for the money. Put another way: The university will keep its head in the sand.

Emails from Rick George and Abbey Shea
Photo courtesy of a Colorado Open Records Act request

This is Really Tax-Deductible for Donors?

So far, yes. And the new 5430 Alliance says it will make donations tax-deductible through a partnership with an organization called BPS Foundation. Last June, however, the IRS released a memo indicating that it was not happy with how many collectives are operating—that it felt their true purpose was paying players instead of supporting charitable causes.

Time will tell if the IRS continues allowing collectives to operate the same as nonprofits. In that memo, the federal agency wrote that collectives must demonstrate that charity is their main justification for the organization’s existence, not something incidental they do in order to pay student-athletes. Belcher says he has already gamed out different scenarios, including how 5430 could become an LLC, if the IRS were to disallow collectives from operating as tax-exempt entities.

There are other legal challenges that could change the landscape for collectives like 5430 Alliance. The NCAA recently lost a court hearing in which the attorney generals of Tennessee and Virginia challenged the sports body over its enforcement of NIL rules. On March 1, the NCAA announced it would halt investigations of NIL collectives while it re-examines the legality of rules it has set, including banning NIL money directly tied to recruitment.

Coach Prime is (Now) on Board

It’s unclear exactly what changed for Sanders between June and October of 2023, but Belcher mentioned one reason the coach may have shifted on collectives: the transfer portal.

“You have to remember that this whole world changes every week, every month,” Belcher told me. “I think what you saw over the last 12 months is that the market changed. The kids have changed their attitudes as it relates to the portal and transferring schools. And so I think [Sanders] saw that going on, and saw that we need to compete.”

In other words, student-athletes have become quick to transfer schools if things aren’t working out for them at their current universities. The idea that navigating the transfer portal is one reason why collectives like 5430 Alliance would need to incentivize athletes to stay at, or transfer into, CU is somewhat ironic: Sanders himself has made unprecedented use of the transfer portal, normalizing transfers in a way that’s never been seen before in college football.

“I don’t think he’s changed his core,” Belcher told me in February. “He doesn’t want kids who are just playing for the money, but what we’re seeing is schools with NIL collectives with open checkbooks. We don’t have an open checkbook. But I think we’re paying competitively.”

Belcher also mentioned that he and other 5430 Foundation personnel meet with Sanders on a “fairly regular basis.” Sanders, he said, was engaged with the mission. In fact, Belcher said the coach had recently joined a video call to meet with the former collective’s top donors, and Sanders teased some of the new recruits who had already signed onto the team for the 2024 season, as CU prepares to enter the Big 12 conference.

“It’s going to be wild,” is all Belcher would say about the team’s prospects for the 2024 season. “As exciting as it was last year, based on what I’ve seen with the players, I think we’re going to be very competitive, Folsom is going to be filled up again this year, and we’re going to sell out a bunch of stadiums as we enter the Big 12.”

Chris Walker
Chris Walker
Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as