Jake Brandon, co-founder of CougConnect, remembers the moment when all the effort and hours and hours of building the name, image and likeness (NIL) collective for BYU athletes became “totally worth it” — although that had long since been apparent.

“Last year we didn’t quite get to $100,000. This year we expect to shoot right through that number.” — CougConnect founder Jake Brandon on money distributed to BYU student-athletes

A young BYU fan had attended one of CougConnect’s events at a Utah County restaurant last winter in which BYU football stars Jaren Hall, Isaac Rex and others dined with fans, interacted with them throughout the night, then took pictures and signed autographs.

When the youngster was leaving the eatery with his father, Brandon overheard him say, “Dad, this was the best day of my life.”

Said Brandon, who recently retired as an eighth grade Spanish teacher in the Nebo School District to take a job in the corporate world: “That makes you feel pretty good, right?”

What’s more, the event in which fans paid to attend and meet the quarterback and tight end put a little extra spending cash into the pockets of the players — who also happen to be fathers, Hall for almost two years now and Rex just recently.

“I love Jake Brandon and what he’s doing with CougConnect,” Hall told the Deseret News in April before he was selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. “They’ve put some good money into the pockets of our guys.”

Hall and 2022 teammate Puka Nacua, drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, did well in the NIL market the past few years before being able to cash big paychecks in the pros. But what about the rank-and-file BYU athletes, whose NIL opportunities have been few and far between?

That’s where CougConnect comes in, Brandon said.

“We want to bring the passion and the power of Cougar Nation into the NIL space,” Brandon said last week. “And some of that is breaking down some stereotypes that NIL is just more player entitlement and it is ruining college athletics. It isn’t that way. Only a handful of (athletes) make the big bucks. I have done more NIL deals to get kids groceries in the summer time than anything else.”

Brandon said the bulk of the hundreds of deals he’s overseen have been for around $100, and only a few have been for more than $10,000. He said all the money that goes into the collective — through donations and subscriptions, primarily — after operating expenses are taken out goes directly to the athletes.

“A lot of our BYU athletes are lucky to make between one to two thousand dollars a year in NIL,” he said. “Last summer, I did dozens and dozens of deals for guys who needed grocery money. I have done deals for guys to get tires. We want to dispel the negative stereotype that NIL is bad, that kids are getting millions of dollars.”

Some BYU football players have expressed frustration recently through various media outlets and on social media that other NIL groups or opportunities have not delivered on promises.  

CougConnect was not one of those entities fingered by the players, and Brandon said he’s confident that every student-athlete with which his collective has worked has been paid what they were promised.

What is CougConnect?

Formed shortly after college athletes’ ability to capitalize financially on their names, images and likenesses was finally OK’d by the NCAA in the summer of 2021, CougConnect has put on dozens and dozens of events such as the one at the restaurant, while also becoming the first known collective to sponsor a cruise where fans were able to connect with BYU football players Masen Wake, Miles Davis, Max Tooley and Keanu Hill at sea and in Ensenada, Mexico.

The collective has also paid players to conduct camps and clinics, such as one that was held recently at Provo’s Kiwanis Park, or to write “insider reports” for its website, CougConnect.com. Other players have played video games online, such as Fortnite, with fans who paid to be a part of the streaming session.

And the collective just doesn’t work with football players. It put on a meet-and-greet for nearly 100 girls at a dance studio near BYU in which female athletes like soccer star Brecken Mozingo and swimmer Kyleigh Kuzma were paid around $75 to speak to the dancers about goal setting, resiliency and perseverance before taking pictures and signing autographs.

BYU football players (l-r) Tanner Wall and Eddie Heckard interact with young fans at a CougConnect event at a local park in Utah County. | CougConnect

“The list of things we’ve done goes on and on,” Brandon said. “We are really proud of what we’ve done to connect BYU athletes to their fans. And they really, really love doing it. They love the interactions.”

CougConnect has worked with BYU basketball players Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson and Trey Stewart and women’s basketball superstar Shaylee Gonzales before she transferred to Texas in part to chase a six-figure NIL deal.

All told, Brandon says CougConnect has worked with more than 115 BYU athletes (about 75 of whom are football players) and done more than 450 NIL deals since the first event in December 2021 included football stars Tyler Allgeier, Uriah Leiataua, Samson Nacua and Neil Pau’u.

“We did a fan meet and greet at a wedding reception center in Mapleton and we sold it out,” Brandon said. “Each of those guys made almost $400 in less than an hour, signing autographs and doing a Q&A with some fans. So they were really pleased. They were like, ‘Whoa, this is great.’”

Brandon acknowledges that getting Allgeier — now making big money with the Atlanta Falcons as a 1,000-yard rusher last season — put the event over the top. He said none of the events have lost money.

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So how much money has CougConnect been able to distribute to BYU athletes since it was formed as a limited liability company, or LLC, in November 2021 by Brandon and his business partners, Dustin Davies and Tyler Griffiths?

“Last year we didn’t quite get to $100,000. This year we expect to shoot right through that number,” he said.

Some of the deals don’t involve direct cash, but are trades. For instance, some Cougars hype up eateries such as Chubby’s Cafe or Wingstop on their social media accounts and receive free or discounted meals.

Brandon said CougConnect doesn’t have a “major booster” who has written a huge check to the collective. Pacific Horizon Credit Union, which picked up most of the tab for the cruise, has “written us some really nice checks,” along with Chubby’s Cafe and Carrick Custom Home Design, he said.

Another of CougConnect’s moneymakers for the players is its website, where subscribers paying a minimum of $10 a month can access “premium content” such as his own insider reports that include what Brandon calls “tea spills” — scoops and other hot takes on BYU athletics.

For instance, CougConnect subscribers were the first to learn last Saturday that Oregon linebacker Harrison Taggart had committed to BYU.

The subscription service was started last December and CougConnect now claims more than 500 subscribers, some paying as much as $100 a month for the information.

“It is not uncommon for someone to join as a $10 subscriber and then bump it up to $40 or even $100. They come to an event or talk to players, and they are hooked and want to give more,” Brandon said. “We want all those people who love the program and benefit from the program to support the players as well, and not just the university or the athletic department.”

How it began

Brandon was an assistant football coach at Spanish Fork High for 13 years, and in that capacity he got to know quite a few BYU football players and their friends. Shortly after the NCAA loosened NIL restrictions in the summer of 2021, a bunch of players were at Brandon’s house for an annual summer barbecue and he jokingly suggested that they should pay for the food with the NIL money they were going to get and he and his wife would cook it.

The Brandons were told that the scholarship players don’t receive stipends from BYU during the summer months and don’t have time to work because many still have classes and even though workouts and the like are called nonmandatory, they really are not at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

One thing led to another and Brandon found himself agreeing to set up a way in which the players could profit off their NIL. He enlisted friends with business acumen such as Davies and Griffiths, and a couple months later CougConnect was off and running.

It is believed to be the first collective at BYU; others have sprung up since, such as the Provo NIL Club launched last August and the BYU-endorsed Royal Blue Collective, which started operating last December and is the only one with an official connection to BYU athletics.

Wake, a fullback who had just completed his third season in the program back then, remembers that summer barbecue well. He called the CougConnect collective “a lifesaver” for players, especially in the summer months when money is tight.

“Jake Brandon and the other owners, they have been like father figures to me. They have helped me out when I need it most,” Wake said. “Not a lot of NIL deals are going on right now, so I can just look to them and they will find anything and everything to help me out. They come up with so many unique ways to help us get money and to help us engage with the fans as well. So it has been a pretty fun experience.”

Wake declined to say how much he has made working with the collective, but said it has been going on for nearly two years and it has been “very much appreciated” by the athletes who have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Before CougConnect came along, Wake said he was donating plasma for extra spending money, and not only did that “really start to hurt my arm,” it caused him to miss some classes.

“Jake has really taken me under his wing and helped me out,” Wake said. “Jake is the face of it. He is the one always reaching out. He is a workhorse.”

Jake Brandon, second from right, co-founder of CougConnect, looks on at a CougConnect event at a local park in Utah County, where young people had the opportunity to interact with BYU players. | CougConnect