The Gator Guard lifts off, sets to change landscape of college athletics

The Gator Guard
Photo by Neil Shulman, In All Kinds Of Weather © 2021

Welcome to a new age of college athletics. And get ready to hear the words “Gator Guard” as frequently as you hear the names of your favorite college athletes.

Within the last several months, two seemingly unrelated events took place- events that time would prove to be something of forerunners of the Gator Guard.

Last summer, The Gator Collective launched as a way to bring fans closer than ever before to the student-athletes of the University of Florida- and provide the student-athletes with NIL (name, image and likeness) deals in return. Over the past nine months, the Gator Collective has grown to over 2,100 members, pooling together over half a million dollars in NIL deals. Along with creating NIL opportunities for athletes, the Collective focuses on creating get-togethers such as twitter spaces, live chats, and even bowling events with member fans and athletes. Which is great.

Then, earlier this month, Valdosta businessman Hugh Hathcock donated a whopping $12.6 million to the University of Florida. Hathcock’s gift was, according to UF, the single largest donation the school has ever received. Which is also great.

Enter Darren Heitner, a lawyer based in South Florida who helped launch the Gator Collective. Heitner, a Florida grad, is typically very active on twitter, constantly engaging with the big NIL-related legal topics of the day. He is, as you would expect a prominent lawyer to be, always involved with the hottest trends and deals in the industry. Yet even for those who follow him, Heitner’s tweet on Wednesday afternoon commanded special attention. And for all the hype that Heitner built, he more than delivered.

As it turned out, Heitner had been working behind the scenes with Hathcock and a few other people to launch the Gator Guard, which he introduced as a “new, exclusive, very influential group of high-net-worth Gators” that will work to raise money for the University of Florida’s athletics department. At the time of Heitner’s introductory tweet, the Gator Guard had already raised over $3 million. In just 24 hours.

A few minutes later, Heitner tweeted again. The Gator Guard was up to $4 million.

Then $5 million. And though Heitner may or may not tweet out updates with each $1,000,000 the Gator Guard raises, he’s made his point. The Gator Guard is a force to be reckoned with in the world of college athletics.

The Charleston-based digital marketing firm Stingray Branding, which has previously secured an official partnership with the Gator Collective, is set to design the Gator Guard’s new logo. The graphic designer of Stingray Branding, Ellie Lieberman, is no stranger to working with big-time Florida Gator-related projects. Liebermann has previously designed a personal brand logo for former Florida Gator linebacker James Houston IV and frequently creates infographics and illustrations for the Collective.

The Gator Guard will work in tandem with the Gator Collective to enhance the overall experience of both student-athletes and fans alike- the two organizations are officially partners- but the two are actually quite different in how they operate.

The Gator Collective funds activities that bridge the gap between fans and student-athletes, and creates NIL opportunities for the student-athletes. The Collective also works, in some cases, to teach student-athletes valuable life skills that they may not have ever been able to learn before, such as how to manage their personal finances or prepare for a professional job interview. To be certain, the Gator Collective is a great thing- but the Gator Guard ushers in a brand new day of college athletics.

The money that is donated to the Gator Guard- which will generally come in large increments- gets placed into a pot that goes toward helping Florida Gators student-athletes. The fund can be flexible and used to contribute to different efforts, ranging from creating NIL opportunities for student-athletes to bolstering renovation projects with the facilities in which they spend the majority of their time. 

New Florida football coach Billy Napier consistently speaks at great lengths about the importance of NIL on the recruiting trail, and he has always utilized every weapon at his disposal to ensure that Florida is in the best shape it can be in the everlasting recruiting war. But he’s never had the financial arms race equivalent of a thermonuclear weapon at his disposal- until now. The Gator Guard is that great monetary equalizer, that financial game-changer that can turn the national recruiting war on its head in an instant- which Florida has sorely lacked for years, while the likes of Georgia, Alabama, and Texas A&M operated as they pleased.

To that, the Gator Guard says, “No more.”

Welcome to a new age of college athletics- one in which the University of Florida takes a financial backseat to no other.

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