We all know that there are intense pressures that Athletic Directors (A.D.s) endure across the country. Sit with any passionate college Athletic Directors and you will find that their tenacity and pursuit to mold students into mature adults is what offsets the fears, stressors and what keeps them up at night. In this high-stakes industry, there must be ongoing successes and a rising revenue stream or it could be “lights out” for the current leader.
Upon learning that the average tenure of an A.D. is 7 years, I immediately thought, “but that’s only 1 dog year!” Why so fast? Because time is money and even though preeminent programs aren’t built in one or two seasons, that’s all an A.D. gets before they are either lifted up on shoulders or shown the door.
So what keeps college Athletic Directors up at night? The fears of a business person, a coach and a parent – all wrapped up into one swirling heap. Here are just some biggest hurdles an A.D. has to get over: decreased fundraising, academic performance, decreased fan attendance and ticket sales, increased costs to operate and compete, student-athlete safety, strong relationship with university administration, getting maximum return on TV deals, sponsorship-rights, licensing royalties and above all, losing (losing games, losing coaches, losing fans).
So, how do the “best” keep it all together?
Top 5 Reasons Athletic Departments Succeed
1. Fans First
The best athletic departments in the nation develop programs, special “moments” and opportunities for the people who make it possible, the fans. Inside that group of supporters are types of fans: die-hards, donors, students, value-buyers, season ticket holders. All of these segments need to be approached differently and with complementary messaging tactics.
2. Fundraise “With A Scalpel” Not A Gatling Gun
Yes, it helps to be located in a target-rich environment where there are fewer competitors for your fans’ share of wallet, even in rural locations, raising money and finding new donors can be real challenge. Success stories for A.D.s that make it work usually start with the one-to-one approach where each donor’s interests and wishes are heard and a relevant connection is made for them to give to. But how do you do this with over 8000 prospects and only 4 Development staffers? It’s a hurdle –but never lose that one-to-one.
3. Share Your Sandbox
Partner, open up ideation dialogue with the university community, academicians, researchers. Just as Athletics can build the brand of the university with performance and fans, the University knowledge centers can bolster the athletic department with incremental revenue, value, recruitment, student involvement and faculty partnership. Take a look at your sponsors, rights-holders and sideline providers as businesses that need solutions to their problems. The A.D. that matches this mentality with his/her university will achieve more in the long-run and be the liaison that brings institutional initiatives to life.
4. Give The Athletics Department Org Chart A Facelift
Yes, you need to have game operations staff. Yes, you need sports information staff. However, data analytics and integrated marketing managers may not exist on the org chart right now. The fact is, most college programs do not have full-time employees assigned to this because of financial constraints, not because of lack of effort. The day-to-day management dictates the priorities: upcoming schedule, the next “White Out”, plausibility of in-game promotions, data strategizing may not make the list.
Top college Athletic Directors know that fans today are spoiled and require marketers and salespeople to do even more to reach them. Email isn’t getting it, apps only get a percentage of the audience, the ticketing system has data on buyers, but not on all intenders. Social media channels serve as another inlet for active consumers but aggregating all of this data is a real challenge without the hands to do it. It’s time to reset the org chart and give data what it’s due – gathering, segmenting and integrating it into the overall marketing and sales strategies.
Since most programs aren’t set up with the bandwidth to maintain, analyze and activate all data – college Athletic Directors are looking to firms who not only gather the precise data, but analyze it and carry you through to execution. Athletic departments that still exist in the traditional set-up need to take notice of the pros and get past the logistics of game operations, trade marketing, voicemails/ghost calls to sell tickets. It’s time to lean forward with the market.
5. Always Be Growing – Never Settle
Grow new ideas, activation platforms and opportunities for revenue drivers. In addition to the aforementioned strategies, grow new fans and widen your fan base pipeline by targeting new movers. Top A.D.s understand that to sustain growth the consumer base must continue to widen. New consumers can come in the form of new donors, new prospective season ticket holders or new residents to your city who haven’t aligned with any team or athletic brand. Once they are welcomed “into the huddle” they will remember that first invitation. Today’s college Athletic Directors will deliver on a new movers strategy to welcome every potential fan into their “athletics family”. The first impression is always the one that lasts.