Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Year's Resolutions to Improve College Athletics

With the new year upon us and significant questions about what 2009 might hold for the country economically, here are nine potential New Year's resolutions for 2009 that athletic administrators might consider - most of which cost nothing:

  • Embrace Technology - Young administrators and coaches are leading the curve in new ways to enhance their departments. Branch out and find your niche. Subscribe to a blog, watch a video stream on your computer, start a Linked In or Facebook account. Streamline some of your internal processes. Its easy, and eye opening how fast our environment is changing.
  • Identify local service opportunities - Athletes, coaches and administrators have countless opportunities to make a difference in their local community in difficult economic times. Leadership is needed now and athletes are natural leaders who can help those in need of assistance. Make a commitment to perform the service project on an on-going basis.
  • Help those in need attend your games - Work with local groups - cub scouts, women's shelters, girl scouts, local unions, boys and girls clubs, any underprivileged group - to identify opportunities for members of charitable groups or those affected by the economy to attend a home game.
  • Talk about academics more in recruiting - The pressure to win is intense and talent is important. But a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey indicated that 10% of prospects never talked about academics during their official visit and 73% said they never visited with a professor or visited a class during their visit. Remember, its still STUDENT-athlete.
  • Look beyond football and basketball - There are hundreds of great stories and people beyond the bright lights of the revenue sports. Support them.
  • Thank your support staff - Athletes and coaches get the attention, but there are many people making their success possible. Equipment staff, grounds crew, business office, athletic medicine, strength staff, ticket office and many others all take great pride in their work. They don't do it for attention. Small ways of showing appreciation go a long way in boosting department morale.
  • Be green - What can you do to reduce your carbon footprint? Shrink your media guide. Produce a smaller game program. Play a local program you've avoided playing so that your travel distance is less. Recycle at your venues. Most of these are easy and can even save money.
  • Reemphasize sportsmanship - Work to emphasize the value of positive support for your teams. Make sure your athletes respect your guests. Educate your fans about the same expectation. Everyone wants an intense home environment, but it should avoid being annoying and definitely shouldn't be offensive. Athletics can provide a great environment in which to provide examples of how we can be a more civil society, but the opportunities have to be cultivated. Let's change the tone.
  • Learn how the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) works - Every sport uses a version of it; it is one of the single biggest influences in post season selection; and it significantly impacts regular season non-conference scheduling; yet it is barely understood by most people. If athletic leaders really understood how influential the RPI is, they'd spend a lot more time thinking about how to use it to their advantage and how to make it better than the current model.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Breaking News: West Coast Conference - Globalization, Media and College Basketball

West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich announced a groundbreaking partnership with ESPN to broadcast a 23 game men's basketball package in Australia and New Zealand. For a conference that is fast establishing itself as a significant player in the men's basketball landscape on the heels of their recent NCAA success and new conference leadership, this is a visionary deal on many fronts. It leverages the WCC's conference geography with other strengths including current and future recruiting bases and Olympic exposure from St. Mary's College basketball star Patty Mills. Most important, previously untapped media markets that will be an area of growth for college sports, with significant early entry benefits for the WCC and its member schools, have just been established.

Many NCAA Division I conferences could benefit from pursing similar arrangements. Other west coast leagues such as the Pac-10 might also look to the Pacific Rim, the Big Ten and Big East can head north to Canada, (indeed the Mid American Conference has already established ties with Toronto and the International Bowl )and the Big XII, SEC and ACC have significant opportunities to look to the south in the Caribbean and Mexico as likely areas of growth. Further, with the explosion of easily accessible and ever improving Web capabilities for broadcasting, this partnership takes on added importance as the media landscape shifts. Even individual intuitions, in the west and especially in Hawaii could consider these fertile markets for exposing their brands with residual recruiting benefits.

While time will tell if this becomes a trend, this arrangement represents a significant opportunity for the non-BCS conferences to out maneuver some of the bigger conferences who are likely more focused on establishing their own cable channels and other domestic arrangements. While these are more readily understood and immediately beneficial legacy methods of distribution, the international area may be poised for the greatest growth of all as our world gets smaller and smaller through technology and internationalization with benefits to the most nimble and creative who understand our quickly changing world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Building awareness, a ubiquitous opportunity

A recent article on entitled Eds, Meds and Urban Revival outlines the leading role that colleges and universities play as economic engines in cities across the nation. This role takes many forms - employer, business and government partner, and medical provider to name a few. But unlike the auto industry, steel plants, or nearly any other type of business, colleges and universities and their associated medical facilities have substantial budgets that are expended in the local community and have the important added benefit of being highly unlikely to relocate.

Further, unlike "regular" employers, colleges and universities can serve as a rallying point for the broader community through its athletic programs.

Organizations all over the country, especially non-profits, are continually focused on the ubiquitous concept of "building awareness" - for their cause, for their brand, and for attention in a crowded marketplace of ideas. Athletics is one of the most easily understood and identifiable awareness building entities available. Universities and colleges have unique opportunities not available to any other non-profit organization via their athletic program should they choose to pursue them. Using athletics as a vehicle to "build awareness" about an entire institution (as opposed to just itself) can pay increasing dividends to the sponsoring university and local community in these difficult economic times. And unlike a manufacturing job that is moved overseas or a professional sports team that leaves one city for another to obtain more favorable lease terms on a stadium or arena - a local college team isn't going anywhere.

While critics of college athletics sometimes lament the dollars that are "diverted" from academics to athletics, these dollars:
  • are a wise investment in employee and community morale,
  • can increase enthusiasm for partnerships between the university and government or other area businesses, and
  • can create a highly stable community building entity that most organizations would trade their 503(c) status to have available to help "build awareness".
- ultimate sports insider

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Would you like your lecture notes hot, medium or mild?

The Chronicle of Higher Education features a story in this week's edition about University of Montana history professor Kyle G. Volk who, after experiencing significant budget cuts at the University, decided to pursue a corporate sponsorship for his course on American Capitalism. His goal was to use the sponsorship to start a newsletter. The name of the sponsor - El Diablo Burrito & Taco. So was this a deal with the devil?

Considering the current state of the economy, increasing tuition costs, and the cuts that have been experienced at the University (including elimination of long distance phone calls and the inability to buy toner for copy machines), it seems that rather than curtailing this sponsorship, Professor Volk should get extra credit for providing budget relief to the University and a special note of recognition in his tenure file. Rather than complaining, or asking for a handout, he helped himself and his students improve their educational environment in way that posed no conflict of interest. While not every sponsorship would be appropriate in a classroom, his actions are quite consistent with what occurs in athletic venues, with University pouring rights, exclusive bookstore deals and with research that is sponsored by corporations on so many college campuses nationally.
-ultimate sports insider

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A vision realized

University at Buffalo alumni and fans who had been wondering when there might be a breakthrough for the athletic program (which joined NCAA Division I in 1991 and I-A, now FBS, in 1999) got the answer on Friday night as the Bulls posted a 42-24 victory over previously unbeaten Ball State in the Mid American Conference Championship game. Buffalo will now prepare to play in the International Bowl in Toronto, Ontario, less than a 2 hour drive from campus.

But the reasons the University made the decision to join Division I were on display in the first half well before the game was ever decided. UB received a tremendous amount of favorable publicity during the contest at a time when prospective students are making last minute decisions about where to apply for college. Mike Brey, Notre Dame's men's basketball coach whose son plays for Buffalo, participated in a lengthy interview during the first half in which he trumpeted Buffalo's outstanding academics. The interviewer joined in singing the University's praises citing its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) and its similarities to other great higher education institutions such as the University of Michigan.

During the game, ESPN also spent considerable time discussing the University's only other prior bowl bid, the 1958 Tangerine Bowl. It was a bowl bid that the team declined to accept because UB's two African American student athletes were not permitted to participate in the bowl. ESPN's Outside the Lines also did a piece about the 1958 team as well. It is a piece of Buffalo's history that is a point of pride for every alumnus and alumna.

While the story about the 1958 football team and the fact that Buffalo is a member of the AAU are not secrets, it is hard to put a price tag on the positive publicity the University received and will continue to receive in the next month related to the football program. Alumni esteem and institutional pride are strong and growing with each passing day. While credit for the current success is largely attributable to Athletic Director Warde Manuel and his leadership, the vision and decision by former President Steven Sample to return the University to NCAA
Division I during the late 1980's and early 1990's cannot be overlooked. While it has been a difficult journey and one that is far from over, Friday night was the first big dividend from an investment that many had previously questioned.
-ultimate sports insider

Friday, November 28, 2008

Coach in waiting - who wins and who loses?

The coach in waiting phenomenon, which was just announced at Texas and occurred a couple months ago at Florida State, is likely to become a familiar part of the college athletics landscape. But who wins and loses in such an arrangement? Is this a wise choice? Some things to consider:

Potential Winners -

1) The coach in waiting - Obviously a larger paycheck and a public coronation while the head coach keeps your headset warm for you has no downside. Further, nothing says "I'm ready to be a head coach" like this title, which makes you that much more attractive to potential suitors who might offer you even more money and potentially a better job (Does the coach in waiting have a buyout clause?).

2) The current head coach - The ability to retain the person who is your most loyal, trusted and theoretically talented assistant coach for the foreseeable future is a tremendous benefit for the success of your program. Further, there is nothing like having a hand picked successor to help further cement your coaching legacy.

3) The athletic director - Having a succession plan in place before a vacancy ever develops is part of what a good athletic director does, and this clearly says "I've got a plan - Coach Waiting is the best coach in the country". Otherwise, why would you do it.

4) Agents - As they increasingly infiltrate college athletics, this new title has just opened up a whole new rationale for assistant coaches to use an agent. Agents can further justify their services and associated fees to offensive and defensive coordinators as well as head coaches up and down the pay scale.

Potential Losers:

1) Diversity - The Black Coaches Association, Dr. Richard Lapchick, and many other organizations and individuals have frequently cited the lack of diversity in college football. Each year the BCA releases a report card of hiring practices in five categories - Communication, Hiring and Search Committee, Candidates Interviewed, Reasonable Time, and Affirmative Action Procedures. Time will tell if the coach in waiting is one that enhances or diminishes the diversity of college football in head coaching positions, but I would assume that none of the five criteria that the BCA has identified to promote diversity in the coaching ranks will be met in any situation where a coach in waiting exists.

2) The current program - Life can be unpredictable. What if the coach in waiting commits a crime or is arrested for a DWI? What if the coach commits NCAA recruiting violations? What if the coach in waiting falls out of favor for reasons related to the sport? Coaching changes are complicated enough. Already having named your future coach makes them that much more tricky.

3) Other members of the staff - The reality is that coach in waiting title is a signal to the other coordinator that he has no shot at the head coaching position should it open. While that may have been understood anyway, since you can only have one coach in waiting he should start considering his options for advancement elsewhere and take those calls that come his way.

While there have long been designations like associate head coach to signal who is the second in command in a program, this move is an escalation of that concept and is a very public statement that no one else need apply or hold their breath in anticipation of an opening. And while the rationale for such a move will vary from institution to institution, there are no guarantees that what looks like a wise move today, will appear so thoughtful and visionary three, five or ten years down the road despite what are the best intentions behind that choice today.
-ultimate sports insider

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fantasy sports, the student athlete and the NCAA

Recently, two items related to fantasy sports have appeared in the news. One story is tracking the NCAA's concern over, but apparent inability/unwillingness to address, the decision by broadcast partner CBS to create a fantasy sports league that is based on the performance of college athletes. The concern is that fantasy teams and games based on collegiate athletic performance will further erode the myth of the student athlete as an amateur. (This is a topic that is worthy of extensive debate in and of itself, but for many athletes, they are already receiving compensation in the form of an athletic grant-in-aid that can cover tuition and fees, room and board and books. Some suggest that this compensation is insufficient relative to the amount of money that coaches and schools make from the athletes, but this is a topic for another day.)

The second item is a study that was just reviewed in the November 17, 2008 edition of the Sports Business Journal, that finds fantasy sports participants outspend the public generally and sports fans specifically in many product categories that have strong relationships to the corporate sponsors regularly associated with athletics (alcohol, air travel, restaurants, athletic shoes, video games, etc.).

While the NCAA and the Knight Commission have been anxious about the erosion of amateurism and are also concerned about the exploitation of rights of individual rights of athletes, these concerns seem to be attracting a lot of misplaced angst and energy. The reasons these concerns are misplaced are two fold - 1) Its hard to understand how a student athlete becomes less amateur (or said differently, professionalized) since the student athlete isn't personally benefiting financially from the fantasy sports league. 2) While student athletes and/or the NCAA may take issue with a student athlete's name and statistics being used, the ability to protect these rights individually or collectively seems tenuous at best since the courts recently ruled that Major League Baseball (an organization with Congressional anti-trust exemptions) did not own the statistics related to their athletes (who are represented by one of the most powerful sports collective bargaining units, the Major League Baseball Players Association). The courts have ruled that these statistics are part of the public domain. Clearly this standing extends to college athletic contests as well.

It seems this is an inevitable development and a natural outgrowth from the ever increasing expansion of technology, the World Wide Web and sports interest. The power of fantasy sports leagues should be harnessed. Rather than reflexively resisting this development, the NCAA, colleges and universities and other entities associated with college athletics should look to the study that was referenced above and consider the potential benefits of this arrangement.

Rather than worrying that people across the country are playing a game that is based in part on the performance of the starting quarterback at Stanford as compared to the performance of the wide receiver from Eastern Michigan - fantasy leagues could be used as a means to harness the passion that surrounds college sports for even greater benefit to the Association, member institutions and the athletes.

Of significant concern to the NCAA is its $6 Billion television contract with CBS Sports, which expires in 2014. This contract is responsible for more than 90% of all revenue to the NCAA and funds most of the 87 other championships the NCAA offers in Divisions I, II and III. When the renegotiation of this contract occurs, CBS, ESPN or any other entity that has interest in obtaining the broadcast rights to the Men's Basketball Championship is going to have significant interest in making sure that the rights fees they are paying to the NCAA can be justified through corporate sponsorships - sponsorships that could be enhanced through fantasy sports fans who spend more in product categories important to the NCAA.

Further, as the NCAA loves to say, there are 380,000 student athletes and most of them are going pro in something other than sports. For so many athletes, this could be a way for their story, professional aspirations, as well as on AND off field success to be tracked at a level of detail that makes them more attractive employees, athletic or otherwise. Fantasy sports, Facebook, myspace and countless other technologies that we haven't even heard of yet may be the impetus that allows more athletes to build their personal brand, which is increasingly important it today's Google driven world. While compensation for the athlete isn't forthcoming right now, it may happen after their eligibility expires with the help of this type of activity while fantasy sports can simultaneously help the vast majority of colleges and universities balance their athletic books, since many programs do not currently operate free of institutional funds.

As an incredibly image conscious organization, the NCAA associates with only the most acceptable and controversy free sponsors. In this instance, it should consider fantasy sports a vehicle by which value is returned to corporate sponsors who are supporting college athletics while promoting and celebrating student athletes throughout the association via an endeavor in which many are already participating.
-ultimate sports insider

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't Mess With Texas

The November 1, 2008 edition of Texas Monthly features an article entitled "Come early. Be Loud. Cash in."about the University of Texas Athletic Department and budget. The article describes in significant detail the incredible growth of the University's athletic program in the last few years and the significant strategic decisions made by Director of Athletics DeLoss Dodds to position the program for the success it is experiencing today. In another article, slightly more than a year earlier, the Austin American-Statesman did a similar budget analysis. Of particular note is that the Texas budget grew by approximately $19 million in just one year.

Less than a week ago Business Week reported that the University is also in negotiations to start its own institution specific television network that would benefit both athletics and the University at large.

UT now has one of the most recognizable national collegiate brands, is considered one of the top 50 schools in the country and one of the top public universities, at least a portion of the stature and notoriety of the University is due in part to its athletic success and branding where everyone is encouraged to be a Longhorn. Examples abound, including:
  • "Longhorn Confidential" provides behind the scenes look at college life (of course with appropriate University oversight).
  • The Longhorn logo has been adopted for the email system (see to the right); and
  • The Longhorn mascot Bevo has been adapted to provide Bevoware, computer anti-virus downloads.

The pride that the campus has in its athletic program is clear and that pride is then translated to other parts of the University where the incredible energy that surrounds an abundantly successful athletic program is shared with 50,000 students in a rich and vibrant research environment to make the University of Texas a place to be reckoned with, not only in athletics, but in everything else in undertakes. While there are sure to be critics who will indicate that the athletic budget is misplaced or excessive, this self funded entity which is sharing its profits with the academic side of the University is another example of the benefits athletics can provide when properly conceived in the broader mission of the University.
-ultimate sports insider

Monday, November 10, 2008

College rankings and the athletic solution

This week's Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that cites four different studies, including one from preeminent higher education researcher and commentator Doug Toma, about the on-going pursuit of colleges and universities to improve their rankings within higher education by publications such as US News and World Report or the Princeton Review. The premise of the article and associated research is that the more colleges and universities pursue improved rankings, they are unlikely they are to achieve those improvements and that the attempted improvements come at a cost, namely the colleges and universities become more and more similar to each other.

The obvious question is what can these institutions do to enhance their prestige while remaining distinctive, notable and recognizable in a sea of homogeneity? I would suggest that intercollegiate athletic expansion is an opportunity worth investigating. While critics will contend that the dollars spent on athletics are excessive and disproportionate to their return on investment, I believe that in many cases the investment in athletics is justified.

Examples are many:
  • Another recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited in great detail the benefits to Adrian College in Michigan from expanding their athletic budget from $300,000 to $800,000 since 2005. The benefit: a 57% increase in undergraduate enrollment at the institution. With full time tuition, fees, room and board costing $31,000 per year, some back of the envelope math indicates a $15,000,000 return on the half million dollar investment.
  • In 2007, the Chronicle also published an article about community colleges taking the same steps as Adrian College - adding sports and expanding athletic offerings as a way to attract and retain students.
  • My own research, published in 1999, indicates that there are 6 reasons why a college or university will change their athletic classification - moving to NCAA Division I. These six benefits include:
  1. Increased undergraduate admission applications and matriculants.
  2. Improved town and gown relationships.
  3. Enhanced alumni and development opportunities with athletics as a rallying point.
  4. Financial improvement (in certain circumstances).
  5. Increased visibility and publicity - Newspaper and web presence as well as TV exposure in Division I on the ESPN and other sports tickers.
  6. Benefits of association - Conference membership gives people easily understood context about whom you associate with and to whom you are similar. You can be the best of the group and trumpet it or you can be the worst of the group but benefit from the glow that your peers may provide you.

This is not to suggest that athletics is a cure for every institution's woes, but as a distinguishing factor, it may well beat trying to climb the ladder over other institutions who are also trying to expand their library holdings and improve their faculty to student ratio.

Consider that according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities there are 2618 accredited four year institutions in the United States - and they all have a rank. But consider that there are only 342 NCAA Division I institutions. There are also 449 Division III institutions. Joining either of these groups instantly provides a level of credibility. Of the great institutions in the United States according the previously cited rankings, including 18 of the top 25 are NCAA Division I institutions and the other seven are in Division III.

So if you are a president of vice president at a tuition driven college or university, despite views to the contrary, an investment in a well conceived athletic program that is in consonance with the mission of your institution may be just the answer you have been seeking to improve the image and prestige of your institution. The added benefit is that this type of approach is more easily understood by ninety-five percent of the American public and tuition paying parents everywhere than studying the ranking methodologies of these publications for ways to improve their standing.

-ultimate sports insider