Ideas on How College Athletics Can Adapt to Potentially Challenging Financial Circumstances

It’s a scary time in sports. Heck, it’s a scary time in the whole world, as mankind takes on the threat of the coronavirus. 

And while we all remain optimistic, because it’s all we can do, leaders in the sports space are growing increasingly wary of how the sports business will look on the other side. This is especially dire in college athletics where the notion of the college football season getting canceled threatens the livelihood of countless programs throughout college sports, which rely on the revenues generated by football to keep them afloat. Athletic Directors, according to polls, are more worried than ever about losing out on ticket sales and donations, still, even if there remains hope college football in some form can end up on TV (i.e. with empty stadiums), keeping media revenue on the table.

For years now, many college athletics programs have seemed to the outside world like major corporations, with charter flights, company cars, and more accoutrements on campus than Club Med. College football ain’t going away, but the other sports its revenue supports are at risk and it means college athletics programs must get more creative and pointed than ever to make it mean something for donors to support their school and its programs.

 

Coaches Glad-Handing All Year

Throughout the season, coaches are head-down all about the football — preparing for practice, meetings, watching film, meeting recruits, talking to media, and doing their weekly call-in shows. In the offseason, they’re doing talks at booster events and quarterback clubs, meeting corporate big-wigs, and, yes, still spending a lot of time on recruiting and football.

But with revenue shortfalls from an absence of ticket sales and considerable expected decreases in donations, how can external relations become an integral part of their role, while not diminishing their ability to coach and recruit? It’s time now to consider that question and to brainstorm. 

How can coaches make the days of more donors, and reinforce those donor activities and feelings? This goes beyond football coaches, to every coach in the programs that may literally be saved through the generosity of donors and partners that are able. Could coaches spend 15 minutes a day recording personalized thank you’s to a few donors? Could they write or sign a few handwritten thank you notes in the middle of each day? Could they recreate a campus visit tour for donors, the same way they delight recruits and donors that visit on campus in more normal times?

Without the payoff of games and in-person events, these little things can matter a lot and can scale. 

But where do the student athletes, whose experiences and ability to play the sport they love in college, fit into the equation?

Put a Face to the Funding: Activating Student Athletes

Sure, some big donors will see their name on a building or a coaching position endowment for perpetuity. But with athletes in sports like wrestling, field hockey, track and field, and more at risk of losing their ability to compete for their school and have the experience they imagined all their lives, it’s more of a human game than ever before.

No, most of these kids are not in dire straits of not having food to eat, healthcare, and a bed to sleep in at night [though some are]. But they will suffer in the months and years to come, as schools can no longer afford to pay for them to play their sport, and perhaps their scholarship to attend the school, in general. But what if donating to a school was more personal, and benefactors could see, could form a relationship with, and could connect with someone living out their dreams thanks to a donation? It’s more like an adoption than simply handing over a check to help fill the coffers of the college. 

It reminds me of a customer at Greenfly (where I work), a non-profit organization that uses funds to help pay for the education of kids who have lost a parent in the line of military duty. The organization’s cause is laudable, to be sure, but it means even more when donors get personalized thank you messages from the individual kids whose life they’re improving. It’s a back and forth for life, and it makes the donation that much more meaningful. 

Could college athletics, by necessity, become more personal for the fans and donors that support it, and help programs and student athlete experiences that would otherwise be lost amidst this pandemic? The transactional nature of it all must evolve, but — especially if live events are fan-less or limited in scope and people — the nature of the value exchange for paying fans and donors must evolve, as well.

 

Giving Value Back to Fans and Donors in Creative and Original Ways

Think about the experiences fans and donors and partners receive in exchange for their dollars. They get the live games and the atmosphere, and many enjoy VIP experiences like watching warm-ups from the sideline. Some may have their kids on the field to high-five players as they run in, hang out with prominent alums in the premium club, and get to shake hands (or maybe ‘dap’ nowadays) with the coaches and Athletic Director. 

But if fans aren’t allowed to come to games or the paradigm of experiences either doesn’t work now or needs to evolve, how can there still be value given back to these valuable individuals who help fund all the sports programs, football and well beyond?

Could college athletics do its own take on the ‘Cameo’ app and record special messages on request for donors, like a coach wishing a Happy Birthday to a major donor’s husband or a broadcaster recording someone’s voicemail? Heck, with the imminent arrival of new NIL policies for student athletes, could colleges facilitate similar opportunities for student athletes, with a portion going in their pocket and the rest funding athletics? Or maybe a prominent alumnus can drop into a board meeting on Zoom for an impromptu virtual meet and greet. The creativity is boundless and perhaps as needed as ever as programs rethink how they can make donors feel valued, and give value back in new ways. Because the old ways may either be more limited or not even possible.

In many ways, such evolution is a natural progression already gradually taking place in sports, as season ticket holders all become ‘members’ for the program, and receive value well beyond the face value of their ticket for admission to games.

What Membership Could Mean Going Forward

The concept of being a ‘member’ is more prominent in European and Australian sports, but the nomenclature, at least, has been making its way to the US in the last decade. College athletics by and large typically has a more emotional tie than pro sports to begin with and having an affiliation with the school is something that goes beyond a guaranteed seat and tailgating spot. If fans aren’t able to go to games, how can they still see value from being a ‘member?’ And, heck, even when stadiums do open back up, how can fans that live thousands of miles away still feel it’s worthwhile for them to be a paying ‘member’ (or booster or supporter) of a school and its program?

We can look to those European clubs for inspiration, many of whom have multiple tiers of memberships, and have been monetizing hordes of fans for years that may never attend a game in their lifetime. Members can receive special merchandise and tchotchkes, and many get access to premium digital content. During this COVID-19 pandemic we’re seeing teams all over the world get creative with value they can offer to fans — workouts, nutrition advice, access to Zoom calls with media and IG Lives with players and coaches, a firehose of classic content, and random (but requested) “pop-ins” from mascots to a Zoom call. There are so many ways teams and programs can provide unique value, and it’s time to exhaustively consider all those options, determine what’s feasible, and make sure fans can get value even while they may not be able to go to games or feel they can afford to write a check just because they love their school. That emotional tie can stay strong, even as donations dwindle, and one more tactic to consider is to embrace the idea of mini contributions, when fans, students, alumni, and donors can only give a little at a time.

 

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Micro Donations

For some time now, micro-payments have been a part of the gaming world, whether gamers are paying for extra lives or for a cool ‘skin’ for their avatar. Clemson University has also enjoyed success for a while with their ‘IPTAY’ program (I pay ten a year) in which alumni, among others, vow to pay $10 a year. Micro-donations can be a way to support the program and the school, just like gamers support their favorite video games without breaking the bank. And, over thousands of transactions, it can add up to significant revenue.

In the aftermath of this pandemic (let alone during it), when it’s not realistic for many to part with hundreds of dollars, let alone thousands, how can schools get more creative in offering micro methods of donation? Could they pay a few bucks for a custom avatar or graphic to be produced? Or sign up to give a dollar for every touchdown the team scores? Or pay a dollar to access a mobile video game the team produces? These are very off-the-cuff ideas, but the point is that micropayments are already growing and micro-donations could, and maybe should, be the wave of the future for colleges, college athletics, and beyond.


It’s a time of great uncertainty and apprehension for college athletics leaders, coaches, staff, and student athletes. Unless things change, the anticipated budget that helps fuel so many sports programs that operate in the red simply may not be there when all is said and done. Desperate times call for creativity and creating value wherever possible. It may not be a revolution, but an evolution certainly must come. The experiences of thousands of student athletes and collegiate sports depend on it.

Episode 166 Snippets: Brad Friedman is Spreading the Stories and Joy of MiLB’s 160 Teams through Social Media

On episode 166 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brad Friedman, Social Media Manager for the Minor League Baseball.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Zoom is Rapidly Evolving as a Platform Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak: How Can Sports Teams & Leagues Use It?

It has been fascinating to the see the proliferation and evolution of Zoom during this COVID-19 outbreak. Many workplaces have used Zoom for meetings for years. But with so many businesses now working remotely, classes meeting remotely, and humans in general just seeking connection in a time of isolation, the Zoom platform has seemingly been ubiquitous in the past couple weeks.

The New York Times had an article recently about how Zoom is developing into something of a social network as users of all ages arrange video calls with friends of family to hang out, catch up, collaborate, and get as close as possible to simulate being in the same room together. With such a wide swath of the populace now spending time on Zoom, it stands to reason that sports teams and leagues experiment with the platform to help keep the relationship with their fans strong during this downtime.

The more traditional social platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch and Snap, offer live video; they even offer interactive live video. Yet it’s Zoom that feels the less like a show being put on for fans, and more like an intimate hangout session. Or maybe it’s that Zoom is what we’ve become more comfortable in, since so many of us spend classes and work meetings in it for hours each day. Or perhaps it’s the ease of multi-tasking while sitting in a Zoom call, less common if you’re on a FaceTime call, let alone IG Live.

So what are some ways teams and leagues can jump in on Zoom and do something unique to engage fans on the platform of the moment? Let’s have some fun and ideate.

 

Help Fans Decorate their Zoom

The Zoom background is a chance to show off identity. To showcase a passion or something one cares about. So, just like a cellphone wallpaper, offering fans a collection of (or weekly) Zoom background that shows off the team and its players is a tremendous way to keep fans fans, and give the brand exposure when it’s harder than ever to do so.

 

Get Players Involved

We’re starting to see an explosion of Instagram Live for interviews, with even ESPN’s Around the Horn trying to recreate their roundtable show on IG Live. But, again, that’s re-creating a TV Show. What if a select group of fans could be invited to watch an interview, tantamount to a live studio audience, before the finished show is shared out to the masses on social, even streamed live. Or have team reporters and broadcasters interview a player or mall group of players on Zoom, offering them the privacy to chat without worry, with the team then able to produce a final product that could be quite something by the end. Maybe it’s even sponsored? A lot of fun to be had here, especially if a player or two buy in. Even alumni and broadcasters alone can be effective here.
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Engage Season Ticket Holders

These most valuable of fans — the ones now many like to call ‘members’ — maybe aren’t as at risk of the casual fans of not coming back after coronavirus,. But these are fans that most value being connected to the team, and invest their hearts, minds, and paychecks into the team year after year. That devotion is why teams often have fan fests and kickoff parties just for them, offering them exclusive access to players and execs. What could such an exclusive event look like on Zoom? Maybe it’s groups of a couple hundred RVSP’ing and being able to hear from a GM or active/former player, and ask questions in an exclusive forum. Teams may even hold impromptu forums with their season ticket holders and other diehard fans, crowdsourcing ideas and getting feedback on ways the team can help and engage during this tough time.

Connect Partners

A growing trend for sports teams and leagues has been the dedication to doing a better job of serving its partners, through providing knowledge and facilitating collaboration among sponsors of the same organization. These often take the form of summits, but consider how valuable a Zoom meeting could be now, and how the team can play that middleman to put it together. No one has all the answers right now, there is no predetermined game-plan to take on this pandemic shutting down much of society. Just like teams are talking to each other and bouncing ideas and strategies right now, so can partners. With so much anxiety and uncertainty, organizing a chance for sponsors to hear different perspectives and learn from industry leaders would be a great way to bring value to the partnerships at this time.

Meet and Learn From the Team

While Zoom is growing in its diversity of users and demographics, it still has spent much of its life as primarily a workplace meeting an video chat tool. So what an opportunity Zoom represents to engage the professionals, young and old, and students to find another reason to connect to the team, especially at a time when there are no games to do so. How many people would be interested to hear the GM or CMO of a sports team talk about their path to the position, their strategy, and to answer questions from the audience? Or what about the Creative Director leading a workshop on the Adobe Creative Suite to a number of attentive eyeballs? The team is comprised of many pros very good at what they do, and working in a sexy and highly visible industry like sports. And Zoom classes would be incredibly value for a team or league to offer right now.

Theme Nights

We’re all familiar with theme nights for sports teams. Some are designed to add an extra gimmick to a game, while many others are driven to attract groups of fans to attend. This could be way out in left field, but could teams organize theme nights on Zoom to help fans of particular interests and niches connect with each other? Consider the possibilities — Teachers Night, Hispanic Heritage, Scouts Night. This could also be less about themes and more about groups of people with similar lives or interests, like parents with young athletes,  cooking enthusiasts, fans of yoga, etc. Sports teams help bring people together, how can they use Zoom to help further that objective?

Content for kids

I was blown away recently talking to my sister and hearing about my nieces going tio ‘school’ on Zoom every day, followed by a dance class, a play date, and there’s a gymnastics class tomorrow, all on Zoom. At a time when parents are trying to keep their kids occupied, increasingly relying on Zoom to help connect them to those outside resources of education and pastime, how can teams help? Could a player or broadcaster read to kids? Could a mascot lead a skit or help with an educational demonstration or lesson? Could a dance team member teach kids a dance? How about a strength coach with a fun exercise class? Or maybe the team partners with a school or university to put together something of a curriculum for kids that the team can host for its fans and their kids. Much of this content can be repurposed for social media, too, of course.

Charity and Community Social Responsibility

This is a time when fans want to help, they want to be part of the solution to this worldwide problem. The charitable endeavors led by teams can help raise funds and give their fans the opportunity to give. How can Zoom play a role here? Fans could purchase ‘tickets’ to an exclusive hangout on Zoom with players or alumni, with all proceeds going to charity. The team could even auction off one-on-chats with players, broadcasters, alums, and execs. On the CSR side, the team could also try to find and invite experts to come on Zoom and address questions from fans tuning and help placate the worries that permeate so much of everyday life right now. This could also work on social, as well.

Think Like a Game Show

Teams have been doing trivia on social platforms for a while now, but what unique features and opportunities exist on Zoom that teams could utilize to bring another level of connection and interaction at this time? This is where thinking more like a game show and less like a one for all trivia contest may help. Could contestants be part of a ‘live’ game show like Family Feud or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Or maybe fans can watch players play a version of the Newlywed Game to see which pair of players know each other best. One could look at a list of game shows to get inspiration and get even more original and creative. There could be a lot of fun here and of course the final product can extend to other platforms.

 

Sports teams and leagues have a history of meeting fans where they are, of providing engagement and connection on the platforms where fans are spending their time and where unique opportunities exist. Zoom is that platform having its moment with fans (and with almost everyone it would seem) right now and it has already been exhilarating to watch it evolve and will be just as fun watching how sports teams may get involved.

Episode 165 Snippets: Oli Shawyer Discusses the Marketing and Fan Development Strategy for the Australian Football League

On episode 165 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Oli Shawyer, Marketing Lead for the Australian Football League.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Episode 164 Snippets: AEG’s Matt Lawler Breaks Down the Ins and Outs of Digital and Social Sponsorship

On episode 164 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Matt Lawler, Director of Digital Media, AEG Global Partnerships.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.