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.

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