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 162 Snippets: Brandon Berrio Helps Lead LSU Football’s Social Content Strategy and Operations Through a Dream Season

On episode 162 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brandon Berrio, Associate Director – Creative and Digital Content for LSU Athletics.

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 160 Snippets: Andrew Brewster Developed a Michigan State Athletics Blog for USA Today While also Working a Full-Time Job

On episode 160 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Andrew Brewster, Editor, SpartansWire (Michigan State Athletics blog for USA Today).

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 156 Snippets: Ty Rogers on the Keys to Great Sports Content and Creative

On episode 156 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Ty Rogers, Freelance Content Creator formerly with Michigan/Duke/Indiana Athletics.

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 151 Snippets: Chris Grosse on Driving Attendance in College Athletics, Building Fan Experiences, and Creating a Special Game Atmosphere

On episode 151 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Chris Grosse, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing at Penn State Athletics.

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.

Attendance Issues in College Athletics and What Leaders are Doing About It

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It used to be so easy. Before the days of every game on TV, of highlights available moments after the plays occur, of Netflix and Twitch – before all that and more, the stadium or arena was the place to be on game day. Those were salad days with a butt in every seat and attending games seen as traditional and darn near obligatory as attending church on Sunday (yeah, I know, a weird reference for this Jewish author to make).

But those days are gone. Simply announcing the schedule and opening the gates are not nearly enough to attract fans to games in the midst of all the other options and amenities one can get at home with their recliner, their fridge, and all of the screens and games within easy reach. The battle to boost attendance, particularly in college football (though applicable to almost all sports), was dissected with great insight by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, informed by conversations with prominent professionals working in college athletics. (NOTE: Read the full article and subscribe to The Athletic because it is freaking awesome and well worth the price of subscription). There are plenty of ideas you may have heard before, some areas that haven’t gotten the consideration they merit, and other new opportunities to explore that were discussed in the piece.

Here are 12 topics broached in the article as leaders in sports and college athletics look to recapture those glory days of packed stadiums every game, every week, every season.

Seating – For years, we just kind of accepted bleachers at college football games and many other sports. Pro sports may have upgraded to some individual seats that one could tolerate if they brought a seat cushion. But when you have a recliner, a comfy couch, or a massage chair with your name (and crease) on it back home, sports pros are realizing making the time one is at their seat and, well, sitting something to enjoy and relax, rather than simply tolerate.

[Cool real-world example not from the article are the mesh seats at the home stadium of the Las Vegas Aviators, in an attempt to keep fans comfy (and prevent hot + sweaty butts) during the hot Vegas summers.]

FOMO – Fans at home can rest assured with their plentiful WiFi and all the outlets and screens they could want. Stadiums have gradually been filling this need over the years – WiFi is becoming more the norm (even if it’s not the panacea for attendance woes many hoped), charging stations are located throughout the venue (though I need one at my seat!), and – after years of archaically avoiding it – replays are completely shown in the stadium, so there’s no FOMO that you’re missing out on looks and angles and highlights fans back home are getting.

Quality > Quantity – In the past, it was all about getting the most fans and seats in the building as possible (fire codes permitting!). Now, leaders are thinking less about cramming in every last fan than they are about providing the best fan experience – so that may mean more open concourses, standing areas, and even roomier seats and suites. Better to have 75,000 happy fans than 80,000 fans just tolerating the experience. They’re also paying more attention to boosting per capita revenue rather than living and dying with the announced attendance (especially when one takes into account no-shows).

Transportation + Parking – A common complaint, according to the article, revolved around getting to the stadium and finding / dealing with parking. As someone who attended a school that required a student bus ride to get to the stadium, I can understand the pain of students whose stadium is not a couple steps from campus. Parking, of course, is an endless hassle at just about any sports events, but that’s why schools and teams are working with a) ride-share companies to make their use and flow easier, and b) partnering with parking apps (ParkWhiz is cited in the piece) to allay this concern for fans. Ingress is also an area noted in the comments section of the article (solutions weren’t discussed, but ideas like pre-check and companies like Clear with their biometric identification are things to watch).

Open concession areas – Not only is the selection of food getting better (and fans don’t have to decide quite as much between going out to get a good meal and going out to the game), but stadiums in college athletics are putting more thought into the concessions experience – with larger, open areas to combat congestion, mobile ordering (not mentioned in the article), and concessions areas that may look more like a mall food court, with seating and socializing, than just some stands selling typical cheap fare.

Video everywhere – Fans can go and enjoy those social areas and that food without having to worry about missing the game or, in some cases, other big games going on simultaneously. There are screens everywhere – showing the game on the field and games from all over. Particularly in college football, where there seem to be always be multiple ‘big games,’ leaders are making sure fans don’t have to feel like they’re missing out, including pregame opportunities to watch other games.

Entertainment > Advertising for game presentation – There are a lot of media timeouts (that’s what ultimately represents the biggest slice of revenue pie) in addition to halftime, and while old favorites like the dance cam have been around for years, there were previously a lot more straight ad reads or commercials on the video board. Those are gradually being replaced by sponsored features, contests, on-field presentations, videos, and fun that are far more welcomed and valuable for fans. The fans at home are probably flipping through the commercials, and if you want fans in the venue to have a positive experience from driveway to driveway, stealing their attention for traditional ads is not an ingredient to keep them coming back.

Every game is an event – These were cool to read about and certainly continues a trend seen in other sports. It’s not enough to just say you’re going to the game or went to the game last night, there’s a lot more and to the experience now. There are pregame parties, concerts and DJ’s, and other activities so that the game is just one part of the overall experience for fans.

Alcohol – Alcohol sales were not practiced and mostly prohibited at college football games for years. Now, many schools and conferences are beginning to crack open the door, or swing it wide open, for sales of beer, wine, and even hard liquor in some cases. Proponents argue, often armed with data, that selling booze in the games cuts down on pregame binge-ing before stadium entry and reduces security issues. Of course, it’s a nice boon for revenue via sales and sponsorship, too (though not a massive windfall). Getting a beer at the game is such a traditional part of the sports attendance experience for fans in pro sports and certainly a part of the experience for fans tailgating or watching at home or at a sports bar – and now it is one less thing missing from the live game experience.

Rewards programs and/or Priority – Rewards programs (whether for students or for all fans) are making a mega comeback (they’re a lot more advanced and data-savvy than those of the ’90s, that’s for sure), and they’re another weapon in the arsenal to get fans to attend games. But it’s more than that – they’re also incentivizing fans to arrive on time to games and stay til the end, offering extra credit for being there late in the 4th quarter. While most rewards programs offer prizes like merchandise and tchotchkes, something even more valuable on the table is ticket priority, especially for students for whom priority was heretofore largely based on seniority. If fans want to be able to see those big games, they have to attend all the other games and not leave at halftime. It’s also an incentive for season ticket holders to actually show up to every game.

Smarter, more aggressive, targeted marketing – The type of sophisticated marketing and sales strategies that are now the norm in pro sports arrived kind of late to college athletics. There wasn’t as much a need, especially in places like SEC country where the school’s games were the only show in town and the best form of entertainment and outing one could possibly find. Schools spent far more time worrying about driving donations and external relations than ticket sales. But strong sales and marketing is now a must in the college athletics game and programs are utilizing CRM, data warehouses, and many are bringing in external partners to take over or train their sales programs. This point about more savvy sales was brought up and articulated well in the article by longtime sports sales leader Steve DeLay.

Flexible ticketing – While you’ve likely read about a MLB or NBA team offering ‘passes’ or the chance to ‘subscribe’ with a monthly ticket, this notion really seemed to get its initial steam in college athletics and now more and more schools are creating such flexible ticketing passes. Further, in an interesting observation from DeLay, schools are learning from their counterparts in the pros and offering more options for their potential fans and buyers. Along with season tickets, there are the aforementioned passes, mini plans, and pick ’em plans. These, in turn, can be marketed in a targeted fashion to fans for whom each membership/ticket plan is best suited. It’s a new day for college athletics and the bar and burden is higher and tougher to fill their stadiums on Saturdays. But the strategies and tactics are more thoughtful, proactive, and innovative as they’ve ever been.

First, I urge you again to subscribe to The Athletic and to read the story from Nicole Aueberbach that inspired this piece and the takeaways. I’ll end this post with an excellent quote/anecdote from the article, offered from Kenny Mossman, senior associate athletic director of external operations at Oklahoma:

“I went to a Disney seminar one time and they said, ‘What do you think is the goal that we aspire for Disney?’” Mossman said. “You sit there and scratch your head and you think, ‘To make people happy?’ They told us no — it was to get you to come back to your next visit. That’s really what we have to be motivated by as well. What can we do when they’re here that makes it so much fun that they have to come back? That’s really what’s driving a lot of us.”

Episode 147 Snippets: Victoria McBryde Offers Social Media Insights from her time with NC State Football, Green Bay Packers, and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl

On episode 147 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Victoria McBryde, Integrated Marketing Coordinator for the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

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.