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I hate constantly asking for money, but if I want to build a sustainable enterprise, fundraising is basically always on my mind.
Just like athletic departments!
College athletic departments have lots of revenue streams. Everybody, from the biggest power conference to the outskirts of D1, is trying to maximize money from their broadcast media rights. They earn money from their multimedia rights too (everything from signage to their website to ads in souvenir programs), from apparel vendors, from corporate sponsorship, guarantees from other universities, ticket sales, and direct institutional support.
Those revenue streams differ in importance from school to school. A smaller program might only make six figures from their broadcast rights, but could earn a lot of money from student fees and institutional support. A larger school might not even take any guarantee game contracts, but their shoe deal could be a multi-million dollar check.
But you know what’s important to everybody? Hitting up donors for money.
Donors are the ones who help endow scholarships. Donors are the ones who help bump up that coaching salary. Donors help raise capital to start facility improvements. Without donor support, few departments could function.
In a post-COVID world, where athletic department resources are even more scarce, hitting up donors for money becomes even more important. But donor resources are finite. There are only so many folks interested in writing big checks to athletic departments, after all, and athletic departments have lots of needs.
That presents an especially challenging situation for many women’s and Olympic sports. Over the last few months, we’ve already seen several schools drop programs, from tennis to swimming to golf, but even under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult for those programs, even highly successful ones, to get the funding they need.
A recent study sought to better understand why
A new paper in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, via the University of Kansas, sought to better understand how Title IX specifically shapes the college fundraiser environment.
Dr. Matt Huml of the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Katie Brown of Texas Tech University, and Dr. Matthew Bergman of the University of Louisville interviewed multiple fundraisers across college athletic departments, primarily from Power Five institutions. Fundraisers, in this case, refers not to athletic directors, but to other senior athletic department staff, the individuals more likely to directly interface with individual donors.
According to their study, Title IX very much did help shape the perspective of athletic department fundraisers, from fundraisers turning down money out of concerns over Title IX compliance, to looking for ways to simply meet the legal minimum requirements. Per the study:
Fundraisers also spoke to the hurdles and elevated standards they placed on non-football and men’s basketball programs, including fending Olympic sports against each other, pushing Olympic sports to be “cheerleaders” for football and men’s basketball, claiming a lack of support from donors, and claiming a need for a national championship before women’s sports would be eligible for improved facilities.
If football and basketball are taking almost everything, that leaves everybody else to fight for the scraps. Including your own teams.
That could lead to some unhealthy and unproductive internal competition for resources. Via the study:
This competition is not exclusively for external competitors. Many coaches outside of the football and basketball programs view it as a competition for a smaller amount of monies available to “non-revenue programs”. This can create an environment where the athletic director and development office decide to promote a facility project for one non-revenue program, and the coaches in other non-revenue programs feel slighted.
This internal “cannibalism” between Olympic sports provides an example of how athletic department decision-making creates pressure and an unhealthy competition between the department’s Olympic sport programs. They know football and men’s basketball are going to get many of their projects prioritized over their own, but they find it especially hurtful when other non-revenue programs are given preference over their own program.
That’s probably not the internal culture you want to develop if you’re an athletic director. Sport coaches have enough to worry about as they compete against other schools for recruits and victories. If they feel that they also need to make the case for resources and donor attention at the potential expense of other programs at your own school, you create incentives for some real ugly and counterproductive behavior.
The over-reliance on football revenues can create lots of problems too
During the COVID crisis, it’s easy to see how many large athletic departments may have over-leveraged themselves a bit on football revenue. While I don’t think anybody could have predicted the football revenue stream to nearly completely dry up in an instant due to a global pandemic, revenue declines due to a recession, change of team fortunes, changes in consumer behavior and more were certainly possible. The cuts came, and now athletic departments across the country are forced to roll back salaries, furlough staff, and even sometimes cut student opportunities
But even under more, uh, precedented times, the overwhelming athletic department emphasis on just two sports could create internal culture problems, or issues in cultivating potential donors. Via the study:
The athletic fundraisers believed that the best way to solve Title IX was having a successful football and men’s basketball program. This perspective stemmed from the belief these programs would increase revenue coming into the athletic department, corresponding with greater funding available for all varsity sports: “they understand that if football is doing well, then everybody will be doing well” (Luke). The fundraisers’ view was that football and men’s basketball provide funding across all programs, thereby requiring prioritization. Such a prioritization would help alleviate any Title IX concerns because the athletic department would have more funding:
Going further, one fundraiser claimed that Olympic sports should be the “biggest cheerleaders” of the football program: "At the same time, our Olympic sports should be the biggest cheerleaders for our football and basketball programs because the more successful a football program is, more revenue is realized and more revenue opportunities for tennis and golf and baseball and those type of sports. And I think for the most part, everybody gets that. In our athletic department these are our priorities and this is because we need football to benefit all of our sports.”
Setting aside how frustrating that must be to hear if you’re a successful coach of a women’s sport, in real life, the data doesn’t necessarily support that. A highly successful football or men’s basketball program hasn’t led to school sponsoring more sports throughout the country, and those programs dominate the lion’s share of funding demands, then that money doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the golf team anyway. In fact, the study specifically compares this thinking to the Trickle Down Economic thinking from the 1980s.
Dr. Huml told me that based on this paper, “any time football and basketball had a decent argument that they needed money, they got money. But everyone else seemed to be in a battle with each other. So if you're women's soccer, that means you have to not only convince your school that your project is worthwhile, you have to convince them that your project is more worthwhile than volleyball and men's track. Football and men’s basketball don’t have to make those arguments.”
One potential solution? You could just spend a teensy bit less on football
Dr.Huml pointed to another paper he worked one, which pointed out that spending on massively expensive football facilities projects, like new locker room renovations, don’t actually improve recruiting in a meaningful way. Instead of throwing significant money and resources on projects that might not improve football results or profitability, that money could be invested in different projects across an athletic department.
“There’s nothing that say, Indiana football could build and suddenly recruit like Ohio State. It’s not possible.”, he added.
But, he said, individual athletic department fundraisers can have a lot of power in convincing donors where to send their money. If athletic department fundraisers explained that giving could actually be more effective for projects outside of football facilities, or football coaching salaries, then they have the power to actually improve donation activity across other sports.
In fact, with the right investments, some Olympic sports programs could even begin to carry their own weight financially, or at least, come close. Many women’s volleyball softball and gymnastics programs sell thousands of tickets. So do some men’s hockey programs. Perhaps with the right facilities and infrastructure, it might be easier for a school to try and build a tradition and program in one of those sports, instead of chasing Ohio State and Michigan in football?
Basically, if you’re trying to build out a financially sustainable athletic department that is competitive in multiple sports, just make sure your donation distribution doesn’t look like the Dril Candles Tweet.
Spending a lot on candles, I’m told, doesn’t really impress the recruits.
You can read the entire PDF of the study here.
And you can support independent college athletics writing right here:
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