So, what's in an Athletic Director's contract?
To the FOIAmobile!
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Quick housekeeping note before today’s story. Like I mentioned last week, I am going to be in Brazil from the 14th→23rd of March. I am planning on writing at least a little bit while I’m there, but I would love to publish a few freelance newsletters while I am out of the country.
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One of the most important tools that I use to produce this newsletter is the Freedom Of Information Act, or equivalent state-level legislation. This law allows any citizen, including nosy reporters like me, to request copies of public documents and records. Since huge swaths of college athletic programs are tied to public universities, that means large numbers of contracts, records and correspondence relating to college sports governance are completely public.
When we migrated to Beehiiv, I temporarily took down our FOIA Database, mostly because I’m trying to figure out a better technical solution to share those documents with the public. In the meantime, I’ve filed requests for hundreds of documents, from Olympic sport coaching contracts, athletic department budget reports, NIL consulting contracts, and more.
One of the best performing posts I ever wrote during the Substack era of Extra Points was a closer look at what mid-major apparel contracts looked like. As you might imagine, Nike isn’t shelling out the same type of deal for Southern Illinois as they might for Illinois. It turns out…a lot of readers hadn’t thought about that before, and were genuinely curious!
So in that spirit…what exactly does an athletic director contract typically look like?
Great question. I’ve filed requests for a little over a hundred AD contracts across D-I, and have obtained copies for over two dozen so far, from schools in the P5, down to the smallest mid-majors. No two documents are exactly the same, of course, but here are a few general themes that you might find interesting.
Here’s how incentives often are set up:
I think many fans are broadly familiar with incentives that a typical football or basketball coach has in their deal. If the program wins X number of games, wins a conference title, performs well in the postseason, or wins national awards, the coach typically earns extra money. Occasionally, a coach can earn a small bonus if their team performs particularly well academically, as well.
ADs are responsible for multiple sports programs, as well as other responsibilities, so their incentive packages often look different. Among the documents I’ve inspected so far, common incentive themes include:
Director’s Cup performance. The NACDA Learfield Directors' Cup tracks on-field achievement across all NCAA-sponsored sports. Typically, schools like Stanford, Michigan and Virginia have dominated, although Texas did win last year. Fresno State, for example, pays out a $10,000 bonus if Fresno cracks the top 100 at the end of the year, and a $12,500 bonus if they finish in the top 70. FWIW, last season, Fresno finished 157th. Ohio State pays Gene Smith a $50,000 bonus if Ohio State finishes in the top ten, $75,000 for a top five finish, and $100,000 if the Buckeyes finish at the top. In the 2021-2022 season, Ohio State finished fourth.
Academic achievement. Almost every contract I’ve read, from an ACC school to a Southland school, includes an academic performance related incentive. The most common are tied to APR (i.e, all teams must score high enough to avoid APR penalties, and a department APR must exceed a particular number, typically in the 930-960 range), but that isn’t the only metric. Rhode Island, for example, pays out a $10,000 bonus if the GPA across all student athletes exceeds 2.8.
New Orleans has a unique spin on their academic incentive. In AD Tim Duncan’s contract, he is scheduled to earn a bonus if every single athletic program on campus is free from APR penalties. If that happens, then every Associate Athletic Director also gets a bonus.
Some contracts, like at Stony Brook, stipulate that APR penalties could be grounds for terminating the entire contract.
Gene Smith’s contract at Ohio State has an academic-related bonus tied to not just graduation, but what those students are doing after graduation. If the vast majority of graduating college athletes are enrolled in grad school, gainfully employed, or pursuing military service, Smith earns a bonus.
Team specific athletic achievement. It is very common for an AD to earn a bonus if the school’s flagship programs (football and men’s and women’s basketball) reach the postseason. At Kennesaw State, for example, their AD is scheduled to earn a $7,500 bonus if their men’s or women’s team wins their conference tournament and participates in the NCAA Tournament. That’s good news, because the men’s team just won the ASUN Tournament.
The specifics vary from school to school, but typically, ADs can earn bonuses for exceptional achievement of flagship programs (conference titles, postseason wins, etc), and then smaller bonuses for exceptional achievement in other sports. What sports are worthy of specific bonuses, as you might expect, differs from school to school. At Towson, for example, the bonuses for the basketball team winning a conference title, and the lacrosse team winning a conference title, are the same.
Some mid-major programs, like Murray State, New Orleans and Wright State, also give out bonuses for NIT bids.
Fundraising and ticket sales. Being an AD isn’t just about hiring and developing coaches and occasionally serving on a committee. Fundraising, budgeting and revenue generation are major parts of the gig. An AD probably had more to do with department revenue increasing than he did with the women’s basketball team making the Round of 32, after all. Occasionally, incentives are tied to financial objectives. Murray State, for example, has incentives tied to growth in annual giving, corporate sponsorships or ticket revenues. Marshall pays out bonuses tied to football and basketball season ticket sales. Northern Illinois pays out bonuses for ticket sale growth, annual giving, and number of donors.
Probably the most extensive financial incentive plan I’ve seen so far is at Cal, with tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to things like New Revenue Generation, Fundraising Progress, and ‘Adherence to Financial Plan Progress’. Given
For what it’s worth, it’s also pretty common for any incentive package, be that athletic, academic or administrative, to have some sort of cap. I.e, it doesn’t matter that the softball team had 12 Rhodes Scholars on it and also won the NCAA Championship…you can’t earn more than $20,000 in a single year.
These contracts also tend to come with perks. The most common? Country Club membership
This is a pretty common perk, even for mid-major coaches, and given how much fundraising and donor relations is part of the job, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even low-major ADs tend to have this perk written into their deals.
Still, I wasn’t sure if “dealmaking at the country club” business was generational or location dependent. So recently, I threw this out on Twitter:
So I have a very stupid question.
Why, exactly, are country club memberships a virtually standard perk in coach and AD contracts? Surely not everybody is a major golfer or tennis player. Is that STILL where major donor activity happens in like, *every* market?
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP)
Mar 2, 2023
A few ADs actually reached out (via DMs and texts) to tell me that they actually don’t use their memberships, preferring to meet donors and boosters out in the community, on campus, or in other settings.
But one benefit that several folks told me that I hadn’t really considered, is how access to a “third space” can be a major benefit for an AD’s family. Many of these clubs have activities for kids, can create a built-in social network for a family that just moved in, and also give everybody a little bit of space. At the local bar, maybe somebody asks why you haven’t fired the baseball coach yet. At the club, maybe that happens a little bit less.
Other common benefits include stuff like car allowances, cell phone reimbursements, the ability for one’s spouse to travel with teams to away games, moving expenses, life insurance plans, etc.
Passages like this one, via the most recent contract for Kansas AD Travis Goff, are also pretty common. If an AD is at a school where most events are ticketed, getting some sort of ticket allotment is typical….so long as the AD doesn’t try to hawk these on Stubhub or something.
Now, this clause in Goff’s contract, about championship rings? That’s less common…at least from what I’ve seen so far.
Here are a few other potentially interesting nuggets
I think every single agreement I’ve read has a section about outside employment. While the exact language varies by school and state, by and large, ADs can’t engage in consulting work or secondary commercial interests without specific permission from the university. In some cases, involvement in particular types of business ventures (such as anything athletically related) would be completely off the table.
The most recent contract I have at Wright State states that the AD “will not publicly endorse any political figure or cause, whether on the national, state or local level.” That’s the only time I’ve seen that particular clause, although many contracts remind the AD that their private conduct can’t compromise their ability to serve as a university leader. For good or for ill, this job is a public gig.
Another very common clause? A reminder that making oneself available to the news media is a job requirement. Just thought I’d mention that here, for no particular reason whatsoever.
A final takeaway? These documents underscore how complicated this gig has become
An AD contract can easily run north of 20 pages. Some of that is probably because of boilerplate language required in large university systems, but this is also not a job that can easily fit into a three paragraph job description. At Eastern Kentucky or UTSA, for example, just the job duties section alone takes over three pages.
Those duties include not just recruiting, developing and retaining athletic coaches, scheduling games and hitting the ol’ fundraising rubber chicken circuit, but they may include participating in university-wide strategic plan iniatives. It might mean working to build entirely new revenue streams. It might mean lobbying the statehouse, serving on NCAA Selection Committees, supportig multiple fundraising arms, and more.
That doesn’t anybody should cry for D-I athletic directors. The job pays well, even at the low major level, and has plenty of great benefits. How many other jobs are there where if you do well, you could get a championship ring?!? Goldman isn’t passing those out, I don’t think.
So it’s a good gig. It’s just a very public and very complicated gig.
I guess that’s part of what the country club membership is for.
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