The tremendous financial obligations of college athletics are such that the careful stewardship of budgets—tightly reigning in expenses while growing revenue—makes the position of business manager one of utmost importance in an athletic department. CABMA—the College Athletic Business Management Association—is the industry organization for finance managers in college athletics and an organization “devoted to the establishment…of integrity and efficiency in the scope, policies and procedures of business in the athletics departments….”
Across the country, business managers at athletic departments large and small are using Win AD to implement financial best practices. Ryan Matthews—Winthrop’s Managing Editor—sat down recently with four CABMA members: Eric Roedl (CABMA’s President), Executive Senior Associate Athletic Director/Finance and Administration at the University of Oregon; Chris Iacoi (CABMA’s First Vice President), Assistant Athletics Director for Business Operations at Boston College; Dave Marmion, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Business Operations at the University of Texas; and Clayton Hamilton, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Business operations and CFO at the University of Arkansas to discuss important moments in their careers, the demands of fiduciary leadership, the importance of accurate data, as well as current and future challenges for finance managers.
What was a significant moment in your career/a professional development opportunity that was most valuable to your current position?
One moment that stands out for me was being named as an Associate AD at Temple back in 2003. I inherited significant responsibility at a relatively young age for an athletic program which was about to go through a period of significant transition and growth. More importantly, I was fortunate to have had a mentor in Temple Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw who consistently challenged me and presented many opportunities for professional growth. This experience provided me with a strong foundation on which to build as I move forward in my career.
I’ve been fortunate to work for, and with, some great leaders and people at BC who have allowed me to be more involved than perhaps my position would call for at the time. Their continual support and encouragement has benefited my growth both professionally and personally. Taking the opportunity to attend CABMA Conventions and being able to meet and connect with others in the same profession, regardless of division and level, has been very valuable as well.
Being involved in the entire development and building of Deacon Tower (football press/suite tower) at Wake Forest was a tremendous opportunity for me. I was allowed to be a part of the concept and design phase, the operations, the debt financing, food service, security, a/v, etc. It was all-encompassing, and I learned so much through the process. We all spent a great deal of time on it and were thrilled with the final product. I gained a great deal of knowledge during that project that I will take with me the rest of my career.
From a professional development standpoint, CABMA has been a significant influence on my career. The opportunity to serve on the executive committee over a five-year period allowed me to greatly expand my network with other business professionals within college athletics. In addition, the Division 1A Athletic Director’s Institute has provided me the opportunity to expand my network even further to include many other individuals that are in leadership positions in college athletics.
What are progressive programs doing that impress you or what practices would you like to see more widely adopted?
It is interesting to observe the various ways some programs have embraced new technologies to enhance engagement with their fans and the in-venue experience. We ask a great deal of our supporters’ time and resources, and technology has provided a mechanism to reward fans with greater access and a more complete in-game experience. The mining and analysis of data to drive decision-making processes is also something that I see the more progressive programs doing. Leveraging technology and effective usage of data are both an integral part of our daily operations at Oregon.
The use of technology and ability to innovate and lead through new applications is always impressive. Not just the creative ideas but being able to have the ideas come to fruition and drive decisions and products that help streamline processes for departments, student-athletes, universities and fans. Being on the financial side, I’ve enjoyed seeing the growth of business analytics to help drive decisions, and confirm the thoughts that we either already knew or thought we knew.
I look for progressive practices at other universities, the professional leagues, as well as successful companies. A lot of industries are discussing “Big Data.” For me, big data is the information we already have gathered about our fans. This, combined with other digital information, will help us gain better insight into fans’ needs, desires, and preferences. We can learn what makes coming to our events a special occasion. This will help us provide the customer service they expect. We are looking industry wide to see what works and what fits our situation best.
I believe Michigan, and possibly a few other schools, are moving to variable and dynamic ticket pricing for football and basketball. This has become fairly common in professional sports where donations are not tied to tickets. We, as a business, need to provide a product our customer wants at a price they find attractive. We need to be adaptable and look at the way we market and sell tickets. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes for those schools this fall.
I’ve also been following the professional sports industry’s investigation and investment in improving cell and wifi coverage at venues. As more and more fans demand to be connected while at games, this is going to become a big issue for all of us. The infrastructure and technology for older, larger venues will require quite an investment. We need to enhance the experiences that make coming to our venues more attractive than staying home.
I have been most impressed with the programs that are very clearly at the forefront of investing their resources to improve both the student athlete experience and the game-day experience for fans. Many of these investments for student athletes have included expanding programs to develop leadership attributes or enhancing the “total student-athlete” experience. For fans it includes using technology to deliver tickets, communication, or game-day services.
What is the biggest fiscal challenge your department is facing and what steps are you taking to overcome it?
At Oregon, our biggest fiscal challenge is the rapid pace at which we have grown over the past six or seven years. Our rapid growth in budget, facility infrastructure, and staffing has enabled our program to achieve at unprecedented levels. Approximately 60% of our $93 M budget is generated through ticket sales and donations. A primary challenge will be to maintain and grow these revenue streams through the continued enhancement of both our athletic program and the fan/donor experience, while also focusing on the growth of new revenue streams.
Probably the same as everyone else – growing revenue, sustaining revenue, and conversely, managing expectations and expenses. We’ve been able to realize savings through the centralization of many of our larger cost centers that everyone uses rather than having those variable costs being deregulated among sports and departments. We are very open to many new ideas and methods to increase revenue through the application and use of technology that enhances the fan experience at our events.
Like most programs we are seeing traditional revenues such as ticket sales and fundraising flatten out. While television revenues continue to grow, our challenge is to find new revenue streams and use our current resources as efficiently as possible. We work constantly with our partner IMG to find new sponsors for the Longhorns, and they have done an excellent job bringing all varieties of companies to the table. We are also trying to be more lean as a department, which means a more thorough budget process and better reporting for the decision-makers.
The fiscal challenge we are all faced with is providing for the continual growth in resources to support our coaches and student athletes, with the resources coming from revenue streams that have the potential of being highly volatile. The steps we take include developing long-term financial plans that address both operations and capital investments. It is also important to have your leadership within the department promoting a culture of shared responsibility for managing finances according to the plans set in place for the program.
What’s one leadership trait that is critical for business and finance administrator’s advancement and what are some best practices for young finance managers hoping to move up?
One key leadership trait for administrators looking to build a career in college athletics is to be a great listener. Whether it be in interactions with other athletics staff, coaches, donors, university administrators, or student-athletes, listening is critical to building effective relationships, understanding your environment, and making balanced, informed decisions.
There are many, but the ability to relate to others is one of the more valuable ones. Developing relationships with all the constituents we interact with on a daily basis – at the university level, in the department, and with our sports programs – is critical. Having the personal relationship and an understanding helps them know where you’re coming from and vice versa even when you may not agree.
Being consistent and honest in your approach and dealings with all staff is also very important. From understanding the wants and needs of coaches and staff, to department administrator visions, and especially University officials’ expectations, having those relationships and being able to relate to them is very important.
Simplify. My favorite leadership quote is from Colin Powell.
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
My feeling is that many times people make things much more complicated than they need to be or get paralysis of analysis. Sometimes the best thing you can do is look at all the information you have, make a decision, and move on.
As for young finance managers, one of the most important things I realized as I grew in the profession was how important it is to develop relationships with coaches. That’s not to say you need to be their friends outside of work, but we need to realize that while our profession is a business, it is not a business for the coaches. It helps considerably if we can try to see situations through their eyes as well.
The leadership trait that is most important to me is integrity. This is a demanding profession where finance officers are becoming more and more critical to the success of an athletic program. We must lead with integrity and set the example for others to follow.
My advice for finance managers that are in the early stages of their career is to be patient with their career goals. Seek opportunities to learn as much as you can about every area of your organization. Finances touch each area and the more you know the better off you will be to advance your career.
What information/data is most valuable for you in order to make the best decisions for your athletic department?
At Oregon we strongly encourage our staff to use data where possible in all key decision-making processes. The more we can learn about our constituents and the environment in which we are operating the more precise and effective we can be with our decision-making.
A big picture perspective of the department’s philosophy and goals and how that works with the University’s greater mission is always part of every decision. Having data available to defend those decisions through various means is always helpful.
Many of our biggest decisions revolve around capital projects and funding. Getting accurate cost estimates, time tables, and the cost of financing sources is critical as we model our ability to build and pay for new facilities. This involves frequent communication with our Foundation, the university finance department, and university and outside project managers/architects.
The fast-paced nature of our business often results in decisions being made very quickly. It is important for me to have the most timely and accurate data there is on a topic. This often involves how our program compares to our peers. It is important to have a system in place that provides the most current and relative data to support the decisions that are needed.