Depth Chart Success in sports now depends
on some unusual team members By Bethany Bradsher he
ECU Sports Department has one important thing in common with most businesses in the private sector: Payroll is its biggest budget expense. The department employs about 120 full-time staff and scores of part-timers. A few are marquee names—Holtz, Holland—but most are administrative people who do mundane work behind the scenes. But sports is a team effort, and at ECU, the work of people at the bottom of the organization chart is recognized. You could say they are listed on the depth chart.
For example, when he was introduced as the new men’s basketball coach, Mack McCarthy offered some comments that may have sounded odd to ECU sports fans. To support his assertion that “a lot of progress has been made in this program,” McCarthy pointed to:
“Renovated offices, the recruiting database, the video scouting situation, the academic support program. It is at the level that we need to win, both financially and personnel wise. The people that we have to support us—the senior administrative staff, the sports information staff, the business office, the compliance people—all the people are in place to give us the support we need to grow as a basketball program.”
The message? When it comes to winning in basketball, dominant post players and guards with a smooth jump shot aren’t enough anymore. Wins in basketball, football and all other sports are also a product of skilled computer operators, state-of-the-art video equipment, sharp-penciled accountants and many others who labor behind the scenes.
Will Davis (above
) has a glamorous title—football video coordinator—but his days are usually consumed with the minutiae of filming every minute of every football practice as well as the games themselves. In the off-season, he films the strength and conditioning drills that every player participates in so that the coaching staff can analyze their progress. He works exclusively with a digital camera so that the video can transmitted, edited and viewed on a computer.
Nearby, Scott Wetherbee is hard at work in an office he likes to call “the belly lint of the athletic department.” His specialty, and the reason he was hired four years ago, is the sale and distribution of tickets to Pirate sporting events, which increasingly is done by computer.
Wetherbee is an expert at a computerized ticketing system called Paciolan, a system he mastered in previous jobs at Fresno State and San Diego State. “When I first got here, we were definitely behind in the ticket office area,” says Wetherbee, whose title is assistant athletics director of ticket operations. “This system allows us to have online ticketing. We have a massive database, between 60,000 and 70,000 names, and we’re up to 35,000 e-mail addresses we can correspond with.”
Another Pirate employee with an inordinate number of balls in the air is J.J. McLamb, the assistant athletics director for administrative affairs. McLamb oversees all athletic construction projects and also has a hand in the department’s operations, which includes all of the logistics required to stage a Pirate home game.
The work they do, and the contributions by dozens of other employees of the Department of Athletics, are largely invisible to the fans who sit in the stands. But officials insist that without them it would be difficult if not impossible for East Carolina to field competitive sports teams. The viewpoint espoused by Athletics Director Terry Holland is that everyone who works in sports is a member of the team. He says the challenge he and his senior staff embrace is how to most efficiently coordinate the sports staff for the maximum benefit of the players and the fans.
Much of that coordination occurs at weekly meetings of the senior athletics staff. Every Wednesday morning, Holland and his key lieutenants gather to compare notes to ensure that departments they oversee are pursuing their distinct tasks with the same vision. The agenda is often concerned with near-term issues: Is everything necessary in place to stage a sporting event that will be attended by thousands of people? Money and budgets are also a regular topic.
Given the increasing complexity and cost of running a Division I sports program and complying with NCAA regulations, it’s not surprising that many of ECU’s top sports administrations are people like Director of Athletic Business Barry Brickman (left
), who acquired his skills not on the playing field but in graduate school; he holds a master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio University.
Ohio University was the first school to realize the need for professionalism in sports. Now more than 200 universities in the country—including East Carolina—offer some type of sport management degree either for undergraduate or graduate students. At ECU, sport management is a master’s-level program designed to be completed in two years. Forty-five students currently are working on completing the degree, says Stacey Altman, who coordinates the program.
“As sport has become more sophisticated, the business acumen has been that much more important,” says Altman, who has directed the program since it started nearly five years ago. Holland and his department have been willing partners with the sport management program, Altman says. Many of the master’s sport management students get internships within Pirate athletics. These internships allow them to specialize in anything from facilities to turf management to academic advising.
How do we compare?
The $23.4 million that East Carolina will spend on sports programs this year sounds like a lot of money. But how does that compare with other schools?
To get that information, we e-mailed the sports information directors at a dozen universities, mostly those on ECU’s football schedule and a few that aren’t.
We heard back from nine. Of those, the three private schools said they don’t disclose that information. Six schools responded with their budget numbers, as grouped below.
A word of caution: There is no exact apples-to-apples comparison with these numbers. Schools account differently for sports income and expenses. Example: Some sports budgets carry travel expenses for the band and cheerleaders, some don’t.
North Carolina schools
UNC Chapel Hill, $51 million
N.C. State University, 37.1 million
Appalachian State University, $9.5 million
Conference USA schools
University of Memphis, $31 million
East Carolina University, $23.4 million
Marshall University, $19 million
UAB, $20.9 million
All Division 1 schools, $29.4 million
All ACC schools, $31.7 million
All C-USA schools, $17.7 million
* NCAA figures for 2002
Managing the money
East Carolina’s sports budget has more than doubled in the last 10 years to $23.4 million, a rise that closely parallels the growth in the student body and the university’s expectation that Pirate athletes will be successful on the field and in the classroom.
ECU now fields 21 varsity teams and supports them with a web of complex systems whose overarching goal is to win games and create a favorable impression of the university far beyond Greenville. With 120 full-time employees, the sports department is comparable in size to the ECU College of Business, which has 129 faculty members. Thus, the championship trophy like the one the Lady Pirates basketball team brought home in the spring is covered with the symbolic fingerprints of staff who work behind the scenes to tutor the athletes, book airplane tickets, maintain equipment and push through purchase orders.
In his 11 years on campus, Brickman has seen the sports budget more than double from $9.8 million. In something of an understatement, Brickman observes that “it’s more of a business now.”
As one might suppose, football represents the largest single sports expenditure at $6 million this year. But second is administration at $2.5 million. Men’s basketball is third at $1.3 million. For accounting purposes, each sport is treated separately, with the salaries of coaches and assistant coaches grouped with other staff who work just for that team. Sitting atop those individual clusters are key administrators who provide support for all the teams. These 16 individuals compose the senior staff that report directly to Holland.
On paper at least, the budget and the organizational structure of ECU’s sports department compares with a diversified manufacturing or service business. But Holland cautions against drawing a lot of parallels between the business of sports and the real business world. The biggest mistake is assuming that dollars spent translate into wins on the field. “Many of our expenses are market driven but we must carefully avoid the assumption that the amount of money spent equates directly to success,” Holland says. “If that were true, Appalachian State could never beat Michigan and Boise State could never beat Oklahoma.”
And while the only objective of a real business is to earn profits, Executive Associate Athletics Director Nick Floyd points out that a university sports program pursues multiple objectives and serves multiple constituencies, all of which make managing collegiate athletics a unique challenge.
Growing the brand
None of the funding for athletics comes from tax dollars. So where does the money come from? The largest single source—$9.1 million this year—comes from the activity fees that all students pay as part of their tuition. The second-largest source of revenue is the sale of football tickets, which will amount to about $5 million this year. The two other major sources of revenue are donations from the Pirate Club, which reached a record $3.6 million this year, and distributions from the NCAA and Conference USA, at $2.3 million.
The sharp growth in the sports budget can be traced to a greater emphasis on the so-called minor sports. Traditionally, the university paid only one person to coach the men’s and women’s tennis, golf, track and field and swimming teams. Now, all of them except swimming have separate coaching staffs. At the same time, ECU is pursuing a strategy that any CEO would find familiar; it’s spending money to make money.
“Most of the investment from the increased budget is to expand our revenue operations—fund raising, marketing, promotions and public relations,” Holland says. The best example of that is the business deal the university reached with ISP Sports last year that gives the company exclusive rights to market ECU sports. The deal covers radio and television programming, signage in all campus athletic venues and other promotions. ECU gets a guaranteed rights fee plus additional financial considerations based upon revenue generated by ISP.
Since then, ISP has grown the Pirate Sports Radio Network to 19 stations, courted national advertisers for Pirate broadcasts and turned over $535,000 to ECU as its portion of the proceeds.
“The corporate partners that we’re now cooperating with are helping us sell Pirate athletics in every corner of North Carolina,” said Jimmy Bass, the senior associate athletics director for external operations who works directly with ISP.
The ISP deal is an example of the new philosophy of sports management, which boils down to a simple objective: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, and shoot for balanced growth. “Literally, the growth has taken place pretty much throughout our entire program,” says Executive Associate Athletics Director Nick Floyd.
Investments paying off
Growth on the business side of East Carolina’s sports program has been noticeable since Holland’s arrival here three years ago. But observers say the larger staffs he has hired and the greater emphasis he placed on planning is beginning to pay off. “We went ahead and somewhat put the cart before the horse in trying to really build a foundation under our program, before some of these things took off,” Floyd says. “But if we hadn’t done that, with the explosion we’ve had of ticket sales and Pirate Club donations, we wouldn’t have been able to handle it.”
For the first time ever, season football tickets sold out in August this year, with more than 6,000 packages sold than in any other year. Pirate Club membership and donations reached an all-time high. The club set a goal of 12,000 members and reached 12,302. It hoped to raise $4.5 million for scholarships and actually raised nearly $5 million. The university experienced a record year in revenues from logo merchandise after new licensing deals made the caps, jerseys and other apparels available in Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hibbett Sports, Wal-Mart and other department stores.
Holland says the next major area of growth in ECU sports probably will be in facilities. Many of ECU’s non-revenue sports need new or improved arenas, he says. There’s also talk about a major fund-raising drive to expand the football stadium beyond its current 43,000 capacity.
But for the time being, Floyd says ECU has about the right number of people to chart a course into an even more ambitious future.