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Keep Fighting. This Isn't The College Sports Apocalypse 🙄

Tyler Baker

B R E A T H E.


Seriously, take a deep breath. Unclench your fists and relax your jaw.


The work that you do matters too much for you to be shaken by the storm raging in college athletics today. 


Besides, getting shaken ain’t in your DNA.


Make no mistake—today, we’re going to talk about some serious threats to your way of life and the quality of service you provide to student-athletes. We’ll talk about concrete steps that you need to take—and FAST—in order to protect your department. 


But ultimately this post is designed to encourage you, fortify you, and remind you that—no matter how hopeless the outlook for college sports may seem—there is a path forward to a brighter future.


Ok, let’s get into it.

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EVERYBODY has an opinion about the state of college athletics these days. Every day, D1Ticker hits you with several new takes, each one hotter than the last. 


I can imagine how challenging it must be to hear and see so many people talking about the status of your job. So instead of linking out to a bunch of these articles, we’re gonna (very briefly) summarize the four biggest challenges facing college sports… 


...and then we’re going to try and put each challenge into its proper context.


Because a year from now, what will you wish you’d spent these months doing? Waiting for Congress or the NCAA or the economy or pundits to decide what would happen? Or imposing your will on the situation to create movement, progress, and a path forward?


Four big forces converging on college sports in 2020:

  • Name-Image-Likeness will change how departments relate to athletes. File this in the “Unknown” folder. It’s uncertain if the legislative momentum to pay athletes will be a positive change for college sports, but it will certainly change the value that universities need to provide athletes in order to stay relevant. At the very least, expect a slough of new compliance regulations at the state and federal levels.

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  • COVID-19 threatens the lives of athletes, coaches, and fans - and will disrupt revenue. The NCAA has canceled DII and DIII Fall championships, and universities across the country are cutting sports, staff, and competition dates. With no vaccine in sight, universities are hamstrung by public fear and lagging governmental support.

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  • High unemployment rates and lost jobs will continue to make it hard for your student-athletes to find work after graduation. The US is looking at a prolonged, 4-5 year stretch of high unemployment, and entry-level employees will likely be hit hard.

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  • There’s a growing groundswell of critics questioning the value of college in the first place—and athletics isn’t safe. The loudest voices in the room right now are people questioning whether we need colleges at all. If your degree doesn’t equal a job, and you’ll change jobs 10 times anyway, and colleges are overpriced for what they provide… what’s the point?


All right, that’s the end of the bad news. 


B R E A T H E.


Remember what I said: A year from now, you will wish that you had spent time imposing your will on the situation to create movement, progress, and a path forward.


In reality, your situation is likely not as dire as it seems. Here’s what I mean:

  • Name-Image-Likeness has hit major hurdles. The NCAA has asked Congress to intervene and create a uniform standard for NIL regulation. Hardly a top priority for Congress in the middle of a pandemic. Already there are 3 different versions of preliminary proposals, and the NCAA is not going to accept any law without significant legal protections. 


  • Historically, pandemics and national hardships strengthen college sports. For example, the NCAA held its first-ever championship in 1921, just a year after the infamous 1918-1920 flu pandemic (not to mention World War I). In the 5 years after that pandemic, the popularity of college sports exploded, with universities building 19 of the iconic mega-stadiums still standing today—attendance doubled in the decade that followed. When the masks finally come off and America reopens for good, rest assured, college sports will be more popular than ever. 


  • We’re already seeing signs of that pent-up demand for live sports. The opening game of the NBA’s bubble season drew twice as many viewers as a regular-season game, and the opening night of the MLB season was “the most-watched regular-season MLB game on any network since 2011.” The love for sports isn’t going anywhere.


  • Almost universally, colleges see higher enrollment in periods of unemployment and job loss. American universities have survived pandemics, wars, economic downturns, natural disasters, and social unrest. They are among America’s most resilient institutions. And enrollment tends to increase in times of economic struggle as individuals consider new career paths and return to school. And the rising tide of admissions tends to lift all ships at the university.


  • Athletic departments still have so much to offer student-athletes - time to re-frame that value. Canceled seasons and altered schedules present a rare window of opportunity to engage athletes about career.


So that’s the good news. 


B R E A T H E.


OK, now let’s talk about what needs to happen.

How comfortable/lean the next few years are will depend largely on the moves you make in the next few months.


Because even though, in context, college sports is going to survive, how comfortable/lean the next few years are will depend largely on the moves you make in the next few months.

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If you do nothing and wait to see what happens, you put yourself at the mercy of the storm and you risk letting your department slide dangerously close to the “survival” line. Even in the midst of hiring freezes, cuts, and caution… Inaction isn’t an answer.


And the longer athletic departments wait to do something, the more limited their options will be… and the more they’ll need a Hail Mary to stay viable.


You need to make strong moves in the right places… and fast.


INVEST IN BUILDING A STRONG BRAND FOR YOUR ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT

Even if all the seasons are canceled, your department still relies on recruiting and retaining top athletes to win championships. Your brand relies on recruiting.

Investing in your department’s brand improves your outlook in every single worst-case scenario for 2020. Even if all the seasons are canceled, your department still relies on recruiting and retaining top athletes to win championships. Your brand relies on recruiting.


How will you appeal to the athletes that you are recruiting? How will your recruiting strategy shift for future classes? 


Career preparation has to become a key component of your brand building. 


Here’s what that means for schools with a lot of student-athletes who aspire to play professionally. Figure out how to add value for them even when they can’t generate stats. Not having a college season doesn’t magically equip these athletes for a career in the pros—it’s time to invest in ways to prepare them off the field.

👉👉 Give them an online community that connects them with top brand pros and agencies, and feed them content on how to prepare for the pros. 


Here’s what that means for schools with student-athletes seeking other careers post-graduation. E V E R Y T H I N G. Leverage your career community to get—and keep—the attention of top athletes who are serious about life after sports.

👉👉 Connect them with alumni in fields that interest them, give them a safe space for career exploration within your department, and point them to employer partners who can help with internships and jobs.


Investing in career community also prepares you for wherever the NCAA lands with Name-Image-Likeness:

  • Allows you to add value for athletes by showing them how to effectively tell and brand their stories
  • Creates a community where you can monitor athlete brand-building, especially as it relates to your employer partners


Regardless of what happens in 2020, you can move fast and smart to create a career community for your student-athletes and your alumni. In so doing, you expand your department’s brand far beyond what happens on the field. Double down on building meaningful social fabric.


LEVERAGE YOUR EXISTING ASSETS -
THERE IS WAAAAY MORE POTENTIAL IN YOUR LETTERWINNERS THAN YOU ARE LEVERAGING

Regardless of what happens in 2020, you need Letterwinners in order to continue as a successful organization.

Letterwinners are one of your department’s most valuable assets… and you are not leveraging them to their full potential. Regardless of what happens in 2020, you need Letterwinners in order to continue as a successful organization. Letterwinners represent your season ticket holders and your donors, yes. But they also represent your department’s friends and most vocal proponents of your brand.


And if what’s happening on the field ceases to attract your Letterwinners, then you need new ways to add value for them. 


This is why many top athletic departments have moved their Letterwinner programs out from under the “Development” umbrella and instead have moved them into “Life Skills” or “Career Services.” Today’s alumni want more from their alma mater than seats and parking spots; they want to leverage their degrees into career success and fulfillment. They want to get the full value of a degree from your school.

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And one of the best ways to take care of your Letterwinners is to build them a career community.

‍👉👉 Give them ways to connect with each other and with employer partners without coming back to campus.

👉👉 Give them ways to give back to current student-athletes (all within your branded, secure, and compliant community).

👉👉 Give them ways to advance their own careers. 

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As long as you’re a college, providing value for Letterwinners will be table stakes for remaining viable. The most meaningful ways to do that are changing, and it’s time to adapt.

‍YOU’VE GOT THIS.

B R E A T H E….

And make your move.


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