The Real Job of An Athletic Director

Humor me – What does a 70-year-old have in common with a 4-year-old?

If you think about it, not much. But there is this odd phenomenon in sports where the two age groups find common ground. Both seniors and toddlers can faithfully cheer for their favorite team, or more aptly labeled, their favorite brand. Not the logo, but the brand behind the logo. That distinction is everything. Logos are placed on hats and t0shirts, but brands sell the hats and t-shirts. Brands inspire lifetime loyalty.

So how does this work?

Compelling programs can serve as a sort of fandom glue that brings people of all age groups and beliefs together. For example, the Yankees have a brand following outside of New York that attracts a certain kind of fan. Brand loyalty can even help teams weather the storms of losing seasons (I’m looking at you Notre Dame).

There is some kind of story, core truth that sits at the core of a brand, connecting every fan, player and coach. That story is a pulse, beating at every practice, team meeting, game and press conference. Often this brand story carries coaches through rebuilding years.

And the amazing responsibility of carefully crafting that brand story falls on the shoulders on you, the Athletic Director.

Sure, coaches and players are some of the main actors performing on the field, but only directors pull the strings.

You are the only one who can change the conversation about your team.

Now, consider the end goal. The true sign of a successful program is an engaged, growing alumni base. Alumni buy tickets and apparel, recruit on behalf of the school, make precious inroads and serve as brand advocates for the program, sometimes for decades. And a thriving alumni base needs a great brand story to champion.

Below are 7 steps to engage alumni and create a brand story:

Step 1 – Signal Change to the Public

Unless you are overseeing Alabama’s football program, you need to signal some sort of change to every stakeholder in your program. Everyone wants to know better days are ahead. Always. But a word of caution; meaningful change requires real strategy. Meaning, you’ll want to be certain you are signaling the right kind of change for your particular program.

This immutable law in marketing is called “positioning” and is absolutely foundational to any successful brand. For example: The Oregon Ducks are channeling a very different spirit than Ole Miss. Their Nike-based strategy is projecting a new, cutting-edge image, not one grounded in tradition and yesteryear like Ole Miss.

Every brand should be different. When Pepsi started using “Zero Sugar” on their products, Coke tragically followed suit (just google “New Coke”). This did not work for Coke, because it is positioned as a brand steeped in the past. It is known as the original, with a tried and true formula. Developing a new formula was not in line with their positioning.

Signaling the right kind of brand change accomplishes three things:

  • Opens the door for the public to self-identify as brand allies and join your team
  • Buys time with the fan base and communicates you are awake to the issues facing the teams under your care
  • Lets recruits know you intend to rise above mediocrity

Step 2 – Conduct Leadership Interviews

You already know you need a capable coaching and admin staff. But, telling a great brand story means you need to conduct leadership interviews. Why? You want to know who intends to use their power to veto your new brand direction. You’ll want to double back and make sure deputies are undermining your efforts. 

Everyone is resistant to change unless that change feels like their idea. It will benefit you greatly to study what “ghosts” or past stories haunt the halls of your institution. Are some staff still bitter they were left out of a meeting years ago? 

Interviews with leadership have a way of building consensus and making key players feel involved.   

Step 3 – Run a Fan Base Audit

You feel you know a great deal about your fan base. But, when signaling change, you have a fresh window of opportunity to realign your brand to the base. How old are your fans? What do they expect from the program? What will make them come to the games (besides winning of course)?

Then, you’ll need to determine if there are specific groups out there who could get behind your brand story. In the branding world, this is done by creating a Brand Platform. Among many insights, it will provide you with personas to reach.

Step 4 – Conduct an Experience Audit to Understand the Fan Experience

Do fans skip your games because your team isn’t winning or because of the game experience itself? Winning draws a crowd, but the ability to keep the crowd has to do with the fan experience.

There are guaranteed pain points associated with your various programs and teams. Running a Customer Experience Audit provides you with an on-the-ground view of what is working and what isn’t.

Step 5 – Develop a Recruitment Path

Work with your deputies or coaches to develop an intentional recruitment path for prospects. When a 4-star recruit arrives, are they greeted by their heroes or a trophy case? Maybe they arrive and see a dated logo and blank white walls. Dynamic imagery on a wall of your fresh logo identity goes a long way.

Research shows that many student-athletes feel much better when they can see quality academic facilities on a school visit. Also, 17-year-olds want to know they’ll thrive and get playing time. Again, what kind of brand story are your coaches telling this recruit (or parent!).

Step 6 – Brand Your Facilities and Environments

Studies consistently show facilities have a tremendous impact on recruiting. And they happen to be one of the only aspects of a program which AD’s can directly control. Making a facility look polished is a tangible investment with proven gains.

Given that, are your floors the standard white vinyl or are they astroturf? Does your locker room look the same as it did when you were in school? These updates serve as visible wins that can spark enthusiasm in everyone.   

Step 7 – Get a Coach Up in the Box

The final suggestion is to not tell a brand story on your own. In-house politics can get crusty, especially at a school. 

Develop this compelling brand story with an outsider, then let them take the heat when they present. That way you get to keep your cards close to the chest.

Find a strategic partner who will be around for more than three years and will take the time to know your program. Exchange ideas with them, let them ask deep questions and re-energize your team.

This list is not exhaustive, but it serves as a starting point for building your brand story. Down the road are countless apparel options, dynamic video ideas and ways to engage on the web, which will serve as the icing on the cake.

These first steps will position you to build a lasting brand where the 70-year-olds one day take their 4-year-old grandkids to see their favorite team play.  

Still hesitant to tell a new brand story? Check out our ebook, the Five Hidden Benefits of Rebranding

About Daake

We are brand design experts who deliver transformative ideas to the nation’s marketing professionals and CEOs as they seek guidance, clarity and excitement for their brand.

We would love to hear more about what you have in mind for your next project. Call Greg Daake at 402.933.1094.