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, brand. Not the logo mind you, but the brand behind the logo. That distinction is everything. Logos sell hats and t-shirts, but brands can 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 a team story, narrative or truth that sits at the core of a brand, connecting every fan, player and coach. That truth is the pulse that beats at every practice, team meeting, game and press conference. Often it 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 shining on the field, but you are the only director charged with pulling the strings.

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

Before going further, consider the end goal. The true sign of a successful program is an engaged, growing alumni base. They buy the tickets and apparel, recruit for 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 tell.

With a committed alumni base as the goal on the horizon, you’ll need a couple practical steps and tools to start crafting that charming story today:

Step 1 – Signal Change

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 to project 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”). 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 you time with the fan base and communicates you are awake to the issues facing the programs under your care
  • Lets prospects know you intend to rise above mediocrity

Step 2 – Build Your Inner Circle

You already know you need a capable coaching and admin staff. But, as part of your branding initiative, you also need to conduct leadership interviews. Why? You want to know who intends to use their power to veto your new brand direction.

As a rule, 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 there faculty or staff still bitter they were left out of a brand meeting 15 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 may know a great deal about your fan base. But, when signaling change, you have a fresh window of opportunity to reorient your brand to the base. How old are they? What do they want from you? What do they expect from the program? Then, you’ll need to determine if there are groups out there who could get behind your brand story. In the branding world, this is done by conducting a Brand Platform Audit. Among many insights, it will provide you with personas to reach.

Step 4 – Get to Know the Fan Experience

Do fans skip your games because your team isn’t winning or because of the game experience itself? Sure, 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 a comprehensive view of what is working and what isn’t.

Step 5 – Develop a Recruitment Path

Work with your 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 with your fresh logo goes a long way.

Prospects are impressed by tangible graphics and are won over by how your brand touchpoints make them feel. Just as you appreciate your own office with personalized name placard, a 17-year-old wants to know if their name will be installed above their locker. They want to envision themselves in your program, a legend in your trophy case. This is part of that amazing story, it is your job to show it.

Step 6 – Trick Out Your Facilities

You shouldn’t wait years until the next stadium is built or the next set of facilities are constructed. Put your current spaces to work telling your brand story. 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? Sometimes these easy updates serve as powerful, visible wins that can spark enthusiasm in everyone.   

Step 7 – Get a Coach Up in the Box

The final suggestion is to not make these changes on your own. The worst ideas are conceived in isolation. You will need a strategic partner who gets to know your program and is capable of brainstorming and exchanging ideas over time. Much like a coach up in the box who can provide support to you while you are running plays on the ground.  Most importantly, you can bring in strategic partners to present and reserve the right to step back, so as not to play all your political cards at once.

This list is not exhaustive, but it serves as a starting point to 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.  

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.