So you want to be a college athletics director?
Over the last several decades, the role of the college athletics administrator has changed dramatically. What once was seen as a job for retired coaches, has now transformed into a role that attracts some of the top executives both in and outside the sports industry. Catalyzed by the explosive rise in popularity of college sports and the seemingly exponential growth of spending by universities to bolster their athletic programs, there has never been a greater need for professionals who bring both a dynamic and robust set of skills to manage these complex, multifaceted business operations.
What makes a great athletics director? The reality is that there is no single correct answer to the question because the skill-sets of successful college athletic administrators are as varied as the role itself. From small Division III universities that offer no athletic scholarships and operate on modest budgets, to large Division I institutions that employee hundreds and generate revenues well into the nine figures, the characteristics of their leaders are equally varied.
Yet for all the differences that the various levels of the job bring, athletic departments and those who lead them do not operate in a vacuum – there are many skills and experiences that are transferable from one area of college athletics to another. That being said, it is important to understand the key challenges that administrators face at each level of the industry in order to better position themselves to be successful as they move up and down the college athletics ladder.
Division I – Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) – Power 5 Conferences
The highest level of college athletics also comes with the biggest stakes when it comes to leadership. With many athletics budgets reaching into the hundreds of millions, managing the athletics department of a major university in one of the large conferences requires all the same skills of running a major corporation, while simultaneously maintaining a blend of finesse and professional will necessary to navigate a unique operating environment with any number of opinionated constituents. Qualifications necessary for athletic administrators on the Power 5 level include:
- Evaluation and negotiation of multi-million (if not billion) dollar media rights deals, as well as navigation of conference network distribution and third tier rights. This includes comprehensive knowledge of revenue distributions, as well as a full understanding of what role an individual athletic department plays in the creation of content for the conference and the commitments required to meet quotas for media rights partners.
- Ability to manage powerful head coaches who are often the highest paid employee(s) in the state. It is the responsibility of the athletics director to create an environment where flagship football and basketball programs can thrive while under the always scrutinizing eye of university administration, alumni and the general public at large. This pressure has led to expectations of total program turnarounds in just 2 or 3 year, with failure now leading to both the head coach being fired and the athletics director being put on notice.
- Advanced knowledge of strategic, operational & financial business planning, including most significantly capital and investment budgeting. With the continuous escalation of the facilities arm race, Big 5 athletic directors are often responsible for the planning, fundraising and oversight of substantial capital projects that often reach similar investment levels to those seen in professional sports. Balancing an athletics budget is one thing, insuring that one can do so while simultaneously investing hundreds of millions more into facilities requires a far more advanced ability to manage cash flow.
Division I – Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) – Non Power 5 Conferences
While the operations they manage might be smaller in terms of total budget and staff, Non-Power 5 conference athletic directors often face an even more daunting set of challenges than their brethren at larger institutions. Like any organization that is not the dominate force in the respective market, their leaders must be adept at dealing with a number of human and financial capital issues that can either spur growth or bring upon their demise if not properly managed. In particular, non-Power 5 conference athletic directors must excel at:
- Recruitment, development and retention of quality coaching and administrative talent. While schools in major conferences often have the luxury of paying their coaches millions of dollars, smaller institutions do not. Athletic directors at this level do not only have to have a knack for identifying the next great coaching talent, but must also find ways of keeping them around when they are successful. This also goes for their administrative staff – assistant athletic directors that have proven their worth at smaller institutions are easy pickings for departments with bigger budgets.
- Advising their university administration and constituents on how to best navigate through conference realignment. That means being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to best positioning their departments to make a move into a different conference, as well as ascertaining the changing landscape of their current conference and peer institutions that can potentially hurt their own future opportunities. Conference realignment often has a clear set of winners and losers, and athletic directors that are ill prepared to lead their universities through such tumultuous processes can often also be its first casualty.
- Managing ever increasing expenses while not having the luxury of tens of millions in media rights dollars coming their way. FBS athletic directors in weaker conferences must find creative ways of raising revenues while dealing with seemingly exponential cost growth, and often must contend with the possibility of cutting programs (e.g. Maryland and Temple) to make their budgets work.
Division I – Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and Non-Football Playing Schools
For athletic departments that are often classified as “Mid-Majors”, the financial and personnel challenges their leaders face are similar to those of on the level just above them, but are magnified significantly. For those that do not sponsor football, while the budgetary constraints they face are significantly reduced, it comes at the price of leverage in the greater college athletics landscape. In particular, athletics directors in this category must contend with:
- Funding their departments, many of which include non-revenue producing football programs with significant scholarship obligations, while addressing new legislation like full cost of attendance that will increase departmental expenditures by a huge margin. Moreover, many of the programs sponsoring football at this level have relied on money raised through the playing of guarantee games, but due to the College Football Playoff, Power 5 programs are now moving away from such games. In a nut shell, athletic directors at FCS institutions are now simultaneously facing a seven figure revenue loss with a new and equally large expense brought on by recent NCAA legislation.
- Having little to no say in the future direction of the college athletics model when it comes to non-football playing institutions. The vast majority of money flowing into college sports centers in and around football related media deals, and while some conferences like the Big East have been able to find a sustainable niche, smaller Division I institutions that do not play football are essentially at the mercy of others. As such, those that lead such programs must be adept at being reactive to changing market conditions because they do not have the luxury of being on the offensive.
While handling the challenges outlined above are an integral part of being an athletic director on the Division I level, doing so does not absolutely guarantee an administrators success at any particular institution. It is incredibly important that those seeking leadership roles in college athletics evaluate each opportunity on a case-by-case basis. There are tremendous differences between schools at each level, and even within the same conference there are challenges unique to each institution. Additionally, there is an inherent difference between working at private verses public schools. Athletic directors at public institutions tend to spend a great deal more time working with the state’s governor and legislators, and must be keenly aware of the powerful people in and around the university community.
The type of athletics director a university may be looking for will depend heavily on the period in which the institution is in. If the institution is in the process of a major fundraising campaign to build a new stadium, they may look to an administrator with a stronger development background. On the other hand, if they are reeling from an academic scandal, they may look for someone who brings a strong commitment to compliance and reform.
Furthermore, the type of individual a school may be willing to hire will depend largely on the leadership style of the school’s administration, as well as the sitting coaches within the department. While a university may never outwardly admit that they are looking for an introverted leader, their eventual hire will make it clear that they are interested in someone who is willing to work the backrooms instead of being the figurehead of the university.
In the end, the modern day college athletics director brings with them a wide range of experiences and skill across a number of different verticals, but most importantly has the ability to adapt to an ever changing and volatile business environment. The best candidates, and subsequently the most successful administrators, are the ones who conduct their own research and determine whether they are both qualified and fit for a particular institution. The future leaders of college athletics in this country are equally intelligent and forward-thinking as they are bold and shrewd.