The Renewal Of College Athletics

By John Roberson

There are moments in history in which a group of talented and motivated people are offered the opportunity to make a powerful choice. This choice is perhaps the most important one they will ever make, inevitably determining the course of not only their own lives, but also those who follow them long after they are gone. 


The leaders of college athletics face just such a choice, and they must ask themselves this: Will the loss of the spring season, and the nerve-wracking uncertainty of the future, force us to sacrifice much of what we have worked so hard to build – or, as the immeasurable burden of responsibility weighs upon our hearts and minds, will we see this crisis as an opportunity to forge a renewed path for our industry, one that returns to the most fundamental roots of our mission to develop the next generation of young men and women? 


The words that define the crisis we face – separation and social distance – are antithetical to everything that our industry stands for. We work in college sports to bring people together, to create a collective sense of self that is expressed in the great achievements of the student-athletes that compete at the highest levels of what we believe possible. We think of baseball and apple pie being part of the American experience, just as we think of sports being part of the human experience. Yet our current circumstances have prevented us from providing the sense of comradery that those we serve so desperately crave.      


Author Seth Godin once wrote that we should never use the word “opportunity.” It’s not an opportunity, it’s an obligation. It is in this moment, that we as leaders of our industry are presented with an obligation, one that requires us to be the shepherds who help bring about a return to normalcy for our society. This is no easy task, as we must cautiously balance providing direction and reassurance to our student-athletes, fans and university communities while acknowledging that there is no clear path ahead.


How then do we navigate the coming weeks and months so that those we are responsible for remain protected, while our institutions and programs emerge resilient and stronger than ever before?


As organizational leaders, the long-term health and safety of those in our care must always come first. In the world of college athletics, when our people are on campus, it becomes an observable validation of our work. We can see people’s energy, their health and vitality. But when they aren’t directly in front of us, we cannot help but worry intensely about their physical and mental well-being. 


While the physical toll of the battle we face has been well documented, it is the psychological one that often goes unnoticed. The negative emotions that student-athletes, coaches and administrators are all experiencing can be overwhelming – the toxicity brought on by continued fear of the unknown continuously undermines our ability to focus on the right priorities. The physiological overload wears on our bodies and mind, and before we know it, we are led down a path of breakdown and burnout. 


As those under our leadership begin to return to campus, we must remind ourselves that these individuals will now be balancing more personal responsibilities than ever before, while being asked to operate in a professional environment that will require them to work with a fervor the likes of which not even our demanding industry has experienced before. While there might be unrelenting pressure for us to prioritize production over people, that is simply not an option for long-term sustainability in our new reality.


Returning our fans to a sense of normalcy starts by ensuring that the people within our own organizations feel safe inside their workplace. At the core of navigating all that is uncertain in our places of work is the conservation of the greatest asset we as leaders have – trust. It is an asset that accumulates when we as leaders make it clear to our followers that their long-term well-being is our top priority. Indeed, as Sheryl Sandberg once said, “leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure the impact lasts in your absence.” That absence now rings louder than ever before. And the outcomes that occur as a result of our current upheaval will be a reflection on the level of trust that we have built with those in our care, both before and especially during this crisis. 


What our organizations choose to value in the coming weeks and months will ultimately define our brands for many years to come. At Advent, we have always defined “brand” as a collection of perceptions in the mind of an audience that add or subtract value and enable choice. Those perceptions are shaped by the culture we create within the walls of our workplace, and that culture is built upon a foundation of every day decisions we make. If we choose numbers over people, trading our humanity for the bottom-line, the value of our brands will be diminished. And although there is much uncertainty in our world, we will all but guarantee that the choices our audience make will not be in our favor.


We must also remember that while college athletic programs may be caretakers of their brands, it’s the alumni and fans that are its true owners. We open the gates of our venues for them to cheer on our student-athletes, to share in the spectacle and revelry. The very reason why people go to sporting events is not to social distance – we social distance at home on our couch. What fans and families are looking for is an elevated moment that they can share with the world, they crave the opportunity to create iconic memories that they will cherish for the rest of their lives. 


In the near-term future where separation may be an ever present reality, as we open our campuses, we must work to make the experiences our fans will have within our venues that much more special. It is up to us to transport them to a place where they can even for just a moment be brought closer together to be part of something bigger than themselves. It is with great irony that in an age of social distance, we must find ways of making our stadiums and arenas even more intimate. They must be full of warmth and energy, and allow those who enter them to become part of a story that resonates deep within their hearts.


As our industry faces great challenges ahead, our efforts and resources should not be focused on building the new, but about the renewal of what is already there. The scale of impact of our facilities should never be measured in dollars and cents, but rather in the feelings and memories they create for the fans that walk their concourses and sit in their seats, as well as the student-athletes that compete on their fields and courts. 


Indeed, student-athletes have always wanted to identify with a program and university that aligns with their own values and life story. The facilities they train and perform in on our campuses become like the pages of the book in which the next chapter of that story is written. When they make the choice to commit to be a part of our teams, they don’t do so because the stadium they will play in is larger or has a bigger scoreboard than another school, but because there is something within the walls of that venue that speaks to who they are as a student, an athlete, and even perhaps one day as one of our heroes.  


Of course, we are deeply cognizant of the financial realities that will face institutions in the near future. As the industry attempts to navigate the fallout of this crisis, it is without question that athletic departments will be asked to make significant economic sacrifices. But in these difficult times, sports will play a critical role in narrating the story that our universities will tell our donors whose investments will now be needed more than ever. College athletics has always been the front-porch of the university, a place where our fans are greeted warmly, and reminded of why they have chosen to return home to the institutions they helped build as students, and now contribute to as alumni. 


As we look to connect with our benefactors on a deeper level, we must realize that no one ever accumulated wealth because they wanted to have a locker room named after them, or because they wanted to endow a scholarship in their name. They worked hard so that they could find a way to pay their success forward one day in the future. Now more than ever, donors want to be involved in a story that is bigger than themselves, one that is transformational. And while our institutions may have new and different priorities, donors will still be there and eager to give to a cause that resonates deep within their hearts. 


We all face pivotal moments in our lives. Whether we see them coming, or they suddenly manifest themselves from the depths of the unknown, rarely are we ready for them. No one in our industry asked for our world to be turned upside down, our lives to be changed in an instant. But here, in just such a time and place, we are not helpless. It’s what we do now that will count. It is in this moment that we find out who we really are as stewards of a purpose and mission far greater than ourselves.






*Click below to hear John Roberson discuss the role sports can play in returning to normalcy, engaging with fans during these uncertain times, making and communicating tough decisions, leading with purpose, and aligning on points of differentiation.*