Every successful organization in the world is built upon the foundation of a strong business model. Yet in our industry there is a common misconception that an athletics department’s business model is the same thing as its strategy. Quite simply, a business model (much like a blueprint) describes how the pieces of an organization fit together. In terms of college athletics, the model is fairly universal, you have: a managerial structure (administrators and coaches); divisions of labor (teams); customers (student-athletes); product (wins). The problem is that none of the above includes the most important dimension of performance for any business or athletics program – the competition. That’s where strategy comes in.
By definition, corporate strategy is the way that a company creates value through the configuration and coordination of its multi-market activities. In simpler terms, it’s how a business, through differentiation, figures out how to be better than its competitors. Organizations achieve superior performance through the development and/or identification of a unique value proposition (UVP) – what can they do or offer that none of their competitors can. If every single school in your conference offered exactly the same education, facilities, coaches, and amenities, then logic holds that every institution would attract the same caliber of student-athletes and perform precisely the same on the field or court.
In the business world, as companies attempt to offer the same value as their competitors, they spur a race to the bottom in which customers benefit in the short term as prices plummet. Yet in an environment where no business wins, the customer will also eventually end up losing as the constant pressure of competition forces product standards to drop to the lowest common denominator. This phenomenon is called destructive competition, and it’s as real of a problem in the world of college athletics as it is in business. Rather than developing actual strategies to differentiate themselves from others, athletic departments instead rush to maintain the status quo. The college athletics arms race is in fact nothing more than a race to the bottom as schools spend furiously to maintain the same common denominator.
It follows then that success in college athletics (as in any area of business) is only achievable through the creation of viable strategy, and a sustainable competitive advantage is the essence of strategy. Competitive strategy means deliberately choosing a set of activities and offerings that deliver a unique mix of value. And the more clarity an athletics department has on what makes it distinctive, the more likely its administrators and coaches will understand how they contribute to the successful execution of its strategy.
According to Peter Pilling, Director of Athletics at Columbia University, “Having a detailed strategic plan is essential for any organization that expects to have success over the long term. As college athletics has become more business focused over the last decade, more and more departments are attempting to create such plans, but it’s far from a simple process. The key is actually identifying what makes your athletics program unique, and then incorporating it into a framework where you can easily explain why you offer a better value proposition for the student-athletes you’re trying to attract.”
If anyone knows about the competitive strategy it’s Pilling, who spent more than a decade playing a pivotal role in growing ISP Sports and then later IMG College into a multibillion dollar media rights juggernaut before coming to Columbia last year. Part of what attracted Pilling to leave the private sector and become an athletic director was the clear and discernible value proposition (see below) that Columbia offers as compared to many of its peer institutions. More importantly, while the school has had success in various sports through the years, no one had ever taken the time to truly identify and incorporate these unique advantages into a strategic approach that the department could use to catalyze unprecedented success across all of its programs.
“It’s not difficult to discern that Columbia has a great number of advantages – from our location in New York City to our Ivy League affiliation – that give us opportunity to elevate the program to new heights. That being said, we don’t have some unrealistic expectation that we’re going to compete for national championships in every single one of our programs; that’s not our goal,” reveals Pilling. “Because we understand what makes us unique, we have the distinct advantage of knowing where we need to apply the lever to create the most leverage. That’s the advantage of developing a strategy that is rooted in a firm understanding of what you can and cannot be the best at,” he adds.
Pilling highlights an important element that is at the heart of any executable strategic plan – having a firm understanding of your strategic objective. Many administrators wrongly assume that their strategic objective is just a cliché mission statement like, “upholding the highest standards of sportsmanship in intercollegiate athletics competition while insuring that our student-athletes receive a first class education.” While your program should have a statement that outlines your purpose and the values you operate under, neither of these qualify as your strategic objective. Your mission statement may dictate how your employee’s should behave, but they do not guide what your department should be doing to drive that behavior.
It’s also important to realize that virtually every athletics department has precisely the same mission (i.e. a first class student-athlete experience). Most have the same values, which change slightly depending on the universities mission and affiliations. They probably have the same goals (i.e. win as many games as they can). Thus the only thing that can really distinguish your athletics program from others is your strategic objective, which encompasses the often complex combination of unique activities which allows your athletics program to deliver that value proposition.
While winning games and graduating student-athletes are a core objective of every athletics department, you need a well-designed framework that specifically outlines what set of activities will actually maximize your program’s ability to achieve these objectives. Below is just such a hypothetical framework, which contains specific, actionable steps a department can take to achieve its goals.
Of course, while highlighting key areas of focus, the above framework is still far too generic to get your department very far. If they are to be effective, strategic objectives should be specific, measurable and time bound. How does the athletics department plan on increasing financial contributions? What unique assets will be leveraged for the department to differentiate itself? How will the department ensure its employees have the most rigorous training in industry? While there can and should be a set of general guidelines to keep you focused, organizations must strive to create clear, measurable steps that will drive its operations.
Creating a great strategy with specific objectives requires us to make a thorough evaluation of the industry landscape. This means understanding what the needs of our student-athletes are and identifying exceptional ways of creating value to attract them to our institutions. It also requires us to analyze what our competition is doing (including their strategies) and how they might change in reaction to our own. According to management scientists David Collins and Cynthia Montgomery, “The process must involve a rigorous, objective assessment of the firm’s capabilities and resources and those of competitors, not just a feel-good exercise of identifying core competencies. The creative part of developing strategy is finding the sweet spot that aligns the firm’s capabilities with customer needs in a way that competitors cannot match given the changing external context.”
Whatever process you undergo to develop a strategic objective, it should include input from your entire institution, at all levels of hierarchy. The words you use should embody the very essence of what your university and department is attempting to deliver to its students and the community, and that means that everyone involved in achieving that vision should have a say. Moreover, whatever the end product of that discussion is, when your final strategic objective is articulated, it should be distributed to your entire department, alongside your value proposition and strategic framework. Corporate strategy only works when it becomes incorporated into the behavior of every single employee within the organization.
The time you spend identifying what makes your program and institution unique, coupled with the diligence necessary to create a framework to leverage that value proposition, is without question the most important thing you can do for your department. Never underestimate the power of a well designed plan to energize and empower an organization to achieve success.