Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
'Branding' can be risky business for ADs
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, chairman of College Football Playoff selection committee, responds to questions during a news conference where the 12 members selected to the committee were announced, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FAYETTEVILLE -- It isn't just the University of Arkansas discovering that a corporate approach to college athletics isn't always necessarily good business.
The University of Michigan, with a pizza magnate for an athletic director, also seems to be taking hits according to John U. Bacon, a New York Times bestsellers list author and authority on the Michigan Wolverines.
Last month, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report disclosed that the Razorbacks athletic department outspent its 2012-2013 fiscal year income by $9.3 million and that "contributions and grants to the Razorback Foundation dropped more than $10 million."
Arkansas athletics has operated in increasingly corporate fashion since 2008 when Jeff Long replaced longtime athletic director Frank Broyles, who is now completely retired after six years as athletic director emeritus.
At least Long lists football staff positions at Miami (Ohio), Duke, North Carolina State and Rice on his resume.
Dave Brandon, Michigan's athletic director since 2010, is a Michigan football graduate and former regent, but the former Domino's Pizza CEO arrived without coaching or college athletics administrative experience. Nevertheless, apparently Brandon brimmed with business executive confidence that he could change what he hadn't experienced.
According to Bacon's June 23 article titled "How Michigan's Greed Alienated Fans: A Cautionary Tale For All College Football," upon his arrival Brandon "often repeated one of his favorite lines: If it ain't broke, break it!"
So much for tradition, the foundation of most every great college athletic program coast to coast.
Reading Bacon's article, Brandon's breaking what's fixed has broken Michigan's relationships with some fans and saves less money.
Michigan's $9 million surplus has run down to $5 million but bonuses bestowed on the AD flourish, Bacon wrote.
Michigan's student football ticket sales, which numbered 21,000 for 2012, are projected to be 13,000 to 14,000 this year, Bacon wrote. He also noted that the formerly longstanding Michigan football season ticket waiting list is "long gone" with tickets obviously available.
Like Long with the Razorbacks, Brandon apparently markets Michigan as a "brand," a contagious buzzword among the suits that proliferate athletics administrations these days.
It has been written in this column that "branding" only demeans and diminishes the special bond between Arkansas and its Razorbacks.
Bacon's article applies a similar branding view spread generically.
"If the people running college football see their universities as just a brand and the athletic departments merely a business, they will turn off the people who've been coming to their temples for decades," Bacon wrote. "Athletic directors need to remember people in the stands are not customers. They're believers. Break faith with your flock, and you will not get them back with fancier wine."
Bacon sizzled some more.
"If you treat your fans like customers long enough, eventually they'll start behaving that way, reducing their irrational love for their team to a cool-headed, dollars-and-cents decision to buy tickets or not with no more emotional investment than deciding whether to go to the movies or buy new tires."
For a sport whose fans teem on emotion, that's bad business.
Sports on 07/12/2014