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5 Important Culture Shifts Needed to Promote College Athletics

In my first job as a sports information director, our president always used to say, “athletics is the front porch of the university.” He made a substantial PR investment in athletics, and was present at as many events as his busy schedule would allow. He understood the value athletics offered to the university’s donors, alumni, and prospective students. But his investment wasn’t primarily in building winning programs, even though he admitted that was important. His primary investment was in the scholastic and community achievements of the people he reminded us were “students first and athletes second.”

In a time when sports scandals hit the front pages just about every day, we are faced with a conundrum: do we tell athletics to go stand in the corner and be quiet, pretend they don’t exist, or take a different approach to presenting our “front porch”? How can we help our internal and external stakeholders understand the value of collegiate athletics? Here are five culture shifts to get you thinking.

  1. Athletes are students first and athletes second…period. When I was at Montana State University, we instituted a team competition called the A.L.L. Challenge, (Academics, Leadership, Life Skills) which was a hybrid version of an NCAA program designed to highlight and reward the achievements of student-athletes in the community and in the classroom.  We got some community businesses on board to help promote the program with posters, t-shirts, and an annual awards banquet. It became a centerpiece, not only for the athletic department, but for the university. We partnered with local nonprofits to get service opportunities for our athletes. The biggest changes were not in the way the community perceived the athletes, but in how the athletes perceived the value of community service and academic achievements. Because a value was being placed on service and academics by the coaches and administration, the student-athletes began to respond. It was a long, but positive turn in the culture of achievement in the athletic department as well as the community.
  2.  Forge strong partnerships between campus and athletic communications personnel. Athletic departments tend to isolate themselves at many universities. We need to break down the walls that separate the academic campus from the athletic campus. Sports information directors are good writers. One of my former bosses was a history buff and wrote articles on the school’s rich athletic traditions for the university magazine. Start building the bridges with marketing and communications. Most athletic communicators have a deep well of positive stories they would love to tell about student-athletes.
  3.  Be cognizant of the awards cycles and news providers in college athletics. Just about every sport on your campus has a national coaches association that gives awards seasonally and annually for academic achievement. Talk to the coaches and get on the mailing lists of the national associations. Promote those achievements in campus publications—don’t delegate athletic news to the athletic website. Your conference likely gives out all-academic awards for each sport as well. The College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) awards Academic All-America awards in each sport. The NCAA has a number of awards that are related to academics and community service, and their website features many positive stories about student-athlete achievements that are not related to sport. The National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA) also has an online journal that features “non-athletic” stories about students. Find out who the editors are and pitch your positive stories to them as well.
  4. Highlight academic and service achievements of teams, coaches, and individual student-athletes in campus publications. At Montana State, we maintained a running list of “brag points” or achievements of athletic teams and individuals for our campus news service and marketing department. They often used these in their campus promotional literature. We nominated qualified student-athletes for campus awards. We took lots of pictures and video footage of student-athletes performing community service and made sure the campus news service had them available for publications. Our coaches also made themselves available in the community for volunteering. The women’s basketball team had a well-kept tradition of being one of the top academic teams in the country. The coaches took great pride in the achievements of their athletes on and off the court, and it eventually translated to the campus.
  5. Remember that “filling the well” is a cushion when bad news hits. Weber Shandwick has done a number of studies on the relationship between reputation and ability to weather a crisis. Their latest study, “In Reputation We Trust,” found that good corporate reputation provides better quality assurance and contributes to a company’s market value. Jeremiah Owyang’s Social Media Readiness study also confirms the bottom line that active fan engagement helps an organization mitigate a crisis faster and at less cost and reputation loss. When you “fill the well” of stakeholder goodwill by embodying the values that complement the university mission, your fans will stay at your side when your integrity is challenged. But beware, the above study done by Weber Shandwick notes that consumers can easily spot a disconnect between who you say you are, and who you really are. Your values have to be authentic.

It’s time to build a new partnership between athletics and academics. Has your institution done this successfully? Can you leave some tips you’ve learned in the comments?