SBJ/June 25-July 1, 2012/In Depth

Carried away

Michigan State AD Mark Hollis channels his inner Disney to develop innovative events that promote the Spartans and add more fun to college athletics.

Mark Hollis, the Michigan State athletic director, generates so many big and bold ideas that most of them end up on the cutting-room floor. In fact, Hollis’ notion of playing a basketball game on an aircraft carrier was one of those ideas that initially was discarded.

It was more than eight years ago that Hollis first pushed the concept of the Carrier Classic across the U.S. Navy’s desk.
“There was no interest back then,” Hollis said. “I mean, how do you get a $1 billion ship secured?”

Eight years later, as Hollis surveyed the scene before Michigan State played North Carolina on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego Bay, he could hardly believe one of the year’s most memorable and distinctive sports events was actually happening.

Mark Hollis is the SportsBusiness Journal / SportsBusiness Daily Athletic Director of the Year.
Photo by: Roxee Ireland
“It was the perfect night,” Hollis said, looking back on the Carrier Classic that he conceived so many years ago with basketball coach Tom Izzo, and watched come to life on Nov. 11, 2011. “I’m not sure that evening could ever be replicated.”

If there was ever going to be a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier, Hollis was the guy to get it done and Michigan State was the team to play in it.

Hollis, who fittingly counts Walt Disney as one of his greatest inspirations, has become synonymous with innovative events that shine a unique light on college athletics.

As an associate AD for marketing at Michigan State, he helped engineer the 2001 Cold War, the outdoor hockey game between Michigan State and Michigan seven years before the NHL started its own outdoor event, the Winter Classic.

Hollis also oversaw the 2003 Basketbowl at Ford Field between the Spartans and Kentucky, the first game that put the basketball court in the center of the football field rather than the sideline. The design later became the floor model for the Final Four.

In nearly five years as the Spartans’ AD, Hollis has cemented his reputation for coloring outside the lines, most recently with the 2011 Carrier Classic. Just as those earlier events established trends, a handful of copycat events are emerging this season in Jacksonville, Charleston, S.C., and possibly San Diego again.

It’s that ingenuity and creativity that made Hollis, who last week was rewarded with a new contract that bumped his base salary up from $395,000 to $600,000, the SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily Athletic Director of the Year.
“He’s an incredibly creative guy who isn’t afraid to try things,” said North Carolina AD and friend Bubba Cunningham. “It’s become his trademark.”

“I’m glad I’m not going to be here forever because we’ll probably be playing on the moon,” Izzo said with a laugh.

Anchors away

Hollis sat in the Annapolis Chart House two years ago fidgeting with a pack of crackers that were in a red, white and blue wrapper. As he twirled them in his hands, he drifted away in thought.

Hollis had been called to the restaurant to meet an old friend, CBS Sports producer Steve Scheer, who wanted to introduce him to Mike Whalen, a former Marine whose nonprofit agency, Morale Entertainment, puts on events for the military.

Hollis had shared a radical idea with Scheer years ago that involved playing a basketball game on an aircraft carrier. As
Hollis waited more than eight years for the Carrier Classic to become a reality.
Photo by: Getty Images
farfetched as it sounded, Whalen thought he could use his connections in the military to bring the idea back to life.
All of a sudden, Hollis looked up and said, “11, 11, 11.” The two men sitting with him at first weren’t sure what Hollis was talking about.

“11-11-11! That’s when we’ll play the game,” Hollis said, providing the eureka moment in deciding the Carrier Classic’s date — Veterans Day, 2011.

With Hollis, inspiration comes in any form, even the patriotic colors wrapping a pack of crackers.

“Sometimes you come across a guy who is always thinking, whose mind is always on go,” Whalen said. “That’s Mark.”

“It was one of the greatest nights ever for basketball,” Hollis said. “From a business standpoint, both institutions lost out on revenue by participating [because both schools gave up a home game], but it was the cause.”

Inside the Spartans’ athletic department, Hollis has carefully cultivated a culture of free thinking, where the concept of “There’s no such thing as a bad idea” has been taken to new extremes.

“Mark has a kind of upbeat restlessness, which I suspect is part of his DNA,” said Kit Morris, Nike’s director of college sports marketing. “I don’t know that his mind ever slows down. There’s this strong competitive streak, which, when combined with creativity, makes for pretty powerful stuff. And amazingly, he never seems to miss the details.”

While UNC’s Cunningham and Hollis were walking around London one day, Hollis out of nowhere suggested that the two schools should play a basketball game in London, with one team dressed in Oxford colors and the other in Trinity colors.

He’s also endorsed a football game between Michigan State and Southern California played in Greece.

Get it? Trojans vs. Spartans in Greece.

“What a great idea,” Cunningham said. “Nobody thinks of things like that.”

Whether or not those events — or Izzo’s basketball game on the moon — come to pass isn’t the point. Hollis just wants his staff thinking of ways to make college sports fun, just as Disney would if he were an athletic director.

That kind of creativity has become more than Hollis’ calling card; it’s become part of Michigan State’s brand.

“We make a good team. He’s innovative enough to think of these ideas and I’m crazy enough to do it,” Izzo said. “I’ve worked for ADs who had no vision and couldn’t put together a game plan. Now we’ve got somebody who has tremendous vision.”

The idea of putting the basketball court in the middle of Ford Field “was the easy part,” Hollis said. “But what about putting the court on a stage? How do we improve the sight lines? How can we make it the grandest stage possible? … I’m somebody who just never stops thinking and I know it frustrates the heck out of my staff.”

Finding the spotlight for the Spartans

Doing more with less has driven Hollis ever since he played football for Croswell-Lexington High School in the small harbor town of Lexington, Mich., on Lake Huron.

“I came from a small high school where we had to battle the bigger schools,” Hollis said. “You had to work a little harder to achieve what you wanted.”

Operating in the considerable shadow cast by the University of Michigan, whose annual budget is about $30 million
Hollis oversaw the 2003 Basketbowl at Ford Field, the first game that put the court in the center of the football field instead of the sideline.
Photo by: AP Images
more a year than the Spartans’, Hollis has embraced the underdog role to forge an identity as the school that does more with less.

“We have to do things that other people don’t have to do,” Izzo said. “We’re not a destination stop for most people. We don’t have a hundred years of winning tradition. So we’re in a building stage to try to keep up with the Dukes, Carolinas and Kentuckys, and Mark is the visionary that’s giving us a chance.”

Hollis has applied that same pattern of going against the grain on the business side, where Michigan State markets its multimedia rights in-house rather than outsourcing, which is the overwhelming trend now.

From the Hollis file

MASTER-FUL? Mark Hollis is wellknown among his peers as an innovator, but he wasn’t trying to be a trendsetter at Augusta National last year when he took aim at the ninth green — while standing in the 18th fairway.

No, that was just Hollis shooting at the wrong flag in the distance. But playing Augusta National last November was a dream conclusion to a dream weekend for Michigan State’s athletic director.

Hollis so admires Augusta National that his daughter Katy’s middle name is Augusta. He also has the CBS Masters theme as the ring tone for his cell phone.

His opportunity to play the fabled course came on the same weekend as the Carrier Classic in mid-November. Michigan State played North Carolina on the USS Carl Vinson that Friday night, Hollis flew to the Spartans football game against Iowa that Saturday, and then played Augusta National on that Sunday.

A FATHER-SON MOMENT: When Hollis was a fledgling athletic administrator, one of his first jobs came at the Western Athletic Conference. As a treat for his dad, a Methodist minister, educator and musician, Hollis flew him to Salt Lake City for the WAC basketball tournament.

During the visit, Hollis arranged for his father to tour the Mormon Tabernacle, where he was surprised by a performance from the choir. Hollis’ father, described by Hollis as an “unbelievable musician,” then played the majestic Tabernacle pipe organ with the choir.

“He was never a big sports guy and I could never carry a tune,” Hollis said. “But that was one way for sports and music to come together for us.”

— Michael Smith

The Spartans clear about $5 million a year in revenue from sponsorship, advertising and media rights, a figure that Hollis concedes would be higher if Michigan State outsourced to a third party.

“We’ve just found that having face-to-face conversations between Michigan State and CEOs or key VPs brings value to the relationship,” Hollis said. “Sure, you need resources, but it’s not always about the money. It’s about understanding the needs of the corporations so you can react without being tied down to a contract with a third party.”

When General Motors was hurting in 2009, Hollis said, the school didn’t walk away when GM couldn’t make its payments.

“We sat down with them and said, ‘OK, where are you?’ And for the next two years we continued to celebrate everything GM means to the state without them paying cash. It was more of a grassroots relationship. They brought folks to the games from their plants. We tried to make them feel good about what they do. With a third-party contract, that would have been hard to do.”

That’s the personal touch that women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant has seen Hollis apply to every aspect of his job, whether it’s dealing with a coach, a sponsor or an athlete.

“Leadership comes in a lot of forms,” Merchant said. “He’s really an inspiring person because he does have that tremendous vision, and he lets you know as a department where we’re going.”

He might not be following the conventional path, but Hollis has led Michigan State into a level of stability and renown that the school hasn’t had before.

“We teach innovation in our classrooms every day,” Hollis said. “Why should we be any different in athletics? Every event we’ve done has been without a blueprint, just our staff sitting around contemplating an idea. That’s what we should be about.”

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