SBJ/June 9-15, 2014/In Depth

The path to the athletic director’s office

It was recently reported in SportsBusiness Journal that the University of Alabama athletic department’s revenue for 2012-13 was more than $143 million. This exceeds the revenue of every NHL team, and is larger than that of 17 NBA teams. In 2005, Alabama’s revenue totaled $62.3 million, so in seven years, it has more than doubled.

This leads to many questions, including, who is running these athletic departments where revenue generation is becoming increasingly important? What are the profiles/backgrounds of these athletic directors and what experiences prepared them for these jobs? From the college and university perspective, what are institutions looking for in hiring athletic directors? And from a career perspective, what can one do to prepare himself/herself for the job of Division I athletic director?

Division I of the NCAA comprises 351 institutions. In the past five years, 167 Division I athletic directors have been hired. High-profile, high-revenue and highly coveted athletic director jobs have been filled at Texas, Alabama, Arizona State, Colorado, Michigan, Southern California and Notre Dame, among others.

The revenue increase at Alabama is not the exception, but the general rule for at least the top tier of Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Given this trend, how important is the business background, experience and education of recently hired athletic directors?

SBJ Podcast:
College writer Michael Smith and editor Tom Stinson give their thoughts on SBJ's Division I athletic director survey, as well as on Duke's Kevin White winning Athletic Director of the Year.

These statements about recent athletic director hires indicate the importance of “business” in the selection process:

“Based on Mal [Moore’s] strong endorsement as well as Coach Battle’s affiliation with UA as a player, partner and donor, his experience as a coach and his significant business background, I am confident that he is the right person to serve UA in this position.” — University of Alabama President Judy Bonner on hiring Bill Battle as AD

“Rick’s financial and management acumen, his networking and relationship development skills, and his enthusiasm, work ethic and principled leadership all make him the ideal leader for CU athletics at this important and challenging moment in our history.” — University of Colorado Chancellor Philip DiStefano on hiring Rick George as AD

So clearly when looking at recent hires of athletic directors, there is some support for the theory that college athletics is more businesslike and that the individuals hired as athletic directors have the experience, skills and/or education to manage today’s athletic departments.

My interest and research in this area has been an outgrowth of my first non-sports law publication, The Comprehensive Guide to Careers in Sports (2nd Edition, 2012). As a professor of sports law and one who has advised students and rising professionals, I wanted to share my observations with former students. It became clear to me that for leadership positions in sports, there was not one, but usually three or four different types of career paths to reach a leadership position. I studied Major League Baseball (2010) general managers, then NBA (2011) and NFL (2013) general managers.

My current research focuses on Division I and Division III athletic directors. I also have found three to four common career paths, and this article highlights some of my research.

Age profile of athletic directors

Thanks in part to World Series championships in 2004 and 2007, the Boston Red Sox’s hiring of 28-year-old Theo
Epstein as general manger helped to revolutionize the way in which MLB clubs evaluated the qualifications of a general manager. Teams began hiring individuals with nontraditional baseball backgrounds, often choosing young executives to fill these coveted roles.

However, a similar “Theo effect” has not occurred in college athletics. NCAA Division I institutions continue to hire experienced individuals, in many cases much older than 28, to run their athletic departments. In fact, only three of the 188 Division I athletic directors hired since 2008 were younger than 30, while 126 (67 percent) were older than 40, and 55 (29 percent) were older than 50. The average age of current Division I athletic directors is more than 52 years old. Furthermore, the average age at which these athletic directors were hired to their position is more than 49 years old. The chart above shows the age distribution of current Division I athletic directors.

Clearly Division I institutions are hiring older individuals to the position of athletic director, but it is also illustrative to examine the experience levels of recent hires. In doing so, I find that 134 (38 percent) current Division I athletic directors had previously held that position at another institution before being hired to their current job.

Current Division I athletic directors have held the position for an average of 6.78 years. Only about 5 percent have been in the position for at least 20 years, while nearly half (48 percent) have fewer than five years on the job. The chart to the left shows the tenure of current Division I athletic directors.

Challenging time for ethnic minorities and women

Despite modest gains over the past several decades, it still remains a challenging time for women and minorities hoping to become Division I athletic directors. Thirty-three of 351 (9.4 percent) Division I athletic directors are female, but at the FBS level, this number drops to 6.4 percent, representing only eight of 125 athletic directors.

Minorities have not fared much better, as just 14 percent of Division I athletic directors are African-American, and
fewer than 1 percent of athletic directors identify as Asian-American. However, these numbers are trending slightly upward, as more than 21 percent (30 of 138) of Division I athletic directors hired since 2010 represent racial minorities.

The value of higher education

Colleges and universities are in the business of higher education, so it is not surprising to learn that many of these institutions have begun to put a greater value on higher education when hiring an athletic director.

Every current Division I athletic director has earned a bachelor’s degree, while 280 (80 percent) have earned a graduate degree. A hiring trend in favor of advanced degrees has picked up over the last five years, as nearly 90 percent of athletic directors hired since 2009 have earned an advanced degree. The most common master’s degrees are in sports administration (92 of 231) and education (75 of 231).

Forty-five Division I athletic directors (13 percent) have earned an MBA, which indicates that the business training received in these programs may constitute an important job qualification for schools hiring athletic directors. In addition, 21 Division I athletic directors (6 percent) hold a J.D., while 39 (11 percent) earned a Ph.D.

When compared to general managers of three major professional leagues, the NFL, MLB and NBA, athletic directors far outdistance their professional counterparts in the frequency of advanced degrees. The NFL leads the way among the three leagues, with 14 of its 32 (44 percent) general managers holding an advanced degree. Eight of 30 (27 percent) NBA general managers and eight of 30 (27 percent) MLB general managers earned an advanced degree.

Business world transition

While the formal business training of an MBA program may be an attractive asset to an aspiring Division I athletic director, recent trends have shown that business experience, both within and outside of a college athletic department, is another important asset.

Looking specifically at athletic department business experience, 287 of 351 (82 percent) current Division I athletic directors have a background in the business or revenue side of the department. The most common backgrounds include: fundraising/development (56 of 287, or 20 percent), operations (42, or 15 percent), marketing (33, or 11 percent), finance (32, or 11 percent) and compliance (24, or 8 percent).

Over the past several years, institutions have begun to hire individuals with business experience outside of college athletics to run their athletic departments. In some cases, these administrators have not worked in college athletics before being selected as athletic director. This trend may also be attributed to the increasing importance of business experience and acumen in successfully managing today’s athletic department.

The 5 Most Common Career Tracks

1. Former head coach to athletic director
Barry Alvarez moved from head football coach to AD at Wisconsin, but only 20 percent of his peers held a former coaching position at any point in their career.
Photo by: Getty Images

While at one time a head coaching position was a very common career path for a Division I athletic director, this career track is rapidly changing. Today, only 20 percent of current Division I athletic directors held a head coaching position at any point during their career.

However, while the numbers are decreasing, coaching is still a viable, fairly common path. A number of high-profile institutions have hired former head coaches as athletic director. Barry Alvarez, the 16-year head football coach at Wisconsin; Mike Holder, a 32-year head coach of men’s golf at Oklahoma State; Debbie Yow, a nine-year head women’s basketball coach at Kentucky, Oral Roberts and Florida; and Ray Tanner, 16-year head baseball coach and two-time NCAA champion at South Carolina, are four such examples.

2. College athletics path to athletic director
A large number of Division I athletic directors gained experience by working their way up through the athletic department. Institutions have come to value the skills and experience gained by holding a variety of roles within an athletic department, and individuals with this background have often been hired as athletic director.

Some notable athletic directors that advanced through athletic departments include Brad Bates at Boston College, Kirby Hocutt at Texas Tech and Bubba Cunningham at the University of North Carolina. Bates spent 17 years at Vanderbilt, with stints in marketing, compliance and development, Hocutt held positions in fundraising (Oklahoma) and marketing (Kansas State), and Cunningham spent 14 years at Notre Dame in a variety of roles, including facilities and marketing.

Michigan’s Dave Brandon is among the ADs hired from a business outside athletics.
Photo by: Getty Images
3. Business experience outside of college athletics to athletic director

As the business side of college sports has become more important over the years, institutions have increasingly turned to individuals with external business experience. Currently, 35 Division I athletic directors (10 percent) were hired directly from a business outside athletics.

Dave Brandon, athletic director at the University of Michigan, is an example of this trend, having held the position of CEO of Domino’s Pizza before being hired in 2010. Other recently hired athletic directors with significant external business experience include Pat Haden at the University of Southern California (law, private equity), and Mollie Marcoux at Princeton University (facility management).

4. Education path to athletic director
While some administrators have been able to work their way up through athletic departments to become athletic directors, many others pursued graduate study in the field of sport management right out of school (or shortly after graduation) before embarking on their careers. Graduate programs in sports management provide individuals with specialized knowledge and training to become managers in the sports industry, so it may not be surprising to learn that many Division I athletic directors earned a degree in the field.

Among those athletic directors with a master’s degree in sports management before embarking on their careers are Ian McCaw at Baylor University, Jeremy Foley at the University of Florida, Bob De Carolis at Oregon State and Bernard Muir at Stanford University.

5. Sports industry experience — non-college to athletic director
Another trend, which has emerged over the past several years, has seen institutions hire executives with sports industry experience in areas other than college athletics. These individuals have backgrounds in professional sports, legal services and sponsorship rights, among other areas.

Ray Anderson of Arizona State and Rick George of Colorado both have backgrounds in professional sports.
Anderson spent eight years as executive vice president of football operations for the NFL following a number of years as a player agent, and George was chief operating officer of the Texas Rangers for three years after more than seven years with the PGA Tour. Bill Battle of Alabama founded and ran Collegiate Licensing Co. for more than 20 years, while Jack Swarbrick of Notre Dame spent 28 years at a law firm and served nine years as chairman of the Indiana Sports Corp.

Not a career path, but many played
An important factor for many Division I athletic directors is being a former student athlete. While it may not be considered a career path, a significant percentage of Division I athletic directors were student athletes. A total of 194 (55 percent) current Division I athletic directors were student athletes in college, so it appears to be a positive and important experience for many who are hired as athletic directors.

Although these administrators all have an athletics background in common, they fall within all five career tracks on the path to the athletic director’s position.

Here are some examples of former student athletes and their career paths in college athletics. Some began in college athletics right after graduation, including Thorr Bjorn, who played football at the University of Massachusetts.
Sandy Barbour, who played field hockey and basketball at Wake Forest, earned a master’s degree in sport management before starting her career in college athletics. Derrick Gragg, a former Vanderbilt football player, earned both a master’s and doctorate degree after beginning his career in college athletics as an academic counselor.

Glenn M. Wong (gwong@isenberg.umass.edu) is a professor of sport management at the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wong is an attorney and serves as president of the Sports Lawyers Association.

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