From the time Ray Anderson considered leaving the NFL to go to work at Arizona State University, he’s heard the Sun Devils referred to as a sleeping giant.
The school is the largest public university in the country, yet ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in annual revenue. It attracts a Who’s Who of athletic directors, only to see them leave and become collegiate power brokers elsewhere.
Among athletic departments that could be considered an enigma, ASU is the most curious of cases. More than 200,000 alumni live within a half-hour of the campus, but the Sun Devils routinely play before less-than-capacity crowds.
|Ray Anderson (right) introduces ASU baseball coach Tracy Smith in June.
“The sleeping giant stuff has got to go away,” said Anderson, who studied political science at Stanford and earned his law degree from Harvard. “We’re waking up.”
The alarm began to go off three months ago when Anderson, former executive vice president of operations at the NFL, reached into his past to hire Greg McElroy from the Dallas Cowboys.
In subsequent weeks in June, Anderson again dipped into his past and brought in two more veteran administrators with NFL ties — Scottie Graham from the NFL Players Association and David Cohen, who spent time with the Falcons and Vikings before moving to the Valley of the Sun.
Each hire filled a newly created position.
McElroy joined ASU in May as chief business development officer and associate vice president. The former head of the Cowboys’ sales and marketing will bring his trademark enthusiasm in spearheading all aspects of revenue generation and marketing.
Cohen, a senior associate AD, was selling premium products at the Vikings’ new stadium for Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment, and will work on stadium sales, ticketing and Olympic sports for the Sun Devils.
At the start of this year’s football season, ASU’s athletic department has begun to look like an NFL front office. And that was by design.
“I wanted to bring in guys with experience and the mindset of urgency that comes from the pro level,” Anderson said. “These hires elevate us, in terms of how we run this place like a business that creates revenue. I don’t want to have to keep running back to the university for subsidies.”
ASU’s $64 million annual budget falls far behind the financial pacesetters in the Pac-12, especially considering that close to $10 million of the Sun Devils’ revenue comes from campus subsidies. Annual revenue at Southern California, California and Stanford surpasses $90 million, while Oregon, UCLA and Washington top $80 million (see chart below).
Anderson doesn’t see any reason why the Sun Devils can’t be in that range, and that was a primary motivation in hiring McElroy and Cohen, two proven revenue generators from the NFL.
“They’re charged with improving existing revenue streams and finding new streams,” Anderson said. “This is part of the process of doing things differently. We’re not going to be about the status quo.”
McElroy and Cohen are joining the Sun Devils at a good time. The school initiated a $225 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium earlier this year, with architect HNTB and local firm Gould Evans working on the design. Capacity will shrink from 70,000 to 60,000, but the premium products will increase significantly.
“It’s not just a renovation,” McElroy said. “It’s a reinvention of the stadium. We’ll have what amounts to a brand-new stadium by the kickoff of the 2017 season.”
They are in the process of developing a plan and pricing for suites, club seats and possibly loge boxes that will give the stadium far more revenue-generating power.
It’s not unlike the role McElroy played in the development of the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
“What I took away from having done this before is to push the envelope, as far as developing revenue,” McElroy said. “Let’s not take the safe way out. Let’s be aggressive when we price it. As Jerry [Jones] used to say, ‘Let’s get as close to breaking the glass as we can.’ And what we wound up with [at AT&T Stadium] was one of the most successful projects in all of sports.”
One of the core challenges for Arizona State has been selling a college product in a pro sports town. The Phoenix area also is home to an eclectic mix of retirees who don’t necessarily have a connection to the school.
Some of the brightest and most influential ADs in the country — Duke’s Kevin White, Ohio State’s Gene Smith and, most recently, Texas’ Steve Patterson — tackled those challenges at ASU with varying degrees of success before leaving for other high-profile jobs. The turnover in the Sun Devils’ AD office, however, never dissuaded Anderson, 60, who calls ASU a “destination job.”
Countering those endemic challenges in the desert starts with creating a pro-like game-day experience with the premium products, connectivity and customer service fans have come to expect across town.
“We’re looking at everything that touches the fan,” Cohen said. “We just had a meeting about traffic patterns. We’ll make sure, however we price it, that it matches the expectations and the amenities we can provide.”
With a total student enrollment approaching 80,000 this year, ASU is cultivating an alumni base that will serve as a massive customer base in the future.
But Anderson shows little interest in looking too far down the road. It’s with a “mindset of urgency” that he’s rousting the sleeping giant.
Anderson has charted a course “to try new things, be innovative,” he said. At a time when many athletic departments are contemplating fewer sports, Anderson wants to add to ASU’s 22 varsity sports.
He’s also working with McElroy and Cohen to evaluate the school’s multimedia rights deal with IMG College and its ticketing deal with Aspire Group. McElroy said he’ll be working with IMG College sales executives on a daily basis, while Cohen will take on more of a day-to-day role in the ticketing operation.
Across campus, athletics is working with university Chief Marketing Officer Dan Dillon on a plan to create campuswide sponsorships for corporate partners. Such a program would include combined sponsorship assets from athletics and the university side.
“The enticing part of this job, in addition to working with Ray, is that ASU has a great brand, but there’s also tremendous opportunity for growth,” McElroy said. “I can’t wait to see where we are three years from now.”