Oregon State University Athletic Director Bob De Carolis has released his latest periodic update on the status of Beaver athletics and related issues. The most important statement is near the end of De Carolis' comments.
I've made the executive decision that expanding our donor base has much more of an upside than potential cutbacks to our sports programs.
After a nervous spring and summer, caused largely by the worst economic climate in decades, that statement produced a cautious sigh of temporary relief across the valley, never mind the campus.
All is NOT rosy, as De Carolis details, but that statement, and the absence of any hints at further program cuts anywhere in the release, is the most encouraging news to come out of the AD's office in a long time.
In his first update sine June, De Carolis updated the results of after the annual Beaver Athletic Student Fund (BASF) fund-raising drive with the results of football season ticket sales.
You'll recall that the drive was down 9 percent, and ticket sales were off nearly 12 percent. Fortunately we had some strong ticket sales over the summer, and ended up down just 3.8 percent. But it's a different story with BASF results. We're down approximately 10 percent, or $1 million, and urgently need help from Beaver Nation.
Because gifts and season ticket sales make up about 40 percent of Oregon State's annual $47 million athletic department budget, De Carolis determined that learning how to appeal to the Beavers' fan base most effectively is key to future success. Toward that objective, the Oregon State University Athletic Department recently completed a process to hear what's important to key stakeholders.
We wanted to learn more about what's in the hearts and minds of our constituents when they think about OSU Athletics.
The process, which took place last spring, involved working with seven focus groups to gather input from a variety of donors, ticket holders, alumni, faculty, staff and students. Meetings were held in the Corvallis area, Portland and in California, in the Bay Area. Participants shared many diverse opinions and were generous with their time and willingness to speak candidly about their views of OSU Athletics, according to De Carolis.
The amount our donors contribute has increased dramatically during the past decade, our number of donors has not. We used these focus groups to dive deeply into what motivates people to donate to our program, and how we can expand philanthropic support.
All the groups confirmed the obvious, that everyone, donors and non-donors, season ticket holders and non-season ticket holders, alums and non-alums, all care deeply about the success of the Oregon State football program. And they have a lot of pride in the integrity and character of the Beavers' student-athletes and coaches. Everyone believes that success on the field pays dividends to the university in terms of its reputation, visibility and resources.
The unprecedented run of success in the last several years is not coincidental with record enrollment fall term, which contributes to easing the financial crunch in the athletic department, and across campus.
However, De Carolis noted that opinions diverged, and significantly, when questions about philanthropy and providing educational opportunities for student-athletes were asked.
Some donors and ticket holders were highly motivated to support educational and life-enhancing opportunities. But this motivation did not resonate with all donors and ticket holders, and it definitely was not understood by non-donors and casual fans who don't buy season tickets.
The survey also brought the athletic department face to face with the fact that they are dealing with several very different audiences for their message.
Motivations differed geographically. Portland area participants primarily are interested in a winning football program. Participants from down in the Willamette Valley, as well as the Bay Area groups, also want to have a competitive football program, but care about providing educational opportunities. Their responses were more typical of those associated with people who care about various causes.
This pattern it should be observed closely parallels the primary audience of the state's only major professional sports team, the TrailBlazers. Those in the heavily marketed Blazer audience are conditioned to a pay as you go, commodity model, where wins are paid for, and next week is considered long term. Also, football has a limited overlap with the nearly nine month NBA season, and for that reason, has appeal to fill a gap on the calendar.
Winter and spring sports, by contrast, are almost off the radar for an audience being blitzed by Blazer, and by implication, NBA marketing.
That's a very different mindset than many mid-valley and out-of-state Beaver supporters have. While even successful basketball and baseball seasons don't approach football for attendance, there are a number of supporters who follow other than football to some degree. And as a result, have a different level of receptiveness to the messages from the athletic (contrasted with the football) department.
This is also an important distinction between Oregon State, and many Pac-10 schools, and at least some of the highest profile programs in the southeast and Midwest. Oregon State and the Pac-10 compete directly in their primary major markets with professional sports, whereas at least some SEC, Big IX, and Big 10 programs are THE primary draw (or the only draw) in their primary markets. Even some where professional franchises have moved in, but not displaced tradition rich college programs.
It is a generalization, but De Carolis can't construct 150,000 strategies to reach each individual. Rather, the distinct market groups that make up significant blocks of potential customers and supporters need different strategies.
As a result of this project, we learned that current donors are motivated by what OSU Athletics currently stands for and its goals. Non-donors do not appear to understand how competitive our programs are, or how truly fundamental providing opportunities and developing students is to OSU Athletics and our department's goals.
Possibly, that last statement should be amended to "Non-donors do not CARE how competitive our programs are..."
The reference is to that segment that is willing to pay for a football ticket, but expects to be buying a decent parking spot, a win, and a bragging-rights bowl game for their $s. De Carolis hopes to address this with future campaigns.
This is a mindset that we will actively work to change. We want to shift the dialogue from being transactional, money for tickets and a parking space, to philanthropic. In reality, donated dollars represent much more than prime stadium seating and parking spaces. These contributions fund scholarships and result in educational opportunities for our student-athletes.
This will be a challenging task, one that is partially a product of history. Attend ANY OSU event, and the demographics are striking. There is a core of older supporters, ones who have been with the Beavers through thick and thin. However, it is clear that this loyal group is shrinking in numbers, and to a degree, their ability to provide substantial and long-term financial support, just due to the laws of nature.
There is also an encouraging and growing level of support among students, and recent students. This group represents a strong future, but the facts of the current still staggering economy exacerbate the fact that this audience is a few years away from being at their affluent peak, and are only capable of about so much support.
The 30 years of losing football left a big hole in the middle population segment that would now be the prime audience for donations, and the decline in the latter part of that run of the basketball programs, until recent events, only worsened the problem.
It's also worth noting that the emergence of the University of Oregon as a football program of consequence began before the Oregon State turnaround began. As a result, the target market that does not, or did not, have a direct tie to one institution or the other, and even some that did, but did not see return on their investment, gravitated heavily to the Eugene product, before the "Return of Riley" (football coach Mike Riley), or "Raising Reser" gave them an alternative.
The reality is that until the next generation becomes this target market, assuming they can be retained in the meantime, selling a product, and a complete one at that, is what will reach this market segment.
This demographic reality has manifested itself in dis-proportionate coverage and availability in the media as well, and has further widened the gap.
Duck marketing and availability to the public is simply on a higher plane that what the Beavers have achieved. That's in part due to the relative market share the programs command, but it is also a hurdle Oregon State will have to overcome.
This past weekend provided a classic example. With Comcast's rights-pricing battle with Direct TV blocking access to the Versus telecast, much of the valley Beaver audience was relegated to radio coverage of the Arizona State game. Much of the east side of the valley does not receive a quality signal from any Beaver affiliate, and the KPAM streaming web broadcast frequently experienced problems due to the traffic overload.
Until Oregon State adds a major FM station to their lineup (something the University of Oregon has in place), as well as a stronger AM signal, the "caring" mid-valley audience De Carolis noted will continue to find it challenging to be a loyal Beaver supporter. Lacking a better Pac-10 media package/network, the problem will get worse come basketball season.
Oregon State's secondary position in the media marketplace translates to a marketing disadvantage all week as well, contributing to the challenge of selling out Reser, while Autzen consistently is at a higher capacity.
De Carolis has been a leader in his field in furthering coverage of Oregon State with a number of innovative moves, but before the message the BASF wants to deliver can be effective, further upgrades continue to be needed. Both to retain the entirety of the existing audience, and to better reach the Portland area audience that needs to be sold a product in the face of stiff competition.
Modernizing the multi-media delivery is mandatory to connect to the California contingent.
As De Carolis noted, there are approximately 14,000 OSU Alumni Association members, out of about 145,000 living alumni.
Of those living alums, about 17,000 live in California, but only 150 are BASF donors. So as you can see, there's a lot of growth potential and a huge upside to expanding our donor base.
That's an audience that will always require a different form of contact than those who can jump in the car and drive to Reser or Gill. Or at least drive to some place across town from Reser or Gill.
Traditional radio and local press won't ever reach those Californians, and Fox Sports Northwest won't reach many of them either. Reliable streaming audio and video, supplementing an improved satellite/cable package, will.
Once the audience is reached, then the message can be delivered, but it is also apparent that several messages designed for different audiences will be needed. One aimed at retaining local support as much as building it, one designed primarily to sell a product, and one that reaches out to an audience that is largely out of reach currently.