Booster support crucial for Utes as they enter Pac-12
Associate athletic director Doug Knuth remembers closing the books on his best fundraising year ever with the Utah Utes, right around the time they learned last summer that they would be joining the Pac-12 Conference.
"We kind of patted ourselves on the back for about 30 seconds," he recalled.
That's because while the Utes had just raised what for them was a whopping $5.2 million for their annual fund, the average among their new rivals was $11 million a year with the USC Trojans leading the way at $27 million.
"That's just insane," Knuth said, admiringly.
And it illustrates just how big a fundraising gap the Utes will be trying to close as they enter their prestigious new league.
Boosters and the donations they make are a huge part of the revenue that major college sports programs must generate in order to do all the things they feel they must in order to remain competitive recruit top athletes all across the country, improve facilities and build new arenas, and hire (and sometimes fire) top coaches.
They're such an important part of running a top program that athletic directors around the Pac-12 say a broad and deep pool of donors isn't just a luxury.
"It's critical," Cal's Sandy Barbour said.
Bigger is better
The Utes have about 5,000 members in their Crimson Club booster group, which isn't too shabby.
Most of their new rivals have between 6,000 and 10,000 members in their booster groups, officials said, and several of them including Oregon State, Arizona and Colorado are making a specific effort to reach 12,000.
"That's kind of a magic number," said Jim Senter, the associate athletic director for development at Colorado. "A lot of people are trying to get there."
The Utes sure wouldn't mind, either.
They are starting their Pac-12 adventure with the smallest athletic department budget in the league and one of the three smallest stadiums, meaning that their revenue from other major areas is on the low end as well and they're not going to be getting any more money from the state, either.
That's why increasing donations from boosters is one of the school's top priorities, just as it is at Oregon State.
"When we came up with 12,000, at the time, we were at about 6,200 donors," OSU athletic director Bob DeCarolis said, "and we were like, 'You know, this is simple. If everybody just gets one donor, we'll make it. How hard can that be?' Well, it's pretty damn hard. It's been a little bit of a struggle, but you have to just keep fighting the fight and you'll get there."
The opportunity appears to be there for the Utes.
Playing in the major urban centers on the West Coast will expose the Utes far more regularly to about 50,000 alumni living in the Pac-12 markets of Seattle/Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver. Those areas represent the five largest concentrations of Ute alums outside Salt Lake City, Knuth said, as well as a huge difference from the days in the Mountain West Conference.
"We probably could name the four or five university alumni who lived in Albuquerque," Knuth said. "But boy, we're going into the heart of it now."
The potential is so vast that, for the first time, the Utes recently hired a fundraiser who will live in the Bay Area full time to recruit fans and alumni in California. That came after the hiring of another not long after the Pac-12 announcement to bolster their development office in general.
"We knew we were falling down, even in the Mountain West," Knuth said.
What's more, the athletic department is hosting alumni events at every football game on the road this season, just as several academic colleges medicine, business, law are planning to do."Everyone at the university recognizes this is just a remarkable opportunity to reach out to people," Knuth said.
Fans might think that the key to fundraising is simply to find one super-rich booster and have him take care of everything.
But it's not that easy.
For starters, few such mega-wealthy philanthropists exist.
Entrepreneur Phil Knight of Nike is the famous benefactor at Oregon, while real-estate mogul John Arrillaga and financier T. Boone Pickens have similarly donated many millions to Stanford and Oklahoma State, respectively. The Utes have enjoyed many gifts from industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr., but his philanthropy extends far beyond college sports.
What's more, schools say they need more than what any single donor however wealthy can give. Even the smallest donations are important, especially to schools in the Pac-12, whose stadiums generally aren't as large as those in the Southeastern Conference, limiting their ticket revenue.
That's why universities spend thousands trying to cultivate prospects, deploying development specialists to build relationships with fans and alumni in a process that can take years to grow to a significant level.
Athletic director Greg Byrne of Arizona said fundraising is "sequential. Your $100 guy becomes your $500 guy becomes your $1,000 guy." It's what Colorado's Senter calls the "donor continuum" something he illustrates with a chart depicting a donor's level of "commitment" plotted against his or her increasing wealth.
"Over a period of time," he said, "you want people to move to increased commitment with increased wealth."
And perhaps, one day, you land a gift such as the $12 million donation made by one family to Mississippi State in April to help build a new football facility.
"That person probably started back here," Senter said, pointing to his chart, "and had been doing this for a long time before making a major gift like that."
For now, the key for the Utes will be to increase contributions not related to ticket purchases many football season tickets require a donation to the Crimson Club and to increase the sheer number of its donors.
Knuth said they will reach out not only to local fans who attend the games and love the perks such as better parking privileges that come with booster-club membership, but also to those without season tickets who simply "want to see us win." That's similar to the approach Oregon State is taking, trying to send a message that's more "philanthropic" than "transactional," DeCarolis said.
Added Knuth: "We want you to join the Crimson Club and be part of that new transformational building into the Pac-12."
The Oregon State Beavers are among several Pac-12 Conference teams that have started a campaign to increase the size of their booster clubs to 12,000 members. Athletic director Bob DeCarolis said that last year, the Beavers started focusing on "trying to broaden the message into being more philanthropic" with donations. Part of that involves sharing "feel-good stories" about talented and generous athletes on a dedicated website OurBeaverNation.com to both fortify their message and attract new donors.
The financial calculations that go into raising money from boosters for a big project is fascinating.
According to Jim Senter, the associate athletic director for development at Colorado, the "rule of thumb" is that a donor will be willing to give 10 to 20 times their normal annual gift to help pay for a special project such as a stadium expansion or new practice facility.
So if the Buffs could get all 1,600 or so of their $1,000 annual donors to give at that level, they could raise at least $16 million for a special project.
"But everybody doesn't give," Senter says, for a variety of reasons.
Maybe they can't afford it at the time. Maybe the project doesn't interest them they like football but don't care much about a basketball project, for example. Or maybe they feel as if they've given plenty already.
In any case, that's why fundraisers feel as though they need to target three to five capable prospects to yield every donation they hope to receive. In other words, if a university doesn't have enough donors who give at high enough levels, it might have a hard time raising the money to make big improvements.
"You figure at what level do people give, how many do you have that can give at that level, and then you start doing the math," Senter said.
Oh, and you want naming rights to a project? That usually costs about half the price of the project, Senter said, "but that's always negotiable."
Michael C. Lewis