Virginia Tech's new AD has fundraising experience at Auburn, West Virginia, Missouri and Cincinnati.
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech football owns the nation’s second-longest bowl streak, while the athletics department, unlike many peers, operates in the black. The Hokies are attaining new heights in the Directors Cup all-sports standings and rank among the national leaders in graduation success rate.
Yet as Whit Babcock succeeds the retired Jim Weaver as athletic director, there is, for lack of better word, an anxiety among Tech fans, and even department staffers, that the overall program has grown stagnant.
Monday was Babcock’s first day on the job, and Tuesday night we spoke for nearly 90 minutes in his office. I wrote a column on the interview, and as promised there, here’s a blog post that transcribes much of our conversation.
I’ll break the transcript into two posts, the first focusing on Tech, the second on ACC and national issues.
The first question I asked Babcock was about the anxiety I sense.
Answer: I don’t know that I’d phrase it as anxiety, but maybe you have your finger on the pulse better than I do. Technically, I’m on the job, this is my second day, but I think in any competitive environment you’re either improving, or you’re getting passed. Standing still is not an option, and this conference, nobody else is going to sit back and wait for Virginia Tech to beat them. Everybody is competitive and motivated.
So I do think there needs to be continual improvement. But I admire the work Jim Weaver did. I’m going to have coffee with him next Tuesday and get some of his wisdom. I think I see some opportunities of things we can do, but I think it’s probably premature to put (specifics) out there. I have a strong sense of urgency I need to fight a little bit, and what I mean by that is I really feel like I need to do that listening and slow down — it’s only been two days — and get the lay of the land.
But really to me it’s continual improvement and what can we do across the board to keep it moving forward. Virginia Tech has been on such an upward trajectory. There’s some pressure there to maintain it, but I’ve got good people around me, and I’m confident we can do that.
Question: Your background is in fundraising. Is that an area where you need to make strides?
A: Absolutely. I do think it’s something we can continue to work on, but I don’t think it can just be jacking up ticket prices across the board. I don’t think fans and consumers — there’s a lot of competition for their entertainment dollar — and it takes a lot to get them off the couch. I’ve talked about this, the high-definition TV and student attendance and all those things. It probably sounds like a broken record now, but that’s why we really have to focus on creating some type of experience that is more than just opening the gates and hoping they come.
I always think you can improve on fundraising. Tickets in the football stadium, at least as I understand it, were sold out every year until last year, so there’s certainly need for growth there. We need to reverse that trend. But I think from a revenue standpoint you have to look across the board at all your areas. …
Anyway, to get to your question, the fundraiser title I think is a little bit of a misnomer. It’s more relationship-building and quality experiences, and if you do those things, your customers, or fans, will keep on coming.
But we want to look at everything across the board. Everything from concessions to apparel contract to our IMG agreement on corporate sponsorship. And that’s something, at the risk of sounding arrogant about it, that’s just something, that for whatever reason, at each stop I’ve at least been able to look at it globally and pick our spots and make some improvements.
All of the external stuff. There’s a lot of people much smarter than me that will be great assets on the internal side. Things like compliance and sports medicine and academics, and yes, do I know enough about those things to be dangerous, absolutely. But that breadth of the overall external side of things I hope is a strength, and I believe it is. We need to look at every area there and see where we can improve it, tweak it and milk everything we can out of it.
The other thing is, can you limit your spending in others areas? That’s another thing I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. … Sometimes it’s just taking your existing budget, establishing the priorities that you’re going to have and then allocating.
I think what is a nice life raft, for lack of a better term, is the ACC television contract and things that come with that, and hopefully an ACC channel. It is nice, coming from the conference office end, to see that revenue stair-stepping up instead of going down.
So that’s probably the area, if it starts to jump by $3 million and $5 million and on and on, that’s a real shot in the arm. … We’ll look at it broadly on all our revenue areas. We’ll look at our spending and try to be strategic about that, and then we need to do everything we can for this conference and for it to get stronger in the television rights, because the SEC seems to be running off with that a little bit, and the Big 12 has a heck of a deal. But I commend (ACC commissioner) John Swofford for what he’s done. The Notre Dame piece will certainly help, Louisville.
That’s a nice piece, too, when you’ve got a conference that’s sound and revenues are projected to go up and up. I believe (university president) Dr. Steger referenced that in the not-too-distant future Virginia Tech would be a $100 million-a-year athletic department, I think that’s aggressive. We’ll get there in due time. We’re in the mid-to-high 60s. Maybe you could say 70.
That’s way too long of an answer, but again, it’s looking at it globally. I wish I had a concise, silver bullet answer, but I still need to get my hands around it.
Q: Booster club memberships vary around the country. N.C. State has more than 20,000, Florida State more than 16,000, Clemson 15,000. Virginia Tech has almost 10,000, which is more than many, also. Are you underachieving there?