Does W&M Have Enough Young Fans?

Just last month, sports news outlet Sportico released an illuminating report detailing financial headwinds that college athletics programs across the nation will inevitably face in the future.

Whether we’re talking about D1, FBS, FCS, or even D2 or D3 programs — there’s one simple fact that affects them all: current donors are aging out.

With younger generations, especially Gen Z, stimulated with dozens of on-demand entertainment options (that continue to grow by the day), sports seem to no longer serve as big a role in peoples’ lives as they once did.

Yes, we’re looking at you, loyal readers of the Blog and W&M super fans of the 60s, 70s, and 80s Tribe.

So, what exactly did the Sportico article say? You can read it in its entirety here, but below, we recap key aspects of the article (in italics), along with our responses and analysis for W&M in bold text (#ForTheBold).

College Sports Facing Long-Term Threats of Aging Fan and Donor Demographics (by Sportico)

Former UC-Davis athletic director Kevin Blue says the “most underappreciated challenge to the long-term health of college athletics is aging fan and donor demographics.”

Historically speaking, athletic departments have relied heavily on fundraising revenue to cover the costs of their various sports programs (including scholarship aid for student athletes). But as alumni of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s begin to age out, concerns are beginning to mount about the shortfall they will leave in budgets and whether it can be replaced. “The fact that most donors are in an older age bracket is very scary,” said Jay Judge (Senior Associate Athletics Director, Development and External Affairs, Seton Hall University).

WMSB Take: It’s all too common an experience — attend a W&M game, really any game, and you’ll notice an older demographic comprises the majority of attendees. As Williamsburg is a popular retirement community full of W&M alums, this makes total sense. And don’t get us wrong, this is not inherently a bad thing; after all, anyone that attends a Green and Gold game is directly supporting the school. Plenty of schools across the nation would be thrilled for anyone to fill their empty seats. We quite like our fans! The issue is the sustainability of it all, as mentioned above. Perhaps nowhere else in the country will this future issue be as magnified as it will be in Williamsburg with the William & Mary Tribe over the coming decade(s).

It wouldn’t be so scary if there were another generation of boosters ready to assume the responsibility. The problem is graduates of the ’90s and ’00s are significantly underrepresented among current donors, and it very much remains a question whether they will ever give back to athletic programs in the same way their predecessors did. “The characteristics of people going to college and their preferences with respect to athletics have changed over the last several decades,” Blue explained.

One reason ’90s and ’00s graduates are not donating at the same clip as generations before them is the competition for philanthropic dollars has increased significantly over the last 25 years. Globalization and the birth of the internet led to the increased awareness of—and access to—countless charitable causes both local and globally. “Growing up [in the late ’80s and ’90s], my dad always said you give back to your church, you give back to your grammar or high school, and you give back to your college or university,” Judge said. “It was almost mandated.”

WMSB Take: You see it all the time — with the advent of the internet, a bevy of noteworthy, charitable causes have attracted much-deserved attention — and dollars. The issue that this causes for college athletics programs is that a massive portion of their revenues comes from alumni donations; if alums are less willing and/or able to give to their institutions, specifically to their university’s athletics programs, said athletics programs face massive budget shortfalls in the future as once-motivated alums age out. And this won’t be something that happens overnight, like budget shortfalls that occurred (/are occurring) with COVID-19. It would likely be a slow, painful death. One that sees athletics donations shrink year-over-year, until “sustainability” becomes impossible to accomplish.

That was a common mindset in households nationwide for a long time. But as the Seton Hall executive said, “There are a lot more worthy causes to donate to now a days and college athletics sometimes is not as much of a priority for a younger generations disposable income.”

WMSB Take: Think about it. Last time you went to a W&M football game, how many students were in the seats? And no, we’re not talking about the Homecoming game — we’re talking about a regular, in-season game. Not too many. It’s become an all-too-common aggravation for many alums (the lack of students in attendance), but it’s not just W&M; this is a phenomenon that’s occurring across the country. From successful FCS programs such as JMU (where students often leave at halftime) to FBS powerhouses such as Alabama (where head coach Nick Saban likes to complain about the occasional lack of fan/student attendance) — this really is a generational issue. Professional sports are also having the exact same issues. Again, the younger generations have so many different ways to spend their free time: Netflix, podcasts, video games, and more. What’s going to convince them to follow sports with the same fervor that their parents had? Thankfully, some folks are coming up with ideas. Keep reading.

Schools would do a better job cultivating young donors if they spent more time thinking about the long-term. But Blue explained, the challenge athletic departments face is they have a sort of ‘innovators dilemma’ on their hands. “The most important donors [to an athletic department] right now are the ones with the ability to make the biggest difference financially, and generally those people tend to be further along in age. So, as [athletic departments] focus on urgent current priorities, their attention understandably gravitates towards those people with high [donation] capacities rather than the younger ones who don’t have the capacity yet.” Remember, it’s going to take years for the young donor behavior seeded now to pay off.

The traditional fundraising model has rewarded donors with access to tickets and parking in exchange for their donations. But as evidenced by the declining attendance figures, young fans are far less inclined to be wooed by premium seats to a game. The University of Maryland has seemingly figured this out. To appeal to the next generation of donors and increase Terrapin Club membership (which funds scholarships for the school’s student-athletes), the B1G school has moved towards a strategy that prioritizes “different types of benefits; unique content and experiences that [members] can’t get anywhere else.” They’ve introduced an online streaming platform (Terrapin Club Plus), a quarterly magazine and a program called Backstage Pass that gives Club members the chance to take peek behind the curtain of the school’s athletic department (think: open gym at the Xfinity Center, locker room tours or access to a post-game press conference). The hope is the new benefits will drive membership sales. “We really want participation and eventually, down the line, hopefully [those joining at base levels] will be able to donate more money,” Monroe said. It’s the long-term play that athletic departments have traditionally failed to make.

It’s too early to tell if Maryland’s creativity is paying dividends. Terrapin Club Plus just launched within the last month, and COVID-19 has prevented members from having the chance to take advantage of the benefits offered by Backstage Pass.

WMSB Take: Now, this is a great start. It’s certainly not a “cure-all,” but it’s a great start nonetheless. In fact, we’ve already seen COVID-induced changes like these introduced at William & Mary this past year. Specifically for W&M basketball, fans were able to purchase “virtual season tickets” — coming in three tiers. With each tier (escalating in price), fans receive increasingly more access to this year’s team.

Items such as cardboard fan cutouts, Tribe gift packages, inclusion on team Zoom calls, etc. were included — all great ideas championed and put into practice by a Tribe Athletics department that was going through serious leadership changes. An impressive feat. If anything, schools such as W&M have had to adjust to a new “virtual” world in the age of COVID-19; but the lessons schools are learning now may morph into new-era fan interaction strategies that open up revenue streams that will keep collegiate sports alive well into the future.

Demographics aside, athletic departments have come to realize there are inherent problems with tying the bulk of donations to tickets and parking. Those numbers will “ebb and flow” with on-field/court performance, Monroe said. That may help explain why Maryland, which hasn’t been to the Final Four since ’02, has seen Club membership drop from upwards of 10,000 members to just over 5,000 within the last 10 to 15 years (note: Maryland is among the schools who brings in more in donations from basketball than football). University of Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said his school has begun to “offer unique membership options that are not tied to any ticketing” to avoid dramatic fluctuations in fundraising dollars. He indicated the Netflix-style memberships, “where donors can pay a low monthly cost,” have been successful.

Tying the majority of the school’s giving program to seat licenses also “naturally influences an annual giving program in a way that makes it geographically biased,” Blue said. Which helps to explain the logic behind Maryland’s new approach. As Sportico’s Eben Novy-Williams recently reported, the Terrapin Club intends to use TicketIQ’s FanIQ to cast as wide a net as possible. Monroe explained part of the appeal of the media-driven approach: The school “could have an alum that doesn’t live in the area and is still be able to take advantage of [the membership’s new] assets.”

WMSB Take: With W&M alums dispersed across the country and across the world, it’s important that W&M Athletics reaches them in new and innovative ways. Yes, that means using the internet. W&M’s aforementioned virtual season ticket program is a massive step in the right direction. Moving forward, we fully expect this program not only to continue, but to also be expanded to other W&M programs. Why not football? Soccer? How about pairing with a streaming partner to further sweeten the deal (we’re looking at you FloSports). When W&M Athletics’ leadership team begins to think of solutions, they need to steer far away from the way “things have always been done” — that’s when true, sustained success can occur. How about focus groups with current students on campus? They are the future target demo after all, aren’t they? Regardless of the route schools take, one thing is for certain: these changes need to come sooner rather than later, or athletics programs across the country face a slow, steady demise.

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