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An athletic department needs to discover ‘hidden’ donors? Call this man

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell04/29/22


You are an athletic director confronting a new-age problem. A fast-growing NIL collective affiliated with your school is increasingly pooling big dollars from your vast network of loyal donors. And those collective donations are siphoning funds that otherwise would flow to the athletic department.

You need to find more donors. Who do you call for help?

His name is Steve Hank, the executive vice president of collegiate athletics at Affinaquest, the leading data management company in college athletics. The company (formerly known as SSB) works with more than 40 Power 5 schools to use data to identify a school’s supporters and best target them with personalized messaging to maximize ticketing, merchandise and donor potential. 

These days, in part because of the proliferation of school-specific collectives, supporters’ dollars are being pulled in several directions. It’s as important as ever for athletic departments to discover so-called hidden supporters, countless fans who have fallen through the digital cracks in a school’s multitude of databases. Those supporters may be willing to buy a heaping amount of polo shirts or perhaps even contribute to the renovation of the football stadium’s south end zone. They just need to be approached and asked, and in a personalized fashion. 

“Athletic departments traditionally have been going back to the same people and asking them to do more, do more, do more, do more,” Hank told On3. “If you walk around a college campus, go look at the head coach’s office, then look at the training room, then look at the south wing of the stadium. They may say ‘The Smith Family’ on all three because the athletic department targeted and fostered terrific relationships with a small subset of people. Now, you’ve raised a great point – [donors] are being stretched [financially] …

“Colleges haven’t figured out where all the hidden people are. The pro sports teams figured the analytics out and went after those people early and have been able to capitalize on that. College athletics is playing catch-up.”

Hank and his company are leaders in helping organizations play catch-up on the data front, and good luck finding someone who speaks about it as passionately as he does. Innovation in college sports often has glacier-like speed because of a surplus of bureaucracy. So while many pro leagues and teams have flourished by diving into business-side analytics, breaking down organizational silos and creating actionable insights, a sizable portion of college sports has dawdled in the dark ages.

Before COVID-19 offered an economic stress test for the ages, Hank said, the gap in the college space between the most sophisticated and least sophisticated data-driven athletic departments was akin to the Grand Canyon. Some would ask, “Data? What’s data?” The gap remains wide, he said, but is rapidly closing. 

“After COVID, everyone understands the importance,” said Hank, specifically pinpointing Penn State and Notre Dame as two forward-thinking departments in this space.

Donors are out there; schools just need to find them

The other important change has been the widespread adoption of digital ticketing; he said about 95 percent of relevant programs now embrace it. That enables athletic departments to possess a treasure trove of data on who is purchasing and using game tickets. The challenge then becomes how best to use that data. When done right, the potential is enormous.

Consider this example from one of Hank’s clients, an SEC school he doesn’t want to name. His company helped the athletic department identify several hundred thousand supporters whose names and information were previously hidden in a merchandising database in a forgotten digital silo. Staff then accessed that data, filtered it, structured it and created profiles for each of those consumers. They then delivered customized campaigns to those fans and found that each previously unidentified name was worth $1.91 to the athletic department. The average transaction was $530.94. Over time, that adds up considerably.

Any of those supporters who enjoyed buying merchandise could also be potential donors to the athletic department now that the staff has their personal profile and can target them with customized messaging. The department has ample opportunity to widen its donor base at a time when additional revenue is greatly needed. 

For another example, Hank referenced his tenure at Arizona State, where he worked for 12 years (until 2014) as associate athletic director. ASU was the first school in college athletics to create a data warehouse. At one point, Hank wanted them to build data profiles for their top 1,500 donors. On that list, they pinpointed a man with a curious data profile. He had never purchased a ticket for a Sun Devils game. But he had opened emails with unfailing frequency and had a consistent habit of buying lots of merchandise. He also had spent an inordinate amount of time on the team website, signing up for programs and buying the school magazine. 

Turned out, he lived in a different state and had a weekend job that made attending games impossible. When the outbound sales team reached out for a small solicitation, he was flattered by the call, expressed deep support for the Sun Devils – and wound up making one of the leading donations for the renovation of Sun Devil Stadium.

To best identify and use supporter data, Hank pinpoints three tenets:

+ Athletic departments need to break down silos to aggregate all relevant data for a fan into one profile. In other words, all 10 times you purchased a football T-shirt may be accounted for in one merchandise computer, but your 200-level ticketing purchases are in another, your alumni status in still another and the record of your children attending the summer basketball camp in a seldom accessed database. Organize all of the data into one profile.

+ Develop personalized messaging campaigns for fans that you can track. For instance, if a fan consistently opens emails about ticket sales for football games but never purchases, make a follow-up phone call to say, “I’m following up on the campaign we sent last week to see if you have any interest.”

+ Use artificial intelligence tools to generate predictive analytics to anticipate a fan’s likelihood of taking a certain action. If your staff can make 1,000 calls a month and there are 3,000 supporters you need to contact, identify which are at the highest risk of not renewing season tickets or not making another contribution. It boils down to knowing who to target, what to ask for and how a staff can maximize resources. 

Utilized properly, data will paint the picture of an individual fan of a particular school, revealing habits and unveiling potential hidden donors. In the NIL era, in which donors’ dollars are pulled in various directions, an athletic director’s ability to know their donor base – and widen it – never has been more important. 

“With every action, [fans] are telling you who they are,” Hank said. “And when they tell you who they are, believe them. Then act on that and give them what they want.”

With schools emerging from the dark ages of understanding data, Hank said they are beginning to grasp its substantial value and what it can unlock.

“It is not what I would call the beginning of an evolution,” he said. “I think we are at the beginning of a revolution.”