PIVOT: How Technology is Changing How Athletic Departments Communicate

Sometime in 2000, John Antioco, then-CEO of Blockbuster, hosted entrepreneurs Reed Hastings, Marc Randolph, and John McCarthy in his office. They had an offer for Antioco: Their fledgling online video rental service could run the digital side of Blockbuster’s company, and Blockbuster could continue to run the brick-and-mortar side of the business. Hastings offered to let Blockbuster buy his company for $50 million. John McCarthy recalls what happened next: “...they just about laughed us out of their office.”Blockbuster has been out of business for a few years now, and that fledgling online video rental service, Netflix, pulled in $5.5 billion in revenue in 2014. What happened? Put simply, the leadership at Blockbuster failed to pivot, and it killed them.This isn’t a story unique to Blockbuster—companies like Borders, Kodak, and Palm have all been mangled as they failed to react to new technology and new ways of doing business. And this isn’t even a story unique to the business world. Every organization needs leadership that is ready to adapt to the changing shape of the world. The Harvard Business Review put it rather succinctly: “In a world that never stops changing, great leaders never stop learning.”So what’s the take-away for the modern athletic department? What’s your edge; where do you need to pivot?THE BIG PROBLEMTake a look at the business world—the world most of your student-athletes enter after they leave your organization—where the looming problem is communication. “ surveyed Fortune 500 executives across the country and found that 80% of them find communication across generations to be a most challenging issue in the workplace.”“Communication is important in any organization,” says Mike Bos, Associate Athletics Director for Information Technology at Texas. “With 20 varsity teams, more than 500 student-athletes, and 330-plus employees, organized communication is of the utmost importance to Texas Athletics.” That’s not even taking into account the generational disparities you might run into in a department. And it’s not just that the new generation of Millennials uses different lingo or is more comfortable with casual, rather than formal, communication: It’s that Millennials communicate using entirely different means and connect via entirely different patterns from their older cohorts.Athletics programs have slowly been recognizing this problem. John Miller, Associate Athletics Director for Football Operations at Ole Miss, said this about one of their earlier attempts to communicate more effectively with the players: “In football, things change so much and just getting information to our players at a moment’s notice was something we had issues with. We addressed the problem a little bit by installing a video board system throughout the building, but it still didn’t solve our communication issues. When players were in class, or at their apartment or dorm, we still weren’t able to communicate with them.”Why didn’t the video board system at Ole Miss work? Forbes has an answer from the business world for that question as well. In short, Ole Miss was on the right track and had appropriately tried to pivot, but the staff wasn’t reaching Millennials where they were. It wasn’t meeting them on their phones.The chart above, adapted from Forbes, tells the story. Face-to-face conversations, emails, and phone calls all have their place and their proponents, but what your student-athletes are looking for is some sort of message on their phone. This is a big win for you because it turns out that Millennials are looking at their phones as much as they can—and you already knew that from watching your players off the field.ALWAYS CONNECTEDIt probably won’t surprise you to learn, for example, that Millennials check their phones about 43 times a day on average. (If they’re awake for 16 hours, that’s a little less than once every twenty minutes.) It won’t surprise you that 77% of college students check their smartphones right after they wake up in the morning—or that 92% of them use their phones during downtime—or that the vast majority are staring at their phones while waiting in line, riding the bus, walking around, or watching TV.5 What happens when you tap into your students’ preferred method of communication?John Miller did it at Ole Miss, and he says the difference is astounding. “They’re being informed a lot more. I’ll give you a prime example: When we were at Texas, Coach realized we weren’t going to get back to Oxford until around 4 AM, so Coach said we didn’t need to have our players coming to work out at 11. But I only had 75 guys with us. We have 122 on the team. How do I get that message to everybody? As soon as I hit the ground and had service, I did it with my phone. Twenty minutes after I’m on the ground, I’ve got the information to my people. It was like clockwork, it worked so well.”But that’s not all he said about the new method. “Players in this era change their phone numbers a lot. And when they are starting to come give you their phone number versus you having to track them down to find out their number, you know you’re onto something.” The players at Ole Miss bought into the new communication pattern so seamlessly that they actively sought out their coaches when they got new numbers.The leadership in Duke University’s athletic department also took on the communication problem head-on. Duke was one of the first programs to see the importance of an active investment in communication. “Communication is everything,” says Tony Sales, Assistant Director of Athletics at Duke. “If you are going to invest in facilities or equipment or anything else but you can’t communicate with the individuals who are using them, then you aren’t using those other investments effectively.” He says that technology is becoming more and more important and that it’s a fool’s errand to get stuck in old methods of communicating. “One of our core philosophies is to embrace technology. . . . From the top down, we understand that technology is what our student athletes are going to rely on, so we need to adapt to it as well.”Sales even says that pivoting with regard to communications technology helps to deliver more consistent values to the players. “We are trying to build young men by putting them in the right place at the right time while building the tools they need to be successful when they leave here. . . . We have a vision and a direction that we want everybody to follow, but unless we are all communicating that same message consistently, we are not reaching our goal as effectively as possible.”Millennials have all but walked up to your desk, smartphone in hand, and said, “Here’s what I’m looking at all day. Here’s my conduit for entertainment, news, scheduling, networking, and social media. You are guaranteed to grab my attention with something as simple as a text message, and all you have to do is hit send.” As the CEO, are you going to laugh them out of your office?Or are you going to pivot?About the Author: As Founder and President, former Duke Football player Zach Maurides has revolutionized communication and information sharing for athletic organizations across the country. What began as Maurides’ class project during his sophomore year at Duke University in 2004 has become the industry leader with an impressive list over 800 current clients.

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