The college athletics arms race has exploded over the past decade.
New facilities with all the bells and whistles – and even slides – have become mandatory for athletic programs to keep up, particularly in basketball and football.
At Florida State, the athletic department and Seminole Boosters, Inc. have done what they can to keep FSU’s athletic facilities new and up-to-date.
“I think what we’ve seen in Seminole Boosters and in college athletics as a whole is an increased focus on facilities over the past decade,” Seminole Boosters, Inc. Executive Vice President Greg Hulen told the Democrat Wednesday.
“It has been a cyclical model where a school introduces something new that’s well received by recruits that their staff feels good about, and then the schools go out and respond to that. With everything shared on social media, that process has really sped up. And because almost every school right now is probably challenged with operating dollars for athletics, those projects are primarily funded out of donor dollars.
“When it comes to fundraising for a facility project, our staff will sit down with donors and present the need for it. How it’s going to impact our programs. How it’s going to help our recruiting efforts. How it’s going to help our coaches be more successful. And then ask those donors to participate and help with the funding.”
Seminole Boosters has grown exponentially over the past decade in large part because of the facilities arms race.
According to a Board of Trustees meeting earlier this year, the Boosters received $25.9 million in gift commitments in 2013. It jumped to $47.1 million in gift commitments for the 2018 fiscal year.
The boosters received $64.4 million in gift commitments for the 2019 fiscal year, which is partly due to the Unconquered Campaign that FSU began in Sept. 2018.
The Unconquered Campaign’s goal is to put $100 million into new facilities or facility upgrades across nearly every sport at FSU. Included in that $100 million was a $60 million stand-alone football-only facility.
FSU Athletic Director David Coburn told the Democrat in January that he was planning to slow down the process of the football facility until football coach Mike Norvell has had the opportunity to assess what he feels the program needs, which could lead to changes from the original plan.
The numbers have not been released for the 2020 fiscal year, which ended earlier this week. The boosters had received nearly $44 million in gift commitments in February, according to the Board of Trustees meeting.
But the athletic department is also relying on Seminole Boosters more than ever. When FSU’s athletic department had a major budget issue in 2018, Seminole Boosters stepped in to fill the gap by selling off property that had been donated.
And the once fractured relationship between the athletic department and Seminole Boosters, Inc. is better than ever before now that they’re both under one umbrella.
The Florida State University Athletics Association (FSUAA) has allowed the two separate entities to become one.
“We are working closely together,” Hulen said.
“The goal of the Athletic Association was to increase the alignment of Athletics and Seminole Boosters, and I believe that has been accomplished. We are doing our budgets together. We are sharing information and discussing ideas daily regarding things that impact our fans, especially in the current environment. We are being transparent with one another with a shared goal of comprehensive excellence for our 20 programs.
“I really credit David Coburn. Since David has assumed the athletic director’s role, the collaborative spirit between the boosters and athletics has never been better. There is mutual respect between him and Andy Miller, our CEO, and that has set the tone for everyone. I can’t imagine going through the challenges of the past 12 months without David.”
The FSUAA has been actively trying to improve the experience for fans at games across multiple sports with new ticket packages, the Champions Club, which has been in place since 2016, and other events that have been held in the FSU facilities, such as Stadium Blitz with Dalvin Cook and Rob Gronkowski.
FSU sent out a survey this spring to see what fans are looking for when attending games. Nearly 6,000 fans responded to the survey.
The survey noted that 55% of the fans that responded travel more than 200 miles to attend games and that most are in interested in new experiences and ways to view the games while in Tallahassee.
“The survey was extremely valuable in understanding what our supporters want in the stadium moving forward,” Hulen said.
“If you look inside the bowl of Doak Campbell, It’s been pretty much the same experience. At least since I attended the university from 1994-1998. We’ve added the Champions Club and updated the boxes, but we know if you go to a Bucs game or Hard Rock Stadium down in Miami, a lot of people are kind of seeing and experiencing different things.”
“Once we get through the financial challenges of the pandemic, which are significant, we know that we need to make new investments in the game day experience. We need to figure out ways to make the stadium more comfortable, easier access for things like concession stands and restrooms, and make sure they have a good time while they’re in the stadium and visiting campus.
“Great things happen for FSU when our alumni step foot back on campus and fall in love with our university and athletics again.”
But multiple challenges stand in the way of growth.
The global coronavirus pandemic that has shut down sports across the world has thrown this year’s football season into question.
Hulen said that 33% of FSU’s operating budget comes from fan-related income including season tickets, donation, concessions, and merchandise. All of those would be greatly impacted by any changes to the football season.
Currently, FSU has sold 20,000 season tickets for the 2020 season under first-year coach Mike Norvell, according to FSU. While the renewal rate has been trending favorably (around 75 percent), that total is around 5,000 less than last season. However, there are season-ticket holders who have not renewed, indicating they want to wait on a final decision regarding the status of the season due to the pandemic.
There’s also the challenge of getting alumni to reinvest in the boosters.
Hulen stated that FSU has 362,000 alumni and that 50% of them are under the age of 45. Getting the younger generation of alumni to support is a key for the athletic department and Seminoles Boosters to build up its overall support and endowment like other major programs across the country that have a 50-plus year head start.
“One of the challenges for Seminole Boosters is how do we engage people in their early years of being alumni and get them to take the first step of supporting Florida State athletics and becoming a donor. Athletics is a big part of the experience for many students while they are in Tallahassee,” Hulen said.
“Traditionally, our annual fund has been focused on asking individuals to make a donation to get tickets, and that will always be a core part of our business. However, we are also asking all alumni and friends to support us by using electronic media to show how their gifts impact the lives of our 500 student-athletes. Telling how the student-athlete’s experience at FSU transforms their life.
“You may be in a phase of life where it is hard to get back for many games because of family commitments or geography, but it doesn’t mean you can support FSU athletics through Seminole Boosters. We are focused on growing our total number of donors and believe this is a group where we can connect and tell our story better.”
“I believe you’re going to see different things from Seminole Boosters in the years ahead, but our mission and purpose are going to remain the same, supporting the success of our student-athletes and helping our programs continue that championship tradition of Seminole athletics.”
This story originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat