Episode 13: Ed Kull, Fordham University

Cody Junot (00:00):
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game with scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. And in this podcast series, we’re talking with college athletic leaders and administrators about a new game day as we prepare for the return, eventually, of college athletics. We’re talking about what that new game could look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are already adjusting to our ever changing world. Our guest today has over 15 years of experience working in intercollegiate athletics. And in July of 2020 was named the interim director of collegiate athletics at Fordham University. I’m pleased to be joined by Ed Kull. Ed, Thanks for joining us this afternoon. How’s everybody at Fordham and how’s everybody in the city?

Ed Kull (00:45):
Cody, I appreciate it. Great to be with you. Great to join you and obviously a fan of your content and your information. So, excited to be with you today. Appreciate the question. It’s been an interesting ride here. As you know, the last few months in New York city was definitely the epicenter of this pandemic quite a while, but I’m definitely happy to report here as we start the second week of August that we’re preparing for a move-in of our students, preparing for some normalcy in return. And I think everybody is excited, whether it be the Fordham community or New York city and even our governor and mayor have talked about kind of plans to get their public school system back up and running here for September. So, we seem to be headed slowly but surely into the right direction.

Ed Kull (01:30):
You know, I think New York state for the most part has been contained obviously in terms of our numbers and heading in the right direction in terms of that decrease, which has been good. And it’s definitely a scary ride and I give my thoughts and love and prayers to all of our Fordham community and their loved ones who may have been impacted by this crazy disease. And every day we take extremely seriously the safe and health of our student athletes and want to make sure we get them all back safe as we can this week and we put a lot of time and effort into that process. So I’m hopeful and happy to start seeing us turn that corner.

Cody Junot (02:04):
It’s good news and probably refreshing for folks to hear that you’re going to welcome students as student athletes back to campus. Look, as we’ve seen since March information changes, you know, forget daily or hourly, but it’s minute by minute. And it seems that way over the last week and quite frankly, who knows what the future will hold here as we move forward and closer to what as of now, right, is at least a potential kickoff for football in some parts of the country, in particularly at the FBS level. You being a member of the Patriot league when it comes to football and A-10 for everything else, you guys have already decided to sit this season out. But with that being said, that’s a lot of information coming at you. And then, you’ve got to turn around and get that out to your constituents, your coaches, your student athletes. So throughout this pandemic, how has your team messaged your fans, your constituents, your student athletes as new information has come in and as the environment has changed?

Ed Kull (03:08):
Yeah, absolutely tremendous question and a huge part and probably a huge learning experience during this pandemic is how do we communicate? How we communicate better? I speak a lot about over communication is not enough communication because as you put it hour by hour, information is changing. So how do we continue to over-communicate to make sure everybody is comfortable And as we’ve done externally to our alumni and our parents and our constituents throughout New York City and the community. Of course we’ve utilized our digital platforms, utilize social media, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s become a lot of efforts like this Cody where it’s, whether it be the virtual platforms of zoom or meetings. Done a ton of amount of town halls in terms of Q&A to allow our constituents to ask questions and get information. It’s been a lot of video and the reason I really preferred video to be honest with you Cody is doing this virtually from home for a lot of folks during the stretch. Email’s great and letters are nice, but actually seeing somebody, hearing their voice, hearing authenticity and genuine comments and hearing transparent views are essential; essential mentally, physically, and emotionally during this period of time. And that’s our student athletes, our coaches, that’s our administrators, that’s our internal community, as well as our fans, our alumni and our incredible supporters.

Cody Junot (04:26):
The mental health aspect part of things and the ability to see each other like you and I can see each other right now and how it just helps. It makes us come, I think, come together a little bit closer and feel that connectivity that we’ve been missing for so many months. And so, you talk about the video aspect and messaging and social media, how have those things evolved inside your athletic department here over the past five to six months, as we’ve had to adjust on the fly?

Ed Kull (04:53):
It’s evolved very nicely, and I think it’s been more of the shift in focus, Cody, a shift in resources where our marketing department, even our coaching staff, even our student athletes, getting them involved and engaged in the outreach. It’s been, of course, creative with social media and doing, you know, best of the Rams contest and putting, you know, championship teams versus championship teams, let everybody argue and debate and vote. It’s been trivia contests. It’s been TikTok videos. It’s been just interactive ways of getting of course sponsors and getting partners involved, but honestly getting the whole campus involved. It’s been a real true example of collaboration where working closely with the university marketing communications, working closely with university alumni relations group, each team kind of honoring their seniors, honoring first responders. Obviously, fighting our challenge and our battles versus racism and discrimination and social injustice and allowing our student athletes to kind of take over some of our social media platforms in that efforts and being are genuine and true voice in developing of that plan, that action plan.

Ed Kull (06:02):
It’s been the video piece that we talk about in terms of checking in on student athletes at home and allowing them to tell us how they’re doing and how coach is doing and how they’re keeping their sanity for lack of better term, to be honest with you, during this stretch and that’s been important. And that’s how we, honestly, it’s how we, even from a managerial style of meetings and listening. It’s been important, but I’ll be honest with you, Cody, in terms of dealing with our, whether it be our… I’m a fundraiser at heart, and I’m a revenue generator at heart, but dealing with our donors and our shareholders and our investors is I call that our season ticket holders, I’ve actually had tremendous success these five months on the phone, Cody. It’s almost like the lost art of the phone call has come back to my life where people are home, they were bored, they were stressed.

Ed Kull (06:51):
So people that maybe have been challenging to get on the phone in the past because they knew I was calling for a fundraising dollar or to bother them to support the program more, they gave me an hour of their time and they gave me their feedback and they gave me their views, and as a new athletic director that listening tour is essential to me. So it’s been real valuable information in terms of hearing their thoughts, getting their feedback. I’m very much in the process of a strategic plan, a facilities plan. And I’ll be honest with you, a little bit of a silver lining of this crazy pandemic has been the opportunity to do a real strong self evaluation, self awareness of our program.

Cody Junot (07:25):
Well, let’s talk about that. And you specifically, again, taking over in July as the interim director of intercollegiate athletics there at Fordham and having to go through this pandemic, right? There’s no playbook for this, but you know, learning on the fly. So to say of, you know, not just leading an athletic department, right, as, as the man in charge, but having to do it amidst the pandemic. How much has this opportunity afforded you the ability to learn and handle some situations that you probably otherwise would not have?

Ed Kull (07:58):
Yeah, I think you’re spot on. You know, the timing and I joke with our retired athletic director that just left office, ‘What a perfect time to retire and leave the industry,’ and I joke with him, but obviously I wish him the best after an incredible 50-year career, and congratulations to Dave Roach. It’s been all the above. And I think you spoke earlier about communication. Communication has been everything for me in this transition in this role; not only in terms of a reopening plan, not only in terms of a COVID testing strategy, not only in terms of suspension and working with our conferences and other ADs for the fall sports and the unfortunate cancellation of the spring sports, it’s been essential in terms of building relationships with my team, my staff, my senior administration. So it’s been, ‘Hey,’ checking in on a daily basis, ‘How’s your family? Who has a positive test? Who’s sick?’ Getting to know them personally. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been at Fordham a few years, so I’m not brand new to anybody. So at least, even though it’s been a virtual management style for the most part, it’s been helpful, but that ability to communicate and connect with everybody on a personal level, get their feedback on what they’d like to see change with the athletic department where they see challenges on top of these unchartered waters of the pandemic. Obviously, financial concerns, in terms as you manage and look at your budget. How do you reprioritize your financial resources? The challenges I said earlier about social injustice that we’ve been dealing with, continue to deal with. And the same with even career development. You talk about mental health has been a major focus for us these five months. Our aggressive, very active student athletes being home for five months. How are they handling being home and not be able to run while they have practice and their normal routine? We check in with them constantly from a mental health standpoint. And of course the leadership and career services and academic pieces, all the questions that are in play during these challenging times, but it’s been over communication. Constantly on the phone, constantly doing zoom meetings or team meetings. It’s constantly making sure we’re trying to identify every and all angle and every and all situations. And there is no playbook. So it’s learning on the fly, but it’s trusting and delegating and listening as much as possible.

Cody Junot (10:17):
Learning on the fly and revenue generation. You mentioned you’re a fundraiser at heart. And so we’re going to talk here about revenue generation in a second. But before we do that, let’s look at the game day piece of it. You know, here we are in August where you’re a member of both the Patriot league and the A-10 as we said. And so you’ve got no fall sports going on with either league, but we do have basketball as far as we know, as far as we sit here today. Now that could change by tomorrow, but how have you guys started looking at the game day experience itself and what could be different and how you can incorporate maybe some of the new found use of social media, but what are some of the aspects of the game day that you’re looking at that you may have to change, but how your team can continue to create that rowdy environment?

Ed Kull (11:10):
I think the game day experience and the engagement of fans and alumni and supporters is essential. Essential, yes, in terms of the return of collegiate athletics, specifically your basketball example, which I know we all want to see hoops come back in November of this year, and that’s important, especially with what took place in March and the disappointment of how that postseason got canceled and missed upon and what that means to the overall landscape of collegiate athletics around this country is essential. I think we’ve done a lot of incredible steps in terms of outreach, personalizing the outreach, connecting with folks kind of getting their, their thoughts and views of what’s important for them. I think we’ve integrated outreach of coaches, more Cody, right? As much as you know, I love what I do. I love my job. I love my university. Our fans don’t want to hear from necessarily from me all the time they want to hear from the coaches, how are we looking in terms of the season? How is development of our talent and our players? The actual student athletes themselves. How are they doing? How are they dealing? We’ve gotten alumni more active involved in terms of talking about their love of Fordham and their experiences post-collegiate athletics and in their current careers now. Trying to almost make it a more of a highlight of the full experience, not just obviously the on-court time that’s so important, especially as we take a step back here with no competition. I think it’s imperative that we continue to connect and get young fans back. I think, you know, we’re sitting here at a time where there is no fans with basketball, hockey, or baseball, and New York City is a pro town, Cody. We’re very much in the heart of a major city and a pro town. So we need to continue to grassroots efforts. As much as I love technology, I love social media, I love media, for us, it’s very much continuing to identify young fans, future Fordham students, future Fordham Rams and get them interested involved in the games. So I think that grassroots piece does not leave us. And how do we make that fun and engaging for them that they continue to stay, whether it be connected with us on social media or coming to games when we’re allowed and get back to do that. I think at the heart of it, the mission and direction still stays at your core values of the one to one connection. And I might be old school, but you heard me talking about the phone conversations before donors and season ticket holders. It’s the same in terms of establishing genuine relationships where people feel like we absolutely care for them. And I’m not saying that professional sports doesn’t have that, but that’s the beauty of college athletics is the amateur love and connection. We can’t lose sight of that. We need to focus and harp on that. Whether that be social, digital, ,,virtual, but this connection here, this talking, has to continue. I genuinely love our alums, they love Fordham, and we need to continue to really promote that and celebrate that.

Cody Junot (13:56):
No, you’re right. There’s something unique and that’s what makes college athletics so unique is that connection between fans and alumni because they are alums of that institution. And you can be a fan of a pro franchise, but you didn’t go there. You didn’t likely either play there or spend money to go to that pro franchise. Speaking of money and being a fundraiser… Revenue, right. Revenue is always important, whether we are in the midst of unprecedented times as we are here today, or it’s as normal of a, setting as it can be, right? Revenue is King, especially in intercollegiate athletics as you look to fund your programs. So with that being said, there are obviously plenty of revenue challenges, NCAA distribution was cut severely, again, what’s going to happen with the fall and into spring and winter sports? When it comes to revenue generation inside of a new game day, what are the new opportunities that you’re going to look at? I think the on-court presentation is gone and maybe it goes away for good, but what are some of the ways that you and your team are working to create revenue opportunities for your partners?

Ed Kull (15:09):
Some of the ways have been, of course, the creativity of utilizing sponsors and partners in our social media efforts, in our video efforts, in our town halls, in our alumni events, in our coaches sharing efforts in terms of the creation of content, creating new content and fun content. Looking at all the technology bases that obviously taking place inside of an arena and a gymnasium, in terms of LED. And as you put it, the mobile use, the mobile engagement, how do we get fans, sweepstakes, promotions, and giveaways, and try to obviously entice any way we can? You know, but I’ll be honest with you, Cody, and I have a little bit of a brand experience in my life, as well, it’s been sitting down, you know, whether it be with Learfield IMG, our partner in terms of our inventory, but also understanding what are the needs from the brand and the sponsor side?

Ed Kull (16:01):
So can we utilize and leverage a certain part of New York City or certain percentage of our 100,000+ alumni database, or was it a certain demographic that the audience is trying to speak to, whether it be college age, whether it be a certain industry or specific field within our schools and study? Try to really connect the partner to the other assets throughout the university, as well. So we are obviously in the heart of New York City. We’re a top-50 academic institution. Is there research we can help provide? Is their brand information? Is there alumni we could help direct? Is it a social media survey, content, data analytics that we can help provide to a partner, or is it direct B2B sales where we actually could help them from that stance, whether it be insurance, car sales, sneakers, health care, right now, the importance of healthcare, how do we actually connect the partner specifically with the other assets that the university currently has? And we have wonderful campuses in Manhattan, as well as the Bronx and in Westchester, how do we help the partner on the court, of course, in terms of athletics and the marketing value, but also the brand collaboration and partnership at university of learning from the other opportunities and avenues? The true collaboration, true partnership, to me, is essential in establishing and creating new marketing values and premiums for the partnerships.

Cody Junot (17:33):
Yeah, it’s going to be fascinating to watch that unfold as we move forward here in 2020 and in into 2021. Lastly, we mentioned since July you’ve served as the interim director of athletics. We’ve talked about how your messaging and how your team is messaging and we’ve about the fact that you’ve been meeting with donors, whether it’s through zoom or using the old fashioned app on that cell phone, the one that actually dials out. But what’s the one message that you’re constantly driving home when you are indeed talking to those folks?

Ed Kull (18:02):
You know, when I’m talking to those folks, it is really continuing to address the whole experience. It’s almost a common thread in our conversation here today, where, you know, even for whether it be companies you’re trying to and sponsors we’re trying to work with, whether it be student athletes who we are trying to recruit, whether it be, of course, coaches and interaction with our current student athletes trying to get through these challenging times of the pandemic, it’s how do we continue to help develop leadership skills? How do we continue to develop careers and job opportunities, post-athletics? We all love sports. We all want to see our kids win championships and have every opportunity post-collegiate athletics, but are we preparing them appropriately with the alumni network, an internship and a job opportunity, and the same with the corporate partners we’re doing business with?

Ed Kull (18:52):
Are they able to help us even more than just writing a check? So it’s the ability to identify and find opportunities that are true collaboration that are true partnerships that give the 360 and the holistic approach to our student athletes, to our athletic department. Do they have the same causes were passionate about in terms of our fight against social injustice? Other opportunities that help the mental health aspect of our student athletes? Are we helping our community? Are we true partners in New York City and the Bronx? Things that we’re trying to evolve and do more in that are really important for us that is creating the full well-rounded individual and the future leader in any of their business and industry of pursuit. And I think it’s trying to maintain that perspective, and it could be a little bit of the pandemic cold, cold water, Cody, where putting things in perspective. We’re all bummed, no collegiate athletics, but what else is our responsibility? My responsibility are to these student athletes. What else are we doing to help them as individuals and their families and their future families? It’s a little bit of almost maybe necessary cold water and a little bit of a silver lining of are our priorities lined up accordingly in the best means to help these young adults and to help the institution long term and to help our athletic department long term, whether that be financially, whether that be, obviously, a strategy and efforts, and as well as our planning and facility needs?

Cody Junot (20:18):
I think that’s spot on remembering the long term goals of intercollegiate athletics as we try to just stay in this current environment day-by-day, minute-by-minute, as things change. And we hopefully can get back to some sense of normalcy sooner rather than later. Ed, really appreciate you taking the time here and joining us on ‘A New Game Day’ this morning. It’s been a pleasure to listen to.

Ed Kull (20:41):
My pleasure, Cody. Again, appreciate you having me on. Anytime and again, a huge fan of what you’re doing and the great efforts, the great work you put together.