Episode 23: Elliott Charles, Chicago State

Cody Junot     00:00

Welcome to the New Gameday powered by Nevco, changing the game in scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. And in this podcast series, we speak with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day as we get set to take on basketball, take the lessons we’ve learned from football, and move forward as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll discuss what the new game day’s gonna look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how athletic administrators are already adapting and changing to our new world. Our guest today is wrapping up his first year at the helm of the Chicago State Athletic Department. I’m pleased to be joined by the Cougars AD Elliott Charles. Elliott, thank you for taking the time. How’s everybody in the city of Chicago, how’s everybody in Chicago State?

Elliott Charles 00:58

We’re ripping and running. We’re trying our best, you know, we’ve been waiting for this 2020-21 season and everybody’s working really hard to maintain a safe environment. Really, really proud of our student athletes and coaches. We’ve been super creative in how we’ve maintained a good experience for the students.

Cody Junot     01:18

Yeah, everybody’s had to be creative throughout this whole time. And that’s something we’re gonna dive into a little bit deeper here today on our new game day podcast. And, I mentioned you’re wrapping up your first year, December will make roughly a year since  you were announced. And so coming in with a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas, things were probably going to change for your institution anyway, but let’s go back to March.

And you know, at that point being three months into the job and as a first time AD and just dealing with everything the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us right, but let’s go back to March when we really knew nothing. And I want to start with communication, and how your team was able to communicate with your student athletes, your coaches, but also your fans and keeping everybody alert with things as they were changing. Forget weekly or even daily, but sometimes hourly.

Elliott Charles 02:13

Yeah, we were already rethinking how we were going to communicate. We’re operating or we had been operating pretty slim margins, right. We were figuring out how to be really innovative over here. So it required intentional trickle down. Once we received notice through our leadership that there were public officials, public health officials, epidemiologists, scientists downstate getting involved with analyzing what was going on out there, we had to make some quick decisions. And we had to let our students and coaches understand that trust has to be something that develops immediately. And we have to say we have your best interests in hand and we’re going to need to make some really tough decisions that you’ve probably never seen or heard of before. And people stepped up big time. We had some bumps in the road with how everybody was willing to adjust. But again, we talked, we communicated. We sat down, we offered the space and time and the priority to say that talking about the next steps, whether it be sending students home, finding the resources, just commit to it. We weren’t trying to make a news headline. We were trying to service our student population. And we immediately committed resources and time to have those discussions immediately.

 Cody Junot     03:34

And that makes a lot of sense, right? You talked about building a trust coming in as a new administrator, your student athletes, probably not overwhelmingly familiar with you having probably, I would imagine, met you a handful of times leading up to that time. And so that’s one thing. The second part is keeping your fan base in the loop of what’s going on. And social media is by no means new. But a lot of folks have had to lean on that aspect of communications. What are some of the changes that you were probably already going to implement? But we’re maybe forced to implement a little bit quicker to get that message out?

 Elliott Charles 04:11

You know, Cody, we’re in Chicago. So communicating about a snowstorm, lake effect weather is complicated in its own right canceling a game and then people showing up to say, Oh, I finally came up to support the Cougars, but this event has been postponed as a challenge we were already facing. And so when we had to rethink how we went about communicating to the fan base, it just required us to be intentional. It required a standard approach to be made available. I had to hire the right people that I knew could communicate with the fans, the student athletes, the coaches, the donors, the constituents, everybody, right. So I needed to have the right people in place that we’re going to use the right tools and shout out to Teamworks. They helped us, we consulted with them, they helped us figure out ways in which we can be a little bit creative in our approach, but you know, really, it’s just been about making myself available. It’s been a little bit about sacrifice. Not to go on and on and on. But I’ve had to say, okay, kids, I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to put to bed a little early tonight, and I’m going to go downstairs and keep on talking to our former student athletes, our fans, my boss, it’s just been a commitment, you gotta gotta love it, you got to really be committed to, to meeting people where they are, and I was one to not turn it off anyways. And I was able to convince people who are crazy enough to come work with me to be committed in the same way.

Cody Junot     05:36

Commitment goes a long way. And it’s vitally important, especially in such a fragile time, considering what was happening with COVID. And going back to your earlier point of building that trust, you talked about pivoting and changing, how has COVID forced your athletic department to pivot and change from traditional ways that they were operating?

Elliott Charles 06:00

Well, I think for us, we were really big on the tactical, interpersonal approach, tight knit small athletic department, filling in for each other. Coaches helped other programs with practice needs or whatever. We have to take a step back and say, what does support look like from two or three degrees away. We couldn’t just say, hey, we’re operating as a small department, family environment and we’ll see you in the office. We have to take a step back and say, okay, how can we create these true virtual environments, not just check a box. We have to create a space and time that we would all commit to. And really, it’s just been about keeping a calendar. We have some really, really good young talent that has joined, that have helped us also think about how to communicate with a different generation or across generations. That’s the other piece; it’s not just about voluminous amounts of time. I think for me, in athletics, especially as an administrator, we tend to throw as much as possible at the wall; resource after resource after resource after resource until there’s none. Well, for me, I knew right away that my staff is small. So there had to be a moment when we thought about how we would approach it. And so if there was a space where I had to convince myself that text messaging, or redundant, written communication wasn’t going to be efficient, every Thursday at 10, I have to say, okay, let’s let’s do a pre- record. Let’s have a message built already. Let’s have Q&A with Qs pre-submitted. We just have to take a step back and re-engineer why we do what we do, and the volume of how we do it.

 Cody Junot 07:45

You talk about re-engineering, some folks have had to re-engineer the game day as basketball season is just around the corner. And every day we read about this team having a shutdown practice, or this team coming back from quarantine and games being in jeopardy, will we play? Before we get into that aspect, as you’ve had the opportunity to talk with some of your former colleagues, whether folks at Clemson, or people in the state of Chicago, let’s say Northwestern, for example, folks who have done football. What are some of the things that you are asking them about just the operational aspects of game day that maybe you had thought of? And maybe you hadn’t? 

Elliott Charles 08:36

What we first asked is are you available to have conversations? And what surprised me, and I don’t know if it’s just a benefit of being this year. I doubt it at this point, from the perspective I’ve gained. It’s people really want to make sure that they have a global perspective on how they’re moving forward. Right, things are less insular. And so the first thing we asked, are you available to have conversations? And what I’ve observed and I continue to observe this: contingencies, making decisions as a team, committee approach, having a first, second point of contact have been key to pulling off event ops at this point. I can’t say that there’s just one person responsible, right? I can’t say ultimately, I’m responsible. Everybody, every AD could say it. Like a point being, we’ve had to take a committee approach and commit to it.  And the question started off with how are you doing testing? How are you interpreting venue capacity rules? Did you see what the Event Alliance came out with for potential continuation of concerts? And do you think that that’s applicable to higher ed? Are we able to appoint a hygiene coordinator? Was that going to evolve to be part of the CDC and State Department of Health guidelines, right? Like there was this continuous…I was talking to people that work out of industry, and then I found ways to connect what they were talking about, about managing a lab or managing whatever maybe their business and insurance agency and we found little nuggets here and there that were helpful. I think the one thing we’ve also learned is that there is also a power in sharing records. We always try to streamline the types of records we make available. There’s nothing to hide, but at the same time, you don’t want to put every strategy out there. And so, we found that as we were drafting, there was value in running things by and the willingness to draft and be open and as we learned about COVID reporting and sharing data, there’s power in everyone feeling encouraged to share data. So contingencies and collaboration, that’s the theme. In fact that throughout seasons, contingencies and collaboration have been really big as far as we go with event planning and knock on wood, right? Because opening days a week away in basketball, so still working through it.

Cody Junot     10:51

Still working through it, and no doubt, there will be changes from game one to game to game 12, if we’re lucky enough to make it that far. Speaking of the game day and the game day experience, that’s certainly going to change. Part of that game day experience comes for your partners and sponsors and their activations in your venue. So how have you worked with your partners and sponsors, not only as you get set for basketball season, but even during the entire time of this pandemic going back almost nine months now?

Have you worked with your partners to ensure that your athletic department at Chicago State can still drive value for them?

 Elliott Charles 11:31

That’s your best question so far. I’ll tell you, I alluded to it a little earlier. Like, we really look to be creative in asking for input from our sponsors from our partners, suggestive things like what have you seen here at Chicago State that you think is low hanging fruit? Attendance has been a traditional challenge here. So in-venue services, marketing, brand activation in-venue, the world was our oyster; we had an opportunity to create whatever we wanted. And so as you actually said earlier, we’re just kind of continuing an approach that we started when I got here. I got some great advice from some really good colleagues and good friends at this point, coming in. It does things,and does simple things well because we want to improve the concept of our business here of athletics and servicing students. But after you do the simple things well, my thought was we can be ambitious.

And part of that ambition has led to Nike and VSN being incredible partners, incredible. Shouts out to all of them who work with us. So you know, and we’ve been able to make venue enhancements, like our floor. We have an LED table coming in. Small things that I  would have taken for granted in the past, that are really value add. And so the point being to answer your question, we’re tiered up. And we’re using this year as an incubating year. We were anyways, it was gonna be a test market to figure out how we can create a great in-venue experience. But for right now, the partners have done a great job in saying, okay, as you study this year, observe this type of data on the different in-venue services, concessions, how you run tickets, what would be a great sponsorship opportunity, decide   if you want to put a sponsorship opportunity out there for a company to partner with you. And then from there, target, target your numbers, build it, build what you want, and that’s kind of been our approach, we’ve had to be open minded.

Cody Junot     13:39

So that kind of leads into the next question, continuing with the theme of it was almost a blank slate right when you arrived at Chicago State nearly a year ago. So have there been new revenue opportunities, or at least it seems like maybe there will be after you kind of do some of this review, that have presented themselves as we’ve shifted things more to a digital type focus?

Elliott Charles 14:01

And so what’s floated to the top has been mostly philanthropic. We, not to give you a plug, but I think just to talk about the architecture of our opening day, we tied a philanthropic day to our season opening. We had a doubleheader going on. And we said, okay, well, what can we do that’s unique to actually set up our annual fund. And so we’ve seen interest, extreme interest actually, in people looking at a day of engagement associated with the start of basketball. And this virtual environment has helped us be in more than one room at once, right? I think anybody who likes to put their nose down to the grindstone and work hard would say, I wish I could duplicate myself. Well, I think when it comes to revenue opportunities, we’ve been able to sit in multiple rooms and engage multiple crowds at once. Our Nike engagement, our ticket approach. Any other partnership that we’ve been working on, have all been easier to plan for, as part of the pandemic. We’re still in proof of concept as it pertains to activation and figuring out where we’re going strategically. But we plan on really putting some good planning out there in the spring after we are observed this year.

Cody Junot     15:20

I think your point it’s observing, watching, making changes and pivoting in any direction, really taking this as a learning opportunity more than anything, and ADs joke all the time that there was no play in the playbook for this. And so it gives you the opportunity of the blank slate to kind of write things and see how things can work in this setting, and how you can build upon that when one day we return to hopefully a pre pre-pandemic normalcy.

The last thing for you here, as you’ve talked to fans, student athletes, constituents, your coaches, your staff, your family, you know, just what’s the one message that you’ve been driving home, as we as we get set to tip off a season with so many unknowns?

 

Elliott Charles 16:09

Stay the course. Evaluate why you’re in this, even for the students, the student experience is first, right? And then if you can get those things right, if you can stay the course and focus on the student experience, we have this awesome opportunity of athletics, and what’s athletics about? Athletics is about discipline. It’s about health. It’s about focus on building blocks in your career, right? Like, you don’t have to make this up. And so it’s calming the hysteria, being available, encouraging other people to be available, they have the strength to be a resource and say to the student athletes and staff, stay the course, remain committed, and understand why you’re doing this. Because it’s not gonna last forever. This constricted environment is not gonna last forever. History tells us whether it’s the pandemic or business. There’s recalibrations that happen. It has not happened during our lifetime. This is a great learning moment. And so I just try to be available. I try to be available regardless of the inconvenience. 

Cody Junot     17:11

Great advice, recalibration, and we’re gonna make it out to the other side. Elliott, I really do appreciate you taking the time. It sounds like you guys have some really exciting things happening at Chicago State and it’s an incredibly bright future. So again, we appreciate you taking the time to join us here on a New Game Day. 

Elliott Charles 17:28

All right, thank you and go Cougars.