Episode 24: Joe Parker, Colorado State

Cody Junot 00:15

Welcome to a New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game in scoreboards, video displays, and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. In this podcast series, we talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day as we now transition from football into basketball. Talk about what that new game day is going to look like, what it feels like, and how athletic administrators are making the change from football to basketball season. Our guest today is in his sixth year leading the athletic department at Colorado State. I’m pleased to be joined today by Rams athletic director Joe Parker. Joe, thanks for taking the time here today. How’s everybody in Fort Collins?

Joe Parker 00:54

Cody, appreciate the opportunity to be with you today. People are well here in Fort Collins, we’ve had a good fall semester. You know, our students now have kind of flipped to virtual learning for the final three weeks. But now we’ve been trying to stay focused like everyone else and find the best strategies to kind of move ourselves forward.

Cody Junot 01:15

Yeah, transitioning, you’re kind of in that in-between time you still got football going on, heading into the basketball season, just recently extended your head basketball coach, but I want to go back, believe it or not, nine months ago, when we were kind of thrown into this new world. And while yes, the virus had been around before that, I think everybody goes back to that that Jazz-Thunder game. And shortly thereafter, the Ivy League’s decision and ultimately the NCAA tournament was canceled. And so if you can take me back to that time, and just the communication process, and how you really had to pivot almost immediately in the way in which you were communicating with your fans, your student-athletes, coaches, just to keep everyone aware of what was happening as things were changing, you know, forget daily, but really hourly.

Joe Parker 02:05

Yeah, that’s true. So March 18, I think, was the day that we left campus. And a little before that was when everything shut down I think on the sports side with the NCAA moving away from spring sports and spring championships. We had a softball team that was in route to DIA – Denver International Airport – to fly out west for a conference game. So it just an unusual time, obviously, for every one of us. You know, when we made that decision to dial down and, you know, kind of go into safer home mode, as it was described here in Colorado by our governor, we tried to stay in touch with our students. We still had time remaining on the spring semesters so the first thing that we really got focused on was ensuring that our students made the smooth transition to virtual learning. You know, some of them went home where internet connections weren’t as solid as they would have been here in town. So it was a lot of triage effort on the part of our academic staff just to make sure that students had connectivity to continue with their classwork, and that became our focus. Just that students finished the year healthy academically, that they didn’t do any self-harm to themselves in that space so that was a strong partnership between our student-athlete support services staff and our coaches. Constant communication kind of creating that triangle between student, coach, and academic counselors. We had great outcomes, so we had good success there. And then, once we got through the semester, it was starting to understand what we were going to be permitted to do and when, and the university formed what they refer to and still do as the Pandemic Preparedness Team, the PPT, which is a pretty diverse, broad group of professionals across the institution and the core group that we liaison now on a weekly basis and have been doing so since probably late April, early May, is three individuals. One that manages public health here on campus, the other manages our CSU Health Network, and then the other is just a really strong sound decision-maker who kind of inserts a lot of common sense and gives good direction to people and that’s a valuable skill set right now; someone that can kind of parse through all of the data trying to intertwine that with the realities of our lives and come up with a solution that allows you to kind of move forward. But we began to return to campus in early June. Started with the football program, and that was plans that we put in place. Our Senior Associate AD for health and performance and a great resource for us, we’ve got great partnerships in the community for health care for our student-athletes with OCR, which is the Orthopedic Center of the Rockies, they provide orthopedic care, and also our primary care to our student-athletes. And then UC health has been a long time, close to 30-year partner plus with the institution and athletics and, we got a direct pipeline to their executive leadership, and they’ve been tremendous. They helped us put together our first testing program for COVID. And we’re able to do that on site. So, as we brought students back to campus, you know, we did a intake COVID test, a PCR and a pretty in-depth screening, you know, more detailed than our traditional annual physicals. And when we got a negative result back on the COVID test, and we’d finish that health screening, then a student was cleared to begin voluntary activities on campus. And we’re really lucky. So as I mentioned, football was the first comeback and our strength conditioning staff got very creative, you know, all the data said that transmission was was less likely if you’re outdoors, open air, and we’re fortunate that we’ve got Canvas Stadium, which is a brand new, well, three-year old now facility, but just the design of the building was a big, huge advantage for us. We moved all of our weight equipment up to the covered car courses. So they’re open air, vast volume, a lot of air movement, and they designed a pathway for students to get into the stadium, get up to the concourse level, do their lifting sessions, move back down to the field level space out, do their cardio work on the field, and walk out and they were never within probably 12 feet of anyone. So it was a good design, a good plan. And that kind of helped us sort of build the template for the other programs. And so I think volleyball was the next comeback. You know, we got men and women’s basketball back on campus. And so that that was in July. And then, Cody, I’m sure, as you’ve talked to others, we did a really good job of managing the time that the students spend with us under our supervision, but they’re 18 to 20 to 23 years old, and they’ve got a lot of other interests, especially on the social aspects of their lives. And so that’s where we recognized in the summer that was going to be our challenge through the summer and through the fall that just trying to get them to understand the responsibility they had to themselves and each other as it related to trying to do the right thing to minimize exposure to the virus and, you know, possible transmission of the virus. So we found almost in every case, we did contact tracing, it was the choices they were making outside, time with us that was leading to the risk they’re
creating for themselves and others.

Cody Junot 07:54

It sounds like, as you point like many others, quickly pivoted, and the educational piece, right? I don’t know that there’s ever been a stronger bond between student-athletes, coaches, and academic support team than we saw back in March to finish out the semester and then continue that into the fall in some places who, unlike you yourself saying 70% of your classes were in person, a lot of folks we’re still doing a lot of virtual work. How did you keep your fans align of what’s going on? And you know, because just like I think everybody else, your fans, donors, were just as curious as to are we going to play? Are we not going to play? But was there a certain method that you and your communications team took to ensure that you were communicating with them, and then also keeping them engaged and entertained throughout the summer months, as there were plenty of questions about if we would, in fact, return to play?

Joe Parker 08:50

Yeah, we’re lucky here at CSU, we’ve got a group of really talented people across the entire department, but our external operations which you know, would be inclusive of tickets and Broadcast Services, and communications and our social media professionals and our development team. They’ve always worked in a very coordinated, strategic effort to kind of keep all the initiatives that they’re involved with working in a cohesive manner.
So we really had to step back a little bit and think about, you know, that engagement aspect of keeping people connected to us without being able to gather in place. That’s what’s been so challenging is as you know, everyone knows, our business model is bringing people to campus and hosting in large numbers and that wasn’t permissible. So we started to think about what we could do and we got a strong rhythm of virtual meetings, you know, large group, small group, Town Hall formats, you know, more intimate, happy hours, and I tried to utilize all of our coaching personalities to give people access and you know, get that inside the locker room feel as to what the coaches and the students were going through at different time periods through the summer. So that became a big part of what we were doing. Our team also was able to pull some of our greatest games out of the archives and do some really nice streaming opportunities to gather Rams in that space, and we partnered with the Alumni Association to kind of build those crowds so to speak to larger numbers, and then each of our coaches did a really nice job in coordinating and working with our development staff on their Booster Club initiatives. And similar to what I’d said before about small gatherings and town hall meetings, they got really engaged and active. I think about our men’s golf program. So, Steve Sands, who’s one of the key broadcasters for the Golf Channel, he’s an alum for us, he’s in Orlando, loves everything about being a ram. And so our development team worked to ask Steve to host some of our happy hours for the golf Booster Club, which is Ram Masters, and they were well attended, very entertaining. Steve was able to talk about his own professional life, but also, you know, he knows, you know, obviously very knowledgeable about golf, but also loves the golf team here. So it was those sorts of things that we just tried to think of as many ways as possible to keep our fans engaged. All, of course, through the summer with the expectation that we’re going to be able to do some level of hosting. And as things got closer to the start of the season and the things that the Mountain West had done as it related to pushing football in the spring, and then bringing it back into the fall and the ultimate decision by public health officials in the state to not allow us to host. That’s been a challenge from a business model perspective and to keep fans active and engaged. So we’re relying heavily on social media platforms, and just one on one points of contact via the phone and to some extent just the informative correspondences sent out on a routine basis.

Cody Junot 12:25

Yeah, and as you’ve been able to transition into play into football, and now getting set for basketball, just from a purely operational standpoint of having two teams come in and all of the cautions that are dealt with, and the personnel that are there, and whether you have fans or you don’t, what are some of the lessons that you thought you knew heading into football season, that you then maybe had to change from week one to week two, that you are A.) were going to be able to carry over in the basketball, but also maybe some of the things that you’re going to have to do differently, just simply because it’s indoors, it’s a smaller venue quarters are closer?

Joe Parker 13:03

Yeah, football was a great training ground for us so we looked at how to manage that, and then try to modify that, as you said. Now we’re moving into the arena space, and it’s smaller, and it’s indoors. And, you know, you don’t have the advantage of open-air and the air movement you get in an outdoor venue. You don’t have the advantage of UV ray helping to knock down and inhibit the viral spread. Probably our greatest challenge in football, and then also in both the basketball programs was just the availability of people that have historically helped us conduct a game day. A lot of those folks, at least in our market, have been volunteers, people that have time available. Those are typically retirees, so that puts them in an age demographic that is higher risk, and so they had to make choices. And many of them made the absolute right choice that, you know, this is a year that they should just kind of pause and sit on the sidelines and not be actively involved with us. So our facility staff led by Doug Max, they had to go out and find new people, and train those people and make sure that they were comfortable with the management of all the systems that operate a game day, whether it be the timing and scoring systems and know what to do when a referee comes to them. And so it was a bit of a ground zero, you know, build from the bottom up. But that was probably the biggest challenge for us was just taking an inventory of the available personnel and then identifying folks that had some interest, whether it be people on our staff or others in the community and find a population that felt that they were willing to assume some level of risk knowing that they were helping us conduct game day. So our red hat for football is one of our young development people Cam Link. So it has been an all hands on deck, everyone steps forward and does what they can to help. And we’re finding the same thing occurring in basketball. We’ve hosted two games on the women’s side for basketball, our men’s team has been in pause. They’re about ready to come out of quarantine this week so we’re looking forward to getting them going.

Cody Junot 15:36

Yeah, I think all hands on deck is the best way to describe what’s really been the last nine months or so across the country, you just be thankful that we’re able to play, find a way to get it done, and relying on really everybody inside your athletic department. Along those lines, certain revenue opportunities have disappeared because of ticket sales, and maybe concessions and things look differently. But I have to imagine that there also have been some revenue opportunities, maybe more in the digital space that have come along with our new game day. How have you guys worked with your partners in maybe developing some of those new revenue opportunities so that you have an opportunity to fulfill for them, and they can continue to show support to Colorado State and the athletic Department?

Joe Parker 16:28

Yeah, the setup to your question, I don’t think you could put the most talented Hollywood writers in a room for two weeks and come up with something like a global pandemic that has had this much impact and disruption to college athletics. You know, our business model, as we’ve already discussed, is to gather people in place, and so that that was taken away from us. So how have we adapted? On the donor side, you know, like many other schools, we immediately got on the phones and had our teams calling our development team and some of our other external staff doing direct outreach and engaging with our fans to get them to understand the challenges that we are going to be facing, and either convert their commitment for this academic year in a full outright gift, if it was ticket associated or at least keep it in the bank, so to speak, so that we could have those funds in place. So we did really well with that. I think we were able to secure more than $4 million, that we were able to kind of keep retained. We had a few people that did in fact ask for refunds. And certainly, those folks are probably dealing with challenging economic circumstances themselves. But our multimedia rights partnership is with Learfield IMG college, which probably is most people in the division one FBS space for certain. And our local team just does a marvelous job. They’ve got great relationships with our sponsors. So they got on it right away as soon as we realized that the year was going to be compromised. Even back in March and April, they started prepping those conversations to make sure that if the businesses that have been involved with us would be able to stay engaged, of course, they had to modify the deliverables. We created inventory, when we could and where we could. We added a new weekly radio show. We’ve done a lot of, as I talked about, things online that became sponsorible elements for our supporting partners. And so through all those conversations and the creativity of that team, coupled with ou own internal team, Chris Farris and his staff, you know, we were able to come up with really great substitutable inventory that kind of moved us away from what would have been deliverables on a game day. And we haven’t lost the radio broadcasts. we’ve had three game cancellations, but you know, for the games that we play, that’s inventory that’s still in place. We’re still operating the LED signage in the stadium. We found new locations that would be camera visible for network broadcast and just worked hard to kind of put all those things in place. We’ve had to make some compromises and some concessions and we aren’t going to see our full rights fee from our partners, but that’s what partnerships are about. We’ve been in constant dialogue with not only the local team but the Learfield folks and playing out to make sure that we’re honoring the relationship that we’ve shared
with them for years and years to come.

Cody Junot 19:51

That’s great to hear. It’s all about partnerships right on both sides working together. Joe, the last one for you here. Just quite simply we’ve talked about how you communicated, and some of the new revenue opportunities and how your team’s adapted to our new surroundings. But just what’s the one message that you’ve been driving home, whether it’s
to the coaches or student-athletes or the fans, as we got set for football, and now as we get ready for basketball, and `hopefully much brighter 2021?

Joe Parker 20:21

I settled in on this message early. One, we’re gonna have to accept that it’s a year that’s compromised in every way; just so much disruption, we have to get comfortable within the ambiguity. And be adaptable because change, as you’d mentioned before, comes in some cases nearly hourly. So you just have to get really at ease with that discomfort that that creates, and the message beyond that, for me, whether I projected it to staff or students or external stakeholder groups is, we just got to build the right strategy to get to the other side of this. We want to make sure that we don’t do irreparable self harm to the department, to our ability to compete. The finish line is somewhere, right? Probably in 2021. Hopefully, late spring, early summer. We can feel like we’ve clawed our way back to more normal operations. And at that moment in time, we want to be able to look back and recognize that we’ve kept talent in place, we’ve protected the security of our rosters that students hadn’t made the decision to elect to transfer. We wanted to create an experience that allowed students to develop in every dimension of the life of a student athlete through this year, so that that’s been the message. Let’s link arms, let’s make sure that we move to the other side of this in the healthiest way possible, bringing as many people forward as we possibly can.

Cody Junot 22:03

Well said. Joe Parker, appreciate you taking the time to join us here on a new game day.