Inside the Bear Backers' new plan

Facing a need to address the financial realities of a successful athletic department, a desire to lessen its dependence on the University, and a goal of making their system technologically compatible with the ticketing software, the University of California's Athletic Department recently unveiled major changes to its benefit program.

The Office of Athletic Development (aka "Bear Backers") sent out a mailer to its donors in mid-August that addressed some of the modifications.The new plan is the culmination of a project that's been a couple of years in development.

The Bear Insider had the chance to meet with Assistant Athletic Direcor Ivy Clift and Nick Parsons of Bear Backers for an in-depth discussion about the work that went into formulating the new plan and how it will work.

Successful athletic department

As Cal athletics increasingly succeeds at different sports, expenses rise, the cost of getting top coaches gets higher and higher, and financial demands increase. While the success of the football team has certainly helped, in an atmosphere where other teams are hiring coaches, renovating their facilities and increasing their student-athlete support, Cal's challenge is to address needs and plan ahead without always being put in a defensive position.

"Sandy Barbour has done a great job with the department," said Clift, "If you look at the team performance, the academic performance, how we've done with Title IX, how we're doing financially, and what we're doing to keep down costs, the total package of what we're spending is not out of whack."

According to information from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2005-2006 school year, Cal is ranked 3rd in the Pac-10 in overall athletic department expenses while having more student-athletes than any other conference school. While UCLA spent about $700,000 less than the Bears, they were also supporting nearly 250 less student-athletes.

Pac-10 Athletic Department Expenses
University Expenses Student-Athletes
USC $65,434,851 651
Stanford $60,661,734 858
California $52,740,344 906
UCLA $52,049,868 658
Washington $49,011,005 656
Arizona State $46,557,927 531
Oregon $44,630,162 408
Arizona $38,444,312 423
Oregon State $37,948,013 523
Washington State $27,219,252 453
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education

Reliance on the University

Very few Division I athletic programs are in a position where they receive no financial support from their university. While Cal's athletic department still gets some money from the university, the goal is to lessen this reliance during the next few years with the goal of eventually becoming entirely self-sufficient.

While some universities have difficult relationships with the athletic department, the relationship at Cal has improved in recent years.

"Under [Sandy's] leadership, the department has been able to negotiate intelligently with the university," said Clift. "We can tell them what something costs, what we'll need, and we can make a rational decision. We don't want the athletic department to be a burden on the university. We want to be a good team member, and the goal we're working toward is to cut the campus subsidy to athletic department by a total of $5 million over the next five years."

To reduce the campus outlay, the Athletic Department has taken a number of steps.

"We've signed a new merchandising deal with [The Collegiate Licensing Company], we're improving our corporate contracts through ISP, we're seeing increases in ticket and TV revenue - and we're working to increase our donations," said Clift.

The need to reorganize

Each year, the Office of Athletic Development receives phone calls from fans who have donor seats who are upset that they're sitting next to people who have contributed a lot less for their seats. Part of this has to do with a donor system that was instituted in the early 1970s when Cal football wasn't having much success, when demand for tickets was low, and the administration was trying to find ways to increase attendance.

"We're feeling the crunch of a growth pattern of a system that was put in place back in the 1970s when we didn't have nearly the demand that we currently have," said Parsons. "The (old) system doesn't fit where we are now or where would like to be."

One method adopted under the old system was to let donors purchase blocks of tickets in good seat locations. Whether the donors gave the seats away to friends and family members or were reimbursed for them didn't matter to the athletic department, so long as the seats were sold.

Even as donor levels rose over the years, the donation revenue per seat could vary considerably depending on how much a donor gave and how many seats were purchased. Cal Football has never had a formal point system that would allow Bear Backers to allocate benefits fairly when multiple donors at the same level wanted the same seats or parking privileges.

When Cal's Big Game allotment at Stanford was reduced to 15,011, it posed a huge problem in how to allot tickets. Whereas in past years, Cal could easily fill their half of Stanford Stadium and pick up unsold Stanford tickets without too much difficulty, Stanford's new stadium's smaller capacity meant that there would be many fewer tickets for Golden Bear fans.

The athletic department opted to establish priority levels based on Bear Backer status, with each donor having the chance to buy a certain number of tickets. While any method was going to be met with some disagreement, this appeared to be the most equitable method. However, donors who bought big blocks of tickets found that they weren't able to buy an equivalent block of Big Game tickets, and ticketholders who had bought tickets as part of a block now found themselves with no priority standing as they weren't registered with Bear Backers as a donor or a season ticket holder.

With an eye towards developing a system that was easier to maintain, more equitable, and more in line with what other universities were doing, the decision was made to overhaul Bear Backers' system of keeping track of donors.

Finding a solution

In addition to looking at internal systems, the Development Office researched how other Pac-10 schools handled donors and priority seating, as well as other top schools. Parsons, who had experience working with Michigan when they began moving to a per-seat donation system, headed up the research. Additionally, the development office worked with about a dozen donors to get their input about the range of factors that would go into shaping the final system.

"Nick, (former Senior Associate Athletic Director) Jim (Bartko), Susie (Homer) and I looked internally and what we were doing and what other people were doing," said Clift. "We looked at the current tickets in the various donor sections and looked to see how things would be affected. Nick evaluated the Pac-10, Michigan, Tennessee, and most of the other top schools to see what they were doing."

In addition, they drew upon the experience of Homer and Diana Fogg to provide insight from what the Bear Backers have done in the past and were able to share what the key questions and concerns have been over the years.

While identical comparisons couldn't be made because some sites offered premier levels of seating, such as club level seating or luxury boxes, it was clear that schools all used a per-seat donation system for their preferred seating.

The two-fold challenge then became to find a way to structure a system that would meet the department's revenue objectives - and one where the changes in the pricing structure would be as equitable as possible and not affect just a small subset of donors.

Part of the process included talking with a small group of Bear Backers to explain what the issues were, what steps had to be taken, as well as getting their input on a range of possible solutions.

"We had a group analytical [exercise] that looked at everything," said Parsons. "We brought in people that we have a nice relationship as well as people who wouldn't hesitate to call us out if we were making a mistake. Whether it was through the phone or through a meeting, we talked about why we needed to go a certain direction, how we planned on stabilizing things, and what we've learned from the University about where we want to be. We wanted to let them know that we were rethinking benefits and different ways we were re-assigning benefits."

"Our goal wasn't to have the same people give more; we want to expand the pool and increase our number of donors, and a piece of that (can be accomplished) through per seat donations," said Clift. "By switching to this method we can also do real modeling and develop a more stable revenue base."

The proposed solution

After exploring numerous options, including re-seating all of Memorial Stadium, the department recognized that an important factor was that fans who attend games have become familiar with those sitting around them, and thus, every effort needed to be made to keep those people together.

As a result, people who currently sit in certain seats will have the opportunity to keep those seats if they meet the donor level for their section. Donors who buy blocks of tickets will have the option of keeping the seats under their name if they want to pay the cummulative annual per-seat donation, or transferring their points to other people if they want to pass the costs of the annual per-seat donation plan to thems.

Seat donations will count towards Bear Backer status.

Additionally: a) giving levels will increase for 2007-2008, b) there will be two new donor sections at Memorial Stadium, and c) seat donations for football and men's basketball can (must) be directed to an annual fund of the donor's choice.

Still, there are only a certain number of seats between the 40-yard lines, so a donation can't be a guarantee of getting a seat in a particular section.

So, seating requests will be considered in order of priority point total. If Donor A gives more than Donor B, Donor A's request will be considered first, but Donor A will have to make the per-seat donation to sit in the requested section.

The one area where higher donor levels will be considered ahead of other donor levels will be parking. For football and basketball parking, donors in the Athletic Scholarship Award ($21,000 to $35,999), Director's Circle ($36,000 to $68,999), and Athletic Legends ($69,000 and up) will get first priority for parking. Winner's Circle ($12,000 to $20,000) and Pappy Waldorf Club ($7,800 to $11,999) will get second priority for football parking, and those two levels along with Andy Smith Club ($4,200 to $7,799) will get second priority for basketball parking.

For football parking, the Andy Smith Club, Coaches Club ($2,100 to $4,199), and Golden C Club ($1,200 to $2,099) will get third priority.

"There are donors who will make a donation and then buy a block of season tickets and get reimbursed for them by others. (That means that) right now we don't have a relationship with any of those people, we can't call them, we can’t do anything for them," said Clift. "What we want to do is get a new Bear Backer a build a new relationship. We've had calls from people who were unhappy about being unable to get Big Game tickets and they told us that they had been season ticket holders for X number of years, but when we tried to look them up, the seats weren't in their name."

To deal with this issue, the new plan offers current season ticket holders a one-time opportunity to transfer their season tickets to others. Once those seats are transferred, the ticket holder/donor would then begin building their own point totals based on whatever donor history they have.

"People can come aboard as donors," said Clift, "so that instead a block of 12, maybe it becomes three or four donor opportunities and they can each qualify for parking passes and other benefits."

Also as part of the new plan, points will be awarded to season ticket holders to women's basketball and women's volleyball as well as to alumni.

"We've also added points for being an alumnus," said Clift. "It's an increased benefit for alumni. Cal football brings community together, and we don't want people to think that it's all about money, that's wrong. It's also about community."

Considerable research went into determining how people will be affected.

"We were looking at a way of coming up with a plan that result in a fair distribution," said Clift. "About half of the people will have to increase their donation, about half will stay the same or in a few cases, see the amount they have to give go down."

Some of the mechanics

For Memorial Stadium, the donor sections will be EE through I plus sections T and TT, with the annual per-seat donation ranging from $75 through $1,200 a year.

The per-seat donation system, is a complete replacement for the current system, so fans won't have to make a per-seat donation in addition to their annual donation.  For example, a donor wishing to retain four seats in GG would have to make a minimum $4,800 donation (4 x $1,200), but they won't have to make an Andy Smith Club donation ($4,200 to $7,799) and then make a per-seat donation on top of that.

People currently in seats will have the priority to renew them, and during 2007-2008, season-ticket holders will have a one-time opportunity to transfer their season tickets. But while seats can be transferred, priority points cannot. If seats are transferred, and the people in those seats maintain the per-seat donation, they will be able to remain in those seats while they build their donor history.

The redesigned priority points system that now factors in current year giving, lifetime giving, consecutive years of season ticket purchase, consecutive years of donating, along with whether one's an alumni or whether one's a letterwinner, is intended to acknowledge a donor's history with Cal.

This plan will not affect seating during the current year, but all giving between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008 will affect seating for the 2008 football season and the 2008-2009 basketball season.

Notifying people

A mailer that lists the changes to the benefit program went out in the (snail) mail late last week and included a letter from Clift as well a sheet detailing the per-seat donation plan, priority points system and new benefit levels.

Another mailing will go out in October that will provide specific information about the transfer policy accompanied by donor renewal information and a guide to Bear Backer benefits.

Charting a future direction

While the new plan will mean that some people will have to increase their donations, in an overall sense it will provide recipients with the opportunity to clearly see what they can expect for their donation as well as other available options should they want to modify the amount they give.

It also allows the development office to integrate donor tracking software with ticketing software, which will help to make ticketing issues far more efficient in coming years.

Finally, the new plan will give Cal an opportunity to build their donor base and increase their revenues to help strengthen the athletic department's financial base and field competitive teams - and to support the over-riding goal of allowing its student-athletes the chance to compete and learn at one of the top universities in the country.

If readers have questions, they can refer to the Bear Backers website at http://calbears.cstv.com/boosters/cal-boosters-annual-fund.html, they can call the Bear Backers' office at (510) 642-2427 and press 4, or they can send an e-mail to bearback@berkeley.edu.

The Bear Insider would like to thank Ivy Clift and Nick Parsons from the Bear Backers' office for their assistance with this article.


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