Washington Media Relations

A Conversation With Cohen, Part 1

Now that Jennifer Cohen has been Washington’s Athletic Director for a year, we decided it was a good time to catch up with her on a range of issues to get her thoughts and opinions. Over the course of this week we will get Cohen’s take on everything from the AD budget to taking Kelsey Plum shopping. Today we talk about her settling into the job, the rigors of scheduling football games and some upcoming series.  

It’s been a year that you’ve been on the job. How has it been for you?

“It’s been an incredible year. Somebody just brought me a cake to wish me a happy anniversary and I had no idea. Just been an awesome year.”

What has surprised you?

“It’s different when you’re doing this job. Nineteen years here, I think that the thing that surprises you the most is just the overall responsibility of it, the magnitude of all the people that you’re trying to get aligned, the complexities of our student-athletes are different than what our coaches need or what the institution wants, fans want, donors want…you have all these different stakeholders, thousands of stakeholders that are not always totally aligned. So the leadership at this level, the ability of getting everybody working in the same direction, the visibility around it, which is changing and has grown and evolves over time, especially with social media - those are the types of things that have surprised me, but not so much the content of the work.”

Do you feel accepted now?

“I will say first and foremost, our staff is everything to us. We have 250 employees here. I was able to build our leadership team basically from scratch. We had a couple people that came that had been here before, so I think when you’re able to make some changes and get a refocus and get priorities and are really clear about who we are and what we want to be and the direction we’re going, over time people get excited about that. So I felt a tremendous amount of support, really from Day One from our staff, and certainly because I grew up on the external side with a lot of Husky fans and Husky donors that I have that credibility built a little bit. But I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. I worry about Washington Athletics, doing the best we can to support, and that other stuff either takes care of itself or it doesn’t.”

Talk about the Ohio State series (2024 and 2025) and Michigan maybe trying to get out of their series

“I haven’t heard anything new from Michigan in a long time. There was some conversation earlier, maybe a year and a half ago, from Michigan, when Scott (Woodward) was still here, about trying to get out of the series. We were really clear that we have no interest in getting out of the series and they have not reached out recently. That was reported recently but I don’t know anything that’s new information on that at all. The plan is to move forward on that series. We obviously can’t keep Michigan from cancelling on us. They have a big default penalty, and we’re doing everything we can to keep that series. It’s important to us, it’s important to our fans.

“Really excited about Ohio State on the books, Auburn on the books. We’re working on a series two years before Ohio State and looking for some special opponents that Husky fans can be excited about. The two years before Ohio State are going to be hard. There’s really not a lot to choose from and we had some people we were excited about but haven’t been able to close on. That’s why we are so excited about getting Ohio State on the books. There’s also a chance that - I’m not saying we will be able to do this, but - those are those first years where a couple of new venues will be online in LA and Vegas, so maybe one of those two years we try the Auburn thing again at a different neutral site. We’re kind of waiting to see what plays out with that a little bit more before we finalize.”

On the Auburn game and early onsale for tickets

“What they’re struggling with right now is the fall, everything else that we’re selling for football - when do they sell those, as opposed to the early season ticket renewal next year? In 2018 we’ll be reallocating seats again. It’ll be five years since we opened Husky Stadium, so they have to deal with all the communication around that, potential Pac-12 Championship, bowl…so I think the goal is still to have an option to purchase even before the end of the year around the holidays.”

How does Chris Petersen feel about playing games like Auburn?

“One, he wants to play quality opponents. One of the appealing factors of a neutral site game in the South is when you can play it in a climate-controlled environment. We love the idea of playing an SEC team. We don’t love the idea of going to an SEC school in September and playing in 90-degree weather with crazy humidity. We just feel it’s a competitive disadvantage for us. When we have opportunities like that where we can go and play an Auburn - who we recognize it’ll be just like a home game for Auburn, but we get to do it with a climate-controlled environment - we feel we have a little bit more of a level playing field in that game.”

What kind of feedback did you get from playing in the CFB semifinal game?

“From a basic budget standpoint, games like that end up being a little bit more of a break-even proposition. The expense to go to Atlanta at that time of the year - the charter alone I think cost us a million bucks to bring the band and the team out there - but what you can’t really quantify is the additional exposure and interest that comes for your entire university, not just the athletic department. We were literally on TV every day for a week leading up to that game. We had never seen anything like that for the University of Washington, in particular for Husky Football. I don’t know if we ever have. 

“Where we’ve seen a real impact is one, we’ve started a fundraising campaign this year. Partially to support student-athlete welfare issues and to also help us manage the budget. I really believe we have good strategies and donors, but I think the football success really helped beef up those numbers, and now we’re seeing it again with season ticket renewals. We’re about three thousand ahead of where we were last year. We have more season ticket holders this year than we did for the last two seasons, and that is a direct correlation between the success of the football program and the CFP and people’s interest. Not counting students, we’re at about 43,000. With the kids we’ll be over 50. We still have plenty of time to sell, so we’ve renewed at 96 percent and have had several thousand new season ticket holders. Typically our biggest sales time for season tickets starts in about June and goes up to the first game, although we sell season tickets through the first three games. 

“The (sales) team is doing some really good stuff. They have some new value reserve tickets. They have really good inventory on Tyee Club donors. They have the Young Tyee program that is really positive. I feel really good about a lot of the business strategies. We have a long ways to go but the numbers look good and we have a favorable schedule with Oregon and WSU here this year.”

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