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Affinaquest’s Steve Hank outlines athletic department’s battle for the dollar in NIL era

Photo credit: Courtesy of Affinaquest

The new age of college athletics is unparalleled to anything we’ve seen in the history of sports.

While NIL has been an immense step forward for athletes, who now for the first time in over the NCAA’s 100-plus year history can be monetized for their name, image and likeness, it has had an adverse effect for athletic departments, who now find themselves in competition with organizations designed to support them.

With the dawn of the collective, an independent organization established by a school’s donors with the desire to support specific athletes and programs, athletic departments are wrestling with themselves over the finite donor dollars they’re able to reel in.

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In steps Affinaquest, an information system that helps colleges and universities learn more about their constituents — the people who make up a school’s donors, fanbase, and students. For Steve Hank, the Executive Vice President for College Athletics for Affinaquest, his job focuses on the athletic departments and their ability to understand their fans and donors in order to drive fundraising in a smarter way than ever before.

Utilizing a system known as central intelligence, Affinaquest is able to build profiles for a school’s constituents at both the macro level to understand the overall donorbase, all the way down to the individual level.

“We aggregate all of the information systems that a university has,” Hank told The NIL Deal in an exclusive interview. “For example a university has a CRM system that manages its donor profiles, all the information from their ticketing system, all the information from their merchandise system, the information from their student system to their housing system.”

Hank continued: “They have your athletic department purchases in another and any contributions that you made in a third, but it’s all siloed. [Schools] don’t have the ability to get a holistic view of their constituent base and gain a complete understanding because of all of that information.”

Working with over 45 of the Power Five institutions in the NCAA, Hank has seen the changes NIL has made to the landscape at some of the largest athletic institutions in America, and for just about all of these athletic departments, the battle to adjust has been no easy task.

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“[Athletic departments] haven’t adjusted, they are adjusting, and there’s actually some correlation to the beginning of the pandemic. A lot of people thought it was gonna be over by June [2020] and at that point, not everything about it was known yet,” Hank said. “Now we’re seeing that because there wasn’t a lot of advanced planning with NIL, it’s become the wild, wild west out there. It is constantly evolving and constantly shifting.”

As the formation, and in some cases transformation, of collectives continue to spread across the land, an unexpected and unfavorable effect has hit colleges and universities attempts to fundraise, with donors now capable of bypassing donations to the athletic department in favor of handing money directly to specific sports and athletes.

“Fundraising is not something that happens over a month’s time frame. It’s a process that has to be incubated and moved through and there’s a significant time element that is associated with securing a gift, and NIL is still so new, but if you’ve been in the business long enough, you know there’s only so many dollars in the pot,” Hank said.

“A lot of the NIL collectives are going back and tapping the same people that have been supporters for a long time. There’s only so many dollars to go around, so what is the next challenge for institutions? Expand their constituent base to not go back to the same donors over and over again and continually ask them for support. They have to broaden their base and in order to do that they have to fully understand their constituent base.”

Utilizing Affinaquest’s central intelligence, along with some other key datasets, Affinaquest is able to seek out “hidden donors” and use specific messaging in order to get them to donate to their affiliated school.

“Affinaquest comes in and by understanding and analyzing the fan base, we’re able to do things like lookalike modeling and bring people in and, say you purchased a t-shirt from the team store, our team goes back and says these buyers look a lot like these individuals, so we should start having conversations with you,” Hank said. “The one thing that is very challenging for athletic departments right now is the resources are tight and allocating your resources where they can have the biggest impact is really critical because whether it’s NIL or its finding those donors, the competition for that donor dollar is huge.”

Over the past year, Affinaquest has been able to identify a minimum of $1 million of incremental lift for five institutions, according to Hank, all thanks to the success of being able to find these hidden donors.

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“In the past, a lot of institutions would do their primary prospecting out of their ticketing system, so if I have four tickets to a game and I take three people with me, until the digital ticketing revolution, no one knew who was sitting in seats two, three and four, they only knew who bought the tickets. When you have a lot of people that are attending your events, you have a lot of people that are willing to interact with your program that are doing it in different ways. Some people may live in different states that may be willing to support the program but don’t actually attend because they went to college there but now moved away,” Hank said.

“The amount of people that we are finding is staggering. I went to Notre Dame, and it’s a very, very small school and people don’t realize that. There’s about 8,000 undergrads yet there is a network of subway alumni that are fans of that institution, and that doesn’t just apply to Notre Dame. Because a lot of people are born and raised fans of a school, but wind up going elsewhere, they end up having two affiliations. Sometimes it’s because it was their family’s affiliation and where they went to school or it’s because of the community that they live in, for example Arizona State is a huge transplant market. If you look at the studies, all the studies that have been done show that attachment that people have with their institution is on a significantly higher emotional level than the attachment they have with their professional team.”

As these hidden donors become more widely accessed, athletic departments are able to leverage strategic outreach in order to gain back as many donor dollars as possible. However, the battle for funds still looms large.

As NIL grows, so do collectives, and as these organizations become greater and more centralized — like we’ve seen recently at institutions such as Texas A&M and Alabama — the battle for donor dollars heightens. In Hank’s experience, he believes down the road there will be some sort of definition to NIL.

“For 30 years it had a very relatively stable foundation as to the way things were operating, but now it’s been thrown on its head,” Hank said. “I think it’s going to settle and go down into some known quantities and I think you’re gonna start to see, and in some cases you’re already starting to see, some collapsing collectives. A lot of institutions have multiple collectors, particularly among those Affinaquest represents, and you’re starting to see them group them down into one or two primary collectives because it’s easier to manage. I think you’re gonna see a lot more professional management as well, as many collectives were started by small boosters and those managers will bring in professional strategies and there will be some optimization of that from a best practices and business standpoint.

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“I think in the next few years, there is going to be some standardization and some regulation that is going to come in and it’ll bring a little more definition to the Wild West,” Hank continued.

Collegiate athletics is not undergoing an evolution right now, it’s in the midst of a revolution.