Facing financial crises, schools are turning facility niches into naming opportunities
The University of Memphis athletic department is hardly alone in feeling the dire impact of today's higher education economics. State support has waned. Tuition costs have climbed. "And when you're buying scholarships, and tuition is increasing by 5, 10 or 15 percent a year, a crisis comes along," says former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris, a Memphis alum and prominent fundraiser for Tiger athletics. "Since we don't get a lot of money through the university, we have to go to the community to supplement what we're producing in terms of ticket sales. All we're doing is capitalizing on every marketing opportunity we can think of to go after additional funds."
While many athletic departments currently face similar financial challenges, few have tweaked their fundraising efforts as aggressively as Memphis has in recent years. An $8 million renovation and addition to the Billy J. Murphy Athletic Complex, a training facility, spawned the formation of the Ambassadors Club, a group of 14 donors who each anted up an entry fee of $500,000 - a previously unheard of level of giving at Memphis, according to Morris. "That's a pretty elite group," adds athletic director R.C. Johnson, "but we wanted to make sure we gave everybody an opportunity to get involved."
Enter the Legacy Campaign, a fundraising effort formally rolled out last month that makes available to existing and potential donors dozens of permanent naming-rights opportunities within athletic department facilities - from an atrium up for $1 million to a hundred football practice lockers available for $5,000 each.
The four-page itemized list of naming rights opportunities, which totals nearly $10 million worth of inventory, also includes coaches' offices, players' lounges, meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight rooms, practice fields and courts, even an observation deck and patio. Football, baseball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, and track and field are among the sports representing facilities, or parts of facilities, up for sale. Amid hints of sarcasm in local media coverage, university officials make no apologies for the Legacy Campaign's scope. "Hey, we'll sell the floor and the walls," Morris says. "Whatever makes sense. Whatever makes the donor feel like he or she is recognized as a great supporter of this initiative."
According to Lu Merritt, president of the National Association of Athletics Development Directors, schools looking for one donor to name an entire new facility typically expect that individual to fund one-third to one-half of the building's construction costs - a financial burden that typically only a select few can meet, if they're even willing. That's why the trend over the past decade has been for athletic departments to break facilities down into affordable naming-rights packages.
At Virginia Tech, where Merritt serves as director of development for athletics, naming rights to newly renovated men's and women's tennis lockers are currently up for grabs at $3,000 each - the school's lowest-priced naming opportunity ever. "Not everybody can name a building," Merritt says. "This gives the fundraiser an opportunity to go out and talk to a lot of potential donors." Morris sees it the same way at Memphis. "We have a product available to volunteers and staff to utilize in dialog with supporters who care to get involved with the university," he says, "and that product is called naming rights."
When launching a naming-rights campaign, Merritt suggests setting prices by balancing what the entire campaign hopes to raise with what is believed individual prospective donors will be willing to give. Tech's tennis renovation drive seeks only $120,000. And while the head coach's office and tennis courts are also available (in the $40,000 to $50,000 range), Merritt says, "We figured that if we got $3,000 each for 25 lockers between the men's and women's teams, that would get us pretty far down the road. And a lot of people, frankly, can afford to do that."
In exchange for their gift, donors get something many may consider more special than premium seating at football and basketball games: enduring visual evidence of their support. In addition to a nameplate on a facility wall or player locker, naming-rights holders at Virginia Tech also receive a plaque to display in their home or office. "You're appealing to their ego," Merritt says. "People want to see and receive credit. They want other people to know that they've done something."
Merritt, who played tennis at Virginia Tech in the 1960s, admits that there may be limited appeal in hanging one's name on a tennis locker. So he has targeted his pitch to fellow tennis alumni - and put his money where his mouth is by purchasing a locker in his own name. Team sports can lend themselves to even greater alumni targeting, Merritt says, with some schools offering naming rights opportunities to all living individuals who have occupied a particular locker and worn the same jersey number.
Memphis, meanwhile, is casting as wide a net as possible. Before deciding to move forward with the Legacy Campaign, Johnson met first with members of the Ambassadors Club, as well as the board of directors for the 3,000-member Tiger Club, the athletic department's primary fundraising arm. "After talking to both groups, we made sure we had something out there for everybody," Johnson says.
"We have about 125 people contribute about 50 percent of the almost $5 million that we collect every year," Morris says. "So you get to know those people pretty well and they become so closely aligned with your program that they help you move the issue forward."
The movement has already begun. As of mid-March, before a multipage promotional brochure detailing the Legacy Campaign had even left the printing press, five contracts had already been signed. "I think right now everyone really believes in what we're doing," Johnson says. "Right here in Memphis, we've got almost a million and a half people. A lot of them aren't alums, but they're all pretty strong Tiger supporters. And I think they know that we're really in financially difficult times. The timing is right. We're having success on the gridiron and on the court."
"If you have positioned athletics as a valuable asset to your community and to your university," Morris advises, "do not be bashful about asking the community to become an integrated part of the economics necessary to make it a quality program."