Leading a conference which celebrates its unique position in college athletics, Jon Steinbrecher has kept the Mid-American Conference visible, as well as stable for the last decade. His combination of creativity, knowledge of social media, financial acumen, and a healthy understanding of the nuances of leadership in intercollegiate athletics have helped to create and maintain a successful environment for the members of the conference. Steinbrecher took some time out of his schedule to contribute to this edition of ADU’s Commissioner’s Corner.
1. The Mid-American Conference (MAC) has been “relatively” stable over the last 20 years. What do you attribute that to and how do you plan to keep that stability moving forward?
The MAC has been the most stable Division I FBS conference over the past decade plus, which you can trace it to several factors. First, there is a great deal of institutional commonality. This is most evident in the program offerings as well as the budgets of the programs. The programs are funded in similar fashion. I should note that among all FBS conferences, the MAC has the lowest difference between the smallest budget and the largest budget. This leads to incredibly robust competition among our member institutions. Our programs are successful not because they “out resource” someone else but because of the efforts of exceptional students-athletes, coaches and administrators. I would also point to our geographic footprint which is the most compact of any of the 10 FBS conferences and, in fact, in all of Division I. Our member institutions have long-standing and meaningful relationships that breed dynamic competition and fierce rivalries.
2. How has MACtion been a benefit for the MAC? Do you think other conferences have started to emulate the MAC’s marketing and promotional ideas?
What I find so special about the concept of “MACtion” is that it initially grew organically. This bubbled up from the public. When combined with an exciting product that had a platform to showcase itself on national television, the concept took off. MACtion is a one word picture, unique among conferences. The Mid-American Conference is the only conference that has its hashtag (#MACtion) as part of its on-air graphics. MACtion means more than exciting football games. It’s about competing with the best in the country, it’s about expecting more from ourselves, and it’s about our values. As we like to say, “MACtion speaks louder than words!”
3. You’ve played a starring role in a number of light-hearted #MACtion promotions. Does your front-facing involvement in the campaign give the conference an even greater sense of internal identity?
The videos were an idea that came up through our external affairs/media relations staff. I challenge our staff to think outside the box and have some fun with who we are and what we do. As a result, they have cast me and others in some fun thematic videos. Our mindset is we need to do things differently to attract attention. So long as it is respectful, consistent with our values, and shines a positive light on the Mid-American Conference, its member institutions and intercollegiate athletics I am all for it. From a broader perspective, we focus a great deal of attention on utilizing social media to tell the story of our students and member institutions. Beginning last year and continuing this year, each week of the academic year we have a student-athlete from one of our member institutions create a snapchat video showcasing 48 hours in their life. This is a great way for the students to share their experiences and let the public “behind the curtain” to see what it means to be a student participating in intercollegiate athletics. These video blogs vividly demonstrate how our student-athletes “Respect the Grind.” Several years ago, our student-athletes, in response to an article that called into question the value of participation in athletics, initiated a Twitter campaign titled “More Than A Sport.” Hundreds of MAC Student-Athletes shared what intercollegiate athletics meant to them and ultimately others from across the country joined in sharing their experiences. We also use to provide information on initiatives for mental health and diversity & inclusion.
4. Do you worry about the implosion of big contract media agreements? Thinking strategically, how can a conference position itself to be financially stable should that come to fruition?
Finances always has been, and always will be, one of those issues that administrators spend a great deal of time managing. Clearly there have been significant sums of revenue that have grown over the past 20 plus years. In many ways, this is a positive as it has provided for increased services and facilities that are enjoyed not only by the students participating, but also by the fans attending events. Certainly, conferences play a role in working to grow existing revenue sources or build new revenue streams. Most major sources of revenue that conferences develop are based on long-term contracts which allows you to build in some security in terms of growing (hopefully) revenue streams – for instance with television or the College Football Playoff. However, we also focus on managing expenses and keeping those to a minimum. At virtually every staff meeting, I remind our staff that for every dollar we do not spend it is another dollar we can return to our member institutions to invest in the students who participate in athletics.
5. Leadership change is one constant in higher education, specifically as it applies to Presidents & Athletic Directors. With both roles under significant pressure on their respective campuses, how can a Commissioner help both constituents perform their roles most effectively?
Among the most important tasks a president or director of athletics performs is hiring staff. Head coaching hires are particularly important and play such a critical role in the ultimate success of a program. As commissioner, I sometimes serve as a sounding board for university leadership as they contemplate hires. That may mean I listen to them discuss the candidates and compare their strengths and weaknesses. It might mean suggesting they talk to other folks for background. In short, if asked, I try and assist them in gathering the pertinent information they need to make hiring decisions. This is more likely to occur with administrative hires as opposed to coaching hires. Another way in which we assist is by working with the new coaching or senior administrative hires to help them get up to speed on how the Conference operates. Each year we hold a new coach orientation program for all new coaches in the league. During that in-person meeting we walk through how the Conference is governed and operates, how championships are managed, and discuss the values and culture of the Conference. At the end of the day, it is our job as conference staff to help each member institution operate effectively.