In the latest edition of the Experts’ Roundtable series, AthleticDirectorU chats with a quartet Softball sport administrators on a variety of topics, including what impact the new Student-Athlete Transfer Portal is having within their program.
What tenants do you operate by when administering a sport program? Are you hands-on or hands-off? Do you commonly meet on the HC’s turf or in your office? How often do you stop by practice? Are there any unique elements of overseeing Softball compared to another sport?
I have the privilege of serving as the sport administrator for Women’s Soccer, Women’s Basketball and Softball here at UCF. As a sport administrator I do my best to be seen more than I am heard. Our Athletic Director, Danny White believes that our Head Coaches are the CEO’s of their respective programs. With that in mind, I act in a supporting role to ensure that our coaches, student-athletes and support staff have all of the resources they need to achieve comprehensive excellence in their respective programs. I usually meet with my coaches in their office. I try to make my “rounds” to their offices and to practice as regularly as possible (maybe every other week or so). I like to meet them where they are most comfortable as most of the time I’m just checking in to see how everything is going with the team and the season.
What I enjoy most about my relationships with my coaches is that we talk about our families as much as we talk about our work. It’s important to me that the people I work with know that first and foremost, I care about them as people. It’s the most effective way to build solid relationships that include trust, honesty and transparency. As far as practice is concerned, I like to drop in casually as much as possible for two reasons; 1. The student-athletes see me and know that I am there to learn the system and get to know them better; 2. Coaches know that I am there to support them and should I get a complaint from a student-athlete or coach, I am able to have an educated, unbiased opinion based on what I have seen, not from what I have heard from either party.
Each sport that I oversee is unique, just as each coach is unique. From a sport administrator perspective, I probably take a different approach to softball because of my background and experience as a former student-athlete and experience on the national committee. There is also less of a learning curve with regards to rules and strategy when I watch softball versus watching basketball or soccer. With that said, the game is ever-evolving and I love to take the time to listen to how the coaches prepare for practice, what they teach in technique and how they build culture based on their respective leadership style and personal experiences as former players and coaches.
I believe that trust and respect are critical to building strong relationships between the sport administrator and head coach, staff, and student-athletes. Having trust and respect firmly in place will serve you well as a sport administrator when it comes time to have difficult discussions and ultimately make tough decisions.
The most important thing we do as sport administrators is to work alongside our athletics directors to hire and retain quality head coaches, and then provide them with the support and resources they need in order to be successful. Coach (Jamie) Trachsel and I have a standing monthly meeting in my office on our calendars, but we get together informally when necessary on a fairly regular basis each week – my office, her office, out at the field, in the hallway, wherever it is most convenient.
I serve as the sport administrator for 11 sports here at Minnesota and my goal is to try and get to practice for each team at least once every other week if at all possible. Spring sports in the north are definitely unique in their own right. Our softball program will once again open the season by playing its first 32 games of the season away from home – that’s seven straight weeks on the road where the team leaves Thursday afternoon and returns late Sunday evening. Coach Trachsel, her staff and our student-athletes accept that challenge and embrace the opportunity it presents.
From a student-athlete perspective they get to play in a wide variety of stadiums and experience so many different parts of the country. Our staff also pulls together a big-time non-conference schedule that challenges us competitively on the field and ultimately puts us in the best possible position heading into Big Ten Conference play.
To some degree the administrative approach to the sport can be shaped by the tenure of the coach. We have an experienced coach who has achieved at a high level. The parameters are clear so I do my best to support and monitor without becoming a nuisance. We meet occasionally, but many of our conversations occur within the normal course of being around the program. I wish that occurred more frequently at practice sessions, but other responsibilities make it difficult for me to attend those as often as I would like. Relative to the sport itself, I don’t sense a lot of unique challenges in overseeing softball. What I do find unique about it is the players’ and coaches’ ability to mesh the sheer enjoyment of playing with a highly competitive environment. I don’t know of a group that wants to win more, but also insists on keeping the joy of playing so central to what they do.
I believe you have to be hands on and hands off. You hire your head coach to be the CEO of the program but you also have a responsibility to make sure they have the support they need to avoid pitfalls. A head coach must be given autonomy to make hard decisions but you help them to understand both the potential positive and negative consequences associated with those decisions. My goal as an administrator is not to be concerned about being right but to support the head coach to help them get it right. In order to get it right you must have an open line of communication, you must genuinely care about your head coach and their family and you can’t be concerned with who gets the credit. There must be a commitment to your coaches’ success and growth as a leader.
Do you commonly meet on the HC’s turf or in your office? Both. This is a people profession and you have to get to know your head coach and you have to build a trusting relationship with your head coach. I believe it’s important to meet in your office, to meet in your head coach’s office, to meet on the field, to meet over lunch, all to build rapport with your head coach. You want to build a level of comfort with your head coach to where the import of meeting and the content of the meeting are more important than where you are meeting.
How often do you stop by practice? I try to get to each teams’ practice once a week as an observer. I like to get to see our student-athletes and put myself in their environment. I do think it’s important to get into their environment, in their comfort zone.
The NCAA’s new student-athlete Transfer Portal is getting a ton of attention by the national media. Has the portal already impacted how you and/or your coaching staff view the marketplace for student-athlete talent? If it hasn’t yet, what role do you foresee the portal playing for the sport in the coming three- to six- to twelve-months?
Stuart, UCF: From what I understand, considering the timing of the seasons, we have seen more of an impact with fall sports at this point than we have with spring sports. I don’t know that the impact has been significant with softball, but given the fact that we just hired Cindy Ball-Malone prior to the start of the school year, I know the portal proved to be a useful tool for her as she tried to fill some missing roster spots upon her arrival. More than anything, I think the portal creates a system of convenience for both the student-athlete and the coach as all of the information is located in a single location.
If it hasn’t yet, what role do you foresee the portal playing for the sport in the coming three- to six- to twelve-months? I think this is still too new of a process to know what kind of role the portal will play in recruiting, but I am sure we will hear comments and constructive criticism from all parties involved once the season comes to an end. In talking with our Senior Associate AD for Compliance, we suspect that in 3-6 months it will have a pretty significant impact. The outlier will continue to be the willingness of schools to grant the one-time transfer exception.
Ryan, Minnesota: I believe that we are no different than most schools in that we are still trying to wrap our arms around the impact of the new NCAA Transfer Portal. Frankly, even before the NCAA Portal went live last October, softball had been one of the most active sports from a transfer perspective. It sure does appear that college softball has two distinct recruiting seasons…recruiting PSAs and also transfers. And that concerns me to a certain extent. Time will tell whether or not the dust will settle a bit and things will level off, or if this high transfer rate around the country will continue to gain momentum as we move forward.
Mossman, Oklahoma: It has impacted us, but the culture of transferring already existed more prevalently in terms of the residency requirement so the newness of it may be more impactful in other sports. Now, that’s not to diminish the change it creates in college athletics. It’s substantial and we’ve seen a lot of movement. It is requiring coaches and administrators to accept a new normal when it comes to managing rosters. It will encourage us to re-double our efforts in creating attractive environments that are hard to leave.
White, JMU: The portal is an opportunity to recruit a talented student-athlete that fits your core values with a skill set that you may not currently have on your roster. I believe you have to monitor the portal but you also have to be very careful that your coach closely researches a student-athlete they may be interested in pursuing. That student-athlete is leaving for a particular reason- you just need to try to understand why and be calculated in pursuing an opportunity with that transfer.
Has the portal already impacted how you and/or your coaching staff view the marketplace for student-athlete talent? No. I believe you have to build your roster thru the initial recruiting process where your coaching staff is afforded an opportunity to watch and evaluate the potential student-athlete and get to know the student and their family so that all parties are trying to find the best fit. At this point our institution has not benefited from the portal.
What role do you foresee the portal playing for the sport in the coming three- to six- to twelve-months? I feel very strongly we will see a substantial increase in transfers. The portal creates an opportunity for student-athletes to make a quick move: that has its advantages and disadvantages for both the student-athlete and the institution. For example, if a student-athlete is disgruntled with their playing time, rather than taking the time to understand and work through the process with the coaching staff, that student-athlete and their family can make a quick decision to depart. In some, cases, particularly with prospective student-athletes committing to colleges at such an early age, if the collegiate experience is not the right fit, making a change can be the best decision for all involved.
How have you and/or Compliance officials at your school educated current Softball student-athletes on the portal’s purpose and how it can be used? How has or will your coaching staff handle current student-athletes entering their names into the portal?
Stuart: We educated all student-athletes as they began this fall that this change was coming and then reminded them as October 15th drew near. How has or will your coaching staff handle current student-athletes entering their names into the portal? We still encourage student-athletes to first have the conversation with the coach and/or sport administrator before requesting to go in the portal, but obviously that decision is solely up to them.
Any student-athlete request to go into the transfer portal has to be processed through the compliance office. The compliance office would then let them know that the coach will be contacted about the request but try to allow for the student-athlete to deliver the news prior to hearing from compliance. The compliance office would notify the coach and the student-athlete would be entered into the portal.
We do our best to cultivate an environment the promotes our student-athletes and coaches being as transparent as possible. We use opportunities like these to encourage our student-athletes to advocate for themselves and communicate with their coaches in a respectable fashion as they will have to learn have how to navigate through tough conversations for the rest of their lives.
Ryan: Our compliance staff has done a fabulous job of educating not only our student-athletes in all sports, but our coaches/staff as well, about the NCAA Portal. That includes what it means and next steps once a student-athletes makes the decision to enter the NCAA Portal for the purpose of transferring. I think that every case is unique in its own way and that ultimately impacts how each one is handled.
Mossman: There is widespread awareness as it relates to the portal and our compliance staff is well-versed in the procedure. We provide general education and then work closely with any student-athlete who notifies us with a desire to transfer. The goal is to provide prompt service that clearly outlines all of the options and the process itself. That approach permeates our department.
White: At JMU, we believe that transparency is important with our student-athletes. At the beginning of the year, we meet with all of our teams and go into detail regarding all rules, standards and expectations. Information about the portal is reviewed and also in their student-athlete handbooks. Once a student-athlete decides to transfer and puts their name in the portal, our compliance director informs myself and our coaching staff. At that point you have little control over that situation other than to educate them further and allow them to make the best decision for themselves You would hope the student would have a conversation with the staff on the front in but that does not always happen. Once a firm decision is made to depart the program and the school, the student-athlete ceases involvement with the program.
The new Softball America rolled out a piece last week on Softball’s revenue growth around the nation. In an optimal environment (winning, weather, etc.), to what degree can Softball finances advance at your institution? Do you believe Softball can surpass or be on par with Women’s Basketball from a revenue generation standpoint across the industry?
Stuart: There is definitely a growing trend here with our softball attendance where we are in a position to realize more revenue growth. We have made some stadium enhancements in anticipation of that growth and still have a few more capital projects on deck within the next few years to further enhance the experience for our coaches, student-athletes and fans. Considering how many more games are now being televised on major networks and with softball getting back into the Olympic rotation for 2020, there is exponential potential for financial growth within college softball.
In some climates, I think its incredibly feasible for softball to become 3rd or 4th on the revenue generation ladder behind football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball or baseball (depending on community interests). Specifically speaking to UCF, we are seeing trends that would suggest that softball could match or surpass Women’s Basketball when looking at early numbers for attendance and season ticket holders. As the sport administrator for both Softball and Women’s Basketball, this is a great problem to have as it speaks to the continued success and ultimately the fan support of both programs.
Ryan: The success of our program has made a ticket to a Gopher softball game a tough one to get. Our home games regularly sell out even though we continue to add extra bleachers in Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. On game day it is not uncommon to see ticket scalpers out front of our softball venue! The popularity of Gopher softball in the Twin Cities and the entire state of Minnesota is first and foremost a credit to the efforts of so many talented coaches and student-athletes. Softball is an incredibly fast paced, exciting game. With national television coverage continuing to expand – ESPN and the Big Ten Network (BTN) have played key roles in that – and the continued success of the NCAA Tournament, I fully expect the popularity of the game to continue to grow by leaps and bounds in the years ahead.”
Mossman: In terms of exposure and sponsor support we’ve seen good growth. Those aspects of driving revenue outside of the ticket base have and will continue to be a focus. What hasn’t kept pace is the donor piece and that’s delicate territory. Some fans embraced softball because they loved the sport, but also because it was among the most affordable. With changing expectations in salary structure and facilities, we have to identify improved revenue streams and our fans will need to work alongside us. If we can continue the current pace in the areas of interest and awareness we hope to attract individuals who can support us in ways that transform a program. We cannot underestimate that importance going forward.