Embracing the Challenge

March 14, 2019

"A dumpster fire." Those are the words Mark Ingram uses to describe the situation at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) when he was interviewing for the Athletic Director position in April 2015. Over the previous six months, the school had dropped football, then announced it might bring it back. Uncertainty and instability were engulfing the athletic department.

Undaunted, Ingram took the job—it would be his first time leading an athletic department, but he had experience in both cutting and reinstating sports as Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director at Temple University. He also soon proved he had the leadership skills and business acumen to turn the dumpster fire into a barn raising.

That summer, donor support went from scant to millions of dollars. Two years later, season ticket sales exploded from less than 2,000 to 14,000. And this fall, just four years after UAB football seemed to be playing its final game, a restarted squad captured its first Conference USA championship and won its first bowl game. We asked Ingram to share his story.

Embracing the challenge

When I interviewed for this job in April 2015, Dr. Ray Watts, President at UAB, said to me, “We have to decide by June 1 if we’re going to bring football back or not.” If we didn’t announce by then, we’d no longer be Conference USA members. Then he added, “We’re going have a lot of meetings about whether we’re going to bring it back. Do you want to be in those meetings or not? Because if you’re in the meetings, you’re going to be attached to all this—good or bad. But if you’re not in the meetings, you can keep your distance—good or bad.”

I told him that, as athletic director, I would want to be attached and responsible for whatever happens. I’d rather be in the meetings so I can explain why we did or didn’t bring football back. After I said that, Dr. Watts hit his hand flat down on the desk and said, “I agree.” When he did that, I knew I had the job.

$5 million in 30 seconds

Leading up to that June 1 deadline, we had a goal of fundraising $17.2 million, which would cover five years of operational dollars for football, as well as bowling and rifle, which had also been cut. With just four or five days left, we were sitting at maybe $12 million raised. We asked about 30 of Birmingham’s most successful business leaders to come to a meeting on campus. As one of our fundraisers said to me, “It’s like having all the superheroes in the same room at the same time—they all know each other, but I’ll bet they’ve never been in the same place at once.”

We offered a short presentation, and the leaders started sharing their opinions and asking questions. Things were going smoothly. Then all of a sudden, people are talking across the table at one another. One person said something like, “We shouldn’t bring the team back if they don’t have a better place to play,” and then there was upheaval.

Fortunately one person stood up, which kind of calmed the room. He said, “I’m not really a sports fan.” My heart sank—that was not what I wanted to hear. He continued, “I’ve never been to a UAB football game and I’ve only been to two basketball games in my life,” and now I’m thinking that this is getting worse. Then he said, “But I’ve seen what this has done to our community. And we’ve got to fix this. I’m in for a million.”

Before we could even respond, someone else said, “I can do a million.” And another person said, “Yeah, me too.” Then someone else said, “Well, I can’t do a million, but I can do $500,000.” Another person agreed. Someone else said, “I can’t do $500,000, but I can do $250,000.” We raised $5 million in 30 seconds. I had never been a part of anything like that before. It was awesome.

New way of doing business

Prior to football’s elimination, we were raising $1.3 million per year. Since we’ve reinstated it, we have raised $50 million dollars. We’ve also brought in $22.5 million for a practice facility and partnered with the city on a new stadium. We’ve been able to do this by generating a lot of excitement about bringing football back.

A study showed that every 1,000 students provide $50 million in annual economic impact for the city of Birmingham. The buzz surrounding football helped increase enrollment by 5,000 students over the last three years. So we were able to tell local leaders, “By making an investment in UAB athletics, you’re helping to grow the enrollment of the university, which makes an impact on our community.”

We’ve added a ticket sales staff, which we did not have before. Previously, the largest number of football season tickets we had ever sold was 1,700. In our first season back, we sold 14,000. Along with marketing season tickets, we utilized the connections of the community business leaders that had made gifts to reinstate football. They knew people who would buy tickets in bulk, and that was really beneficial.

In our first game back against Alabama A&M on Sept. 2, 2017, we set a new attendance record with 45,000 people in the stadium. There was a wonderful energy throughout the city surrounding the return of football, and people wanted to be a part of it.

Back in the office

Unfortunately, sports get eliminated all the time, and it’s always hard. But when it happens to the football team, you’re talking about a huge amount of staff—35 to 40 people losing their jobs and 125 student-athletes no longer being with you. It’s just a catastrophic number of people who are now going to be absent from the department, and that creates a large volume of anxiety and uncertainty.

There was also an enormous lack of trust across the athletic department when I arrived. Nobody knew what to believe, which was understandable. They did not have confidence that football really would return.

We needed to boost our emotional culture, so we very intentionally made announcements whenever we moved a step ahead. For example, every time we signed a game contract for football, we announced it. We revealed our new football uniforms and a new apparel agreement with Under Armour. In 2016, we had a spring game, and that fall we had two intrasquad scrimmages that were open to the public. These moments helped everyone fully believe the football team was going to happen.

You can’t change minds overnight—it takes building trust over time. But we’ve done exactly what we said we’d do—we’ve constructed a new practice facility and broken ground on a state-of-the-art stadium in the city. We’re following through.

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