Kurt Svoboda, University of Michigan: Working in Big Time College Athletics
Learn more about the challenges and opportunities of working in big time college athletics from University of Michigan Associate Athletic Director Kurt Svoboda!
Welcome to January 2019 everybody!
This is a pretty crazy time of year in the sports world, everything but baseball is in full swing, and even baseball just wrapped up their winter meetings, teams are signing free agents, plans are being made for spring training and hiring is taking place to get ready for next season.
Basically, our sports world is at full tilt – and nowhere is that more apparent than in college football.
Bowl games seemingly every night, which I don’t know about you, makes me think of all the individual staffers hard at work, in college athletics. Everything from travel, to coaches to trainers, to athletic directors, to PR staff -- everyone is at their heightened best.
Sometimes in sports we make things seem more complex than they really are. We look top down at the world of college athletics and see a huge business, big deals, sponsorships, suspensions, hires, injuries, marketing campaigns, fundraising… and it can all seem overwhelming.
I sit back sometimes and see the expectations of major college athletic director and think – holy crap, who could possibly do all that? I don’t think I would sleep very well.
But then, like with most careers, when you boil it down to the essentials and you observe the best in action – you see things that make the picture clearer.
Take Boston College Athletic Director Martin Jarmond.
BC earns the right to play in the First Responders Bowl against Boise State in Dallas. They go through weeks of planning, parents, students and fans book flights, hotels, tickets and rental cars to travel down to Dallas for the game.
And then, truly the unthinkable happens. The game is cancelled due to weather with 5:08 remaining in the 1st quarter. I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever seeing a bowl game cancelled.
Now, take a moment and think of yourself at a Walmart and then person in front of you is trying to return the sled they purchased because… well, it hasn’t snowed. They are belligerent, rude, obnoxious and full of blame… as if it is the stores fault it didn’t snow. I want my money back!
If I was Martin Jarmond, this would be the visual I’d be having as the weather turned bad…thinking to myself, uh oh this is going to get ugly. People are going to be upset, anger will follow.
Jarmond has three options as I see it.
1: Just start handling the incoming onslaught and trying to make people happy through apologizing.
2: Wait and see what Boise State does and follow suit.
3: Take action. Immediately.
Jarmond opened door #3 – he took action.
Announcing that fans who purchased tickets through the school to the First Responder Bowl will receive a full refund by Jan. 2. AND fans will receive free tickets for the number of bowl tickets they purchased to any BC athletic event through December 2019.
Quick decisive simple action. No committee meetings, no revenue impact spreadsheets, no hand wringing or clutching pearls.
Instinct. Do what is right by the people. Get ahead of this. Work positively.
The reaction was immediate – Twitter lit up with thousands of comments akin to “classy move by Boston College” and what could have been a communication nightmare, turned into a case study for how massive athletic programs should still operate with a soul.
Our guest this week knows this better than anyone, Kurt Svoboda is the Associate Athletic Director for External Communication at the University of Michigan, the voice of the athletic department and a true pro in the industry. Prior to UM he worked in similar roles at Stanford and Harvard, managing the flow of communication within the athletic department, and boy does he have some stories to share.
In case you have forgotten… that whole “Call Me Maybe” phenomenon from a few years back started with a viral video of the Harvard baseball team dancing and lip syncing to the Carli Mae Jepson tune… in addition to all the great knowledge Kurt is sharing, he also takes us behind the scenes of that sensation.
Here he is, Kurt Svoboda University of Michigan Associate Athletic Director for External Communication and Public Relations –
Questions for Kurt Svoboda, University of Michigan Associate Athletic Director
1: Over your career you’ve had a clear focus on the Communication and Media Relations side of the sports industry – what led you to this career path?
2: Most all of your career stops have been in college sports – was it ever a draw to work for a pro team or has college been your calling? why?
3: While I know and respect no two days are the same – how would you explain your day to day activities and responsibilities?
4: Let’s talk risk management and crisis communication. At a big school like Michigan with an athletic department comprised of over 1,000 student-athletes and another couple hundred coaches and staff you are bound to have issues come up.
How do you prepare yourself for the inevitable, while also being agile enough to respond to the unexpected?
5: Let’s switch to the more positive side – you were working at Harvard as the Assistant Athletic Director in charge of communication during the Jeremy Lin years – sure it was before global “linsanity” but it still had to be high profile for the department, what was that like?
6: In 2012 it was the Harvard baseball team, a team you worked directly with, that began the whole “Call Me Maybe” dance viral video phenomenon – as someone who is looking to help promote the program and garner attention this has to be a dream come true, was this something that fell into your lap and you ran with it…or was it more calculated and planned? Take us behind the scenes!
7: I’ve spent the majority of my career in the sports media working toward objective unbiased journalism and storytelling… but in recent years more and more teams and colleges have taken their product and content in-house, controlling their own message.
You were at the forefront of this movement while at Harvard, what made you see content creation as an inhouse opportunity?
8: That was a very big move in the early part of this decade, taking content in house. What’s next in your world? What are people chatting about and wondering if it’s possible?
9: I think many people in communication roles see social media as an opportunity and a curse – how do you leverage social media in a positive way for your teams?
10 Next step Stanford. While at Stanford you are in charge of Communication and Media Relations for 36 athletic teams, and the primary spokesman for the football team. During your time there the Cardinal go to the Rose Bowls and have an emerging star and Heisman hopeful in Christian McCafferty – I imagine you are bombarded with media requests and availability questions and more. How important is it to have a process in place to manage the chaos?
11: We talk about coaches having a system they believe in and implement – what about for you, do you have a method and system you implement for communication that works whether you are the lead for the 2006 Women’s Final Four or a Michigan Football game or a NCAA Lacrosse championship?
12: Now you are at University of Michigan – compare your experiences at these major universities, is it a similar approach but just growing in reach and scale… or totally different?
13: What is the most challenging part of the job for you? And on the flip side, what is the most enjoyable part?
14: Final question – our audience is full of people trying to find their way in the sports industry and many, many of our listeners want to work in college athletics. What specific advice would you give someone who wanted to launch and grow their career in a college athletic department – are there certain classes or skills or opportunities they should hone in on?
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