A new vision for Rice Athletics

When Joe Karlgaard joined Rice as its new athletics director in October 2013, he knew right away that he wanted to create a new vision for the department — one that he said would provide goals to move Rice Athletics forward and to reach and cross the next threshold.

Joe Karlgaard photo courtesy Tommy LaVergne/Rice University

“During my interview process, I realized that we needed a game plan moving forward,” Karlgaard said. “I had some ideas of what the challenges and the unique opportunities were here, but I also wanted to take some time to get to know people and to start to test those ideas.”

After consulting with alumni, fans, donors, members of the Rice community and others, Karlgaard “tested those ideas, got additional feedback, massaged them and changed them” before presenting his plan to President David Leebron and Rice’s Board of Trustees for approval this summer.

The plan’s vision statement has four primary pillars to “elevate Rice University Athletics to a place of broadly recognized excellence and distinction,” he said.

1) Athletic competitiveness – winning conference championships and/or finishing in the top 25 national ranking in each of Rice’s 16 sports.

2) Academic success – graduating student-athletes at or above the Rice University rate and increasing the number of student-athletes honored for academic achievement.

3) Life education and achievement – developing student-athletes’ leadership capabilities and behavioral components necessary for professional and personal success after Rice.

4) Rice values – integrating Athletics’ efforts with the best interests of the university and achieving the objectives of the Vision for the Second Century.

“The thing that really resonated is the notion of our value system,” Karlgaard said. “‘We’re Rice. We’re going to do things the right way. We’re going to do it with exceptional kids who pursue their academics with every bit of vigor as they do the athletics side. So I knew that had to be a core value.

“But then I heard from others who said that in the past that we’ve retreated to these values when we haven’t been successful on the field, saying, ‘Well, at least we’re doing things the right way.’”

Karlgaard said his experience at Stanford and discoveries of Rice’s past and current successes told him those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We can do both athletics and academics, and we can do them really, really well,” he said.

Some of the key points in Karlgaard’s plan include creating a sustainable revenue plan and an expense model that makes Athletics less dependent on university funding.

“We have not really focused resources on trying to generate our own revenue, and I think if you want to be a bona fide Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Division I institution, you have to reach certain thresholds in a few different revenue streams,” he said.

Those revenue streams include season ticket sales in football, basketball and baseball.

Currently Rice Athletics brings in $1.5 million in annual ticket sales from all sports combined. “We can’t continue to do that and survive; it’s an impossibility,” he said. “We can’t keep shifting this to the university to cover us on that. We need to generate enough interest in the community to help support our efforts. This plan asked the university to give us the resources to help us build that support instead of asking the university to cover us on a shortfall.”

The plan puts Rice Athletics “all in” on ticketing, marketing, data analytics, development — every single way Karlgaard’s team can find to generate revenue within Rice’s value system.

“We need to hit certain thresholds, in particular, in ticketing, annual fundraising and endowment payout,” he said.

Karlgaard believes that Rice Athletics’ biggest opportunity lies in football. “Our goal should be to have 15,000 season-ticket holders,” he said. “That’s not the end goal, but it’s an important one that would make a difference for Rice.”

Other goals are to get to 2,500 season-ticket holders in men’s basketball and to grow baseball ticket sales. “In my mind, overall we need to be over $5 million in ticket sales each year,” he said.

Karlgaard’s plan also strives to grow the Owl Club donor base to 4,000 members, which would more than double its current membership.

The vision calls for the beefing up marketing and development efforts outside Rice’s typical base. Karlgaard stressed that Rice must attract new fans. To do that, he has hired a new chief revenue officer and a marketing director who are starting to use new data analytics to target potential fans.

Karlgaard said that Athletics’ portion of Rice’s endowment is currently about $38 million. His goal is to build it over time to $100 million.

“We’re looking at things like endowing coaching positions, much like how a faculty position is endowed,” he said.

“In the past we’ve focused on facilities, and that’s not to say that that isn’t something that we should have done, but while we were doing those things, we didn’t really focus on any kind of permanent income streams, and facilities are only one of the challenges,” Karlgaard said. “You also need the funds to support your kids and your coaches too.”

While addressing the new revenue streams, Karlgaard’s plan calls for a renovation to Rice Stadium, with a possible announcement about that coming this fall, along with either new or renovated facilities for track and field and for soccer. The new tennis facility is scheduled to open on time this fall, despite a few concrete pouring delays due to inopportune heavy rains.

The Athletics plan looks to the future, with a goal of participating in the Rice campus integrated master plan and creating a separate Athletics master plan, which would lay out construction plans and placement of facilities.

It also calls for developing “a set of guiding principles to inform Rice’s preferences for possible affiliations in the event of future changes within the Football Bowl Subdivision” in the ever-evolving world of conference realignment.

“What the FBS is going to look like is anybody’s guess moving forward,” Karlgaard said. “I do continue to have conversations with our current conference commissioner (Conference USA’s Britton Banowsky) and other leaders in college athletics about what they think is coming next. The only consensus I hear is that ‘It’ll be different.’

“Our role is to position Rice so that we can pivot quickly — and that our fundamentals are sound so that we’re attractive in any sort of reshuffling, realignment process.”

To share his new plan, Karlgaard recently went on the road with football’s “Coach’s Caravan” to Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. A Web page and video dedicated to the four pillars of the vision are also online at rice.edu/athleticsvision.

Karlgaard said he’ll periodically update the Rice community and Owls fans as his vision for Rice Athletics progresses. Check out the latest news and game schedules at riceowls.com.

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About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.