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Q&A: Making It to Division I

The educational tradition starting more than 50 years ago by North Dakota State University's official sports booster club becomes a key component to the school's transition from Division II to Division I.

by Danielle Catalano

Pat Simmers is a Senior Associate Athletic Director Associate at North Dakota State University (NDSU), serving as the Executive Director of the university's official booster club, Team Makers Club, Inc. The Team Makers is a 501(c)3 charity, established in 1950 as a community-based support group to benefit Bison athletics, raising scholarship money for student-athletes and assisting them earn degrees for a successful future. Its board of directors is comprised of 86 volunteers, 11 of whom are voting members of the executive committee, which meets monthly and conducts the day-to-day operations of the booster club.

In late August, the university announced that it will formally become part of the Division I Mid-Continent Conference starting July 2007. (NDSU had been a member of the Division II North Central Conference.) The Team Makers' participation in this change is as much academic-based as it is athletic-based. In recent years, the club's financial assistance program has attracted a greater number of educationally motivated student-athletes to the university by awarding $2.2 million in scholarships.

Things have not always been as successful for the Team Makers, though. According to Simmers, the group didn't have much of an impact on the Bison athletic program for its first 13 years of existence. In 1963, Daryl Mudra was hired as NDSU's new football coach and athletic director Mudra coached NDSU to its National Championship two years later, but his most significant contribution was setting the precedence of how academics could be achieved through athletics. "As a marketer," says Simmers, "Mudra knew how to engage the community, state, and region with North Dakota State in order to raise funds for athletic scholarships."

Simmers talks about how the Team Makers will carry out this tradition as the university transits to Division-I.


Q: Why did NDSU decide to move from Division II to Division I?
A: It really came to be when we got the new president of the university seven years ago. He challenged all departments to look at taking activities to the next level, so we've seen changes all across campus. We are a quality institution that had been looking for this move for a couple decades, and we just finally got the leadership. As our community continued to grow, Division II continued to change and it no longer fit our institutional profile. It was really a thing that's been in the works for 20 years, and it's finally come to fruition.

The increase in doctorals and research scholars has been phenomenal in the last five years. I would say research went over $30 million to $100 million. Our student population has gone up 3,000 over the last five years. We've instituted a research park, and we're heavy into nanotechnology. We've been a very good institution technologically, including engineering, pharmacy, agriculture, and no one really knew about it.

Q: The Team Makers had a significant role with this move. Please explain.
A: There is only one mission to our organization: to provide financial support to NDSU athletics. We've raised money, we've invested money, we set an annual budget, and we write a check to the university. Five years ago, our budget was $800,000. Today it is $1.3 million—and those are cash donors.

We made two major decisions. One, transiting from Division II; and Two, to fund for success as quickly as possible. Two years ago, we had 97 equivalencies and our scholarship budget was about $980,000. The school year just completed, we had 172 equivalencies with a scholarship bill of $2.2 million—we've added 75 scholarships in just two calendar years.

NDSU's goal, between our endowments and our annual giving—which is the Team Makers—is to give annual scholarships, and we're obviously not there yet. As we've become much more of a national entity, we've piqued more of our alumni's interest throughout the country with the transition, so we're looking to extend our reach.

Q: When do you think the Team Makers will reach this goal?
A: As soon as possible. We've made great strides in the last three years—from $700,000 to $2.2 million is a good step. How and why those numbers changed so dramatically are that, for us, when you're at Division II, you just spend so much time with the masses. We've been able to build a very, very strong foundation out of our fan-base and our club-base membership.

Every year we raise our budget and continue to knock on doors, and people have been receptive. That was the aspiration of one of our presidents at the time. In order for us to transit—to really meet our cost and be successful at the next level—we needed to have people who were visionary, who were not minimum donors, who were going to pay what they needed to, to get priority seating and people who understood that this was good for the community, region, and city.

As a result, the money generated help to create two programs: a full-time student-athlete scholarship program and a half-scholarship program. They're both inflationary, so they both increase as costs increase. Two years ago, these specific scholarships didn't exist. Today, we have 31 full scholarships and 34 half-scholarship participants. Those two combined produce $500,000 of our $1.3 million budget.

Q: What types of fundraisers do the Team Makers conduct?
A: Our number-one activity is our annual fund drive. As in most institutions, we have priority seating for revenue sports. We offer a priority seating option, which allows contributors to purchase the best available seats at all home athletic events. Due to tremendous ticket demands, seating is determined by the level of donation and number of seats requested.

We do our socials in the beginning of the year, and most of these events are within 100 miles or so of North Dakota State, so that our staff can get out and meet people and then get back. We also do golf tournaments in the summer, then do tailgate pre-game activities in the fall. Our golf tournaments bring in $35,000 to $45,000 each, but, our main goal is to not nickel-and-dime our supporters. When we fundraise, it's really just about telling our story, having fans meet our coaches, getting them closer to program, and supporting the program financially. We need to get them to join the club, show them it's tax deductible, and offer them priority seating. Eighty percent of our supporters are priority-seating donors.

The biggest thing for me, though, is to get out to the large alumni-based communities and be hand-to-hand. In Fargo, our volunteers do a tremendous job. Everybody knows somebody, and that's where our strength is: the sheer number. It used to be I could spend time with a $300 guy, $500 guy, but now, I have to spend time with the $11,000 guy. I just don't have enough time to touch bases with all of our supporters—and that's where our volunteers become so critical.

Q: What specific community events have the student-athletes at North Dakota State participated in?
A: Our student-athletes are very visible and do a great job integrating with the community. They'll get into our grade schools with reading programs and do recess programs with elementary schools. North Dakota State has an "Eat Smart, Play Hard" promotion in conjunction with the FDA, in which we have posters in every elementary school across the state of North Dakota highlighting our student-athletes and nutrition.

Our biggest exposure are those socials in March and April, and then we have our Coaches Caravan, where we travel across the state. Although we haven't schedule one of those in the last couple of years, we will shortly. We'll do our golf tournaments in the summer, and then the tailgating. We've also done some mass mailings, but we're really a face-to-face organization. That's the hardest part: When you start expanding across the country, you have to get people to start believing the cause and find those who are committed to help the cause grow.

Q. Have you or anyone from the Team Makers visited other Mid-Continent Conference schools to see how they appeal to their fans?
A: For the most part, we have not. But about two years ago, I visited the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota. We're a pretty mature organization when you look at our support. We're over 1,500-members strong, including 5,000 season tickets, so structure-wise, we're probably much more like a Division I school. But we're always talking to peers—there are always good ideas you can pick up to get better. If you're not looking, you don't find them.

Q: What is your advice to high school athletic directors on how to work successfully with their booster clubs to promote their schools, both academically and through sports?
A: I think you should engage your parents, create opportunities. More so than the North Dakota State experience, I was an athletic director in Houston, Texas, and we increased our fundraising there from $20,000 a year to $100,000 during my tenure.

We went to an all-sports booster club, rather than a sport-specific, because I just thought that was in the better interest in our student-athletes across the board. We were lucky because it got tied into a large entertainment venue and were assigned concession stands within that venue. We mobilized and organized all our activities—men's and women's sports and parents from other activities like the PTA and band to fulfill those needs. We always had good workers. We would assign different events for different groups, and they would mobilize their people. It was a great opportunity to really expand the fundraisers at the high school. We did a lot of community events and exposed our student-athletes, which also made a little bit of money for us.


Pat Simmers can be reached at 701-231-9555, or send him an e-mail at: pat.simmers@ndsu.edu.



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