The Business of College Athletics

College sports are multimillion-dollar operations. How do athletic directors Mark Hollis of MSU and David Brandon of U-M take on the demands of their jobs, and what's next for them and their programs?


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 A century ago, when a university needed an athletic director it was routine to tap one of the school’s former coaches to fill the position. But in today’s world of collegiate athletics, the demands of running a multimillion-dollar enterprise requires a different kind of leader.

“The position of athletic director has changed a lot,” says Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany. “Over the last 25 years the importance of marketing has been accentuated, and the resources are bigger. Now it really helps to have someone with not only great leadership [abilities], but also marketing and business skills.”

Michigan State University Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who rose through the coaching ranks, made his mark executing high-profile events such as the 2001 “Cold War” hockey game at Spartan Stadium between MSU and the University of Michigan, which drew a then-world-record crowd of 74,554 fans. There was also the “Basket Bowl,” a 2003 game between MSU and the University of Kentucky at Ford Field in Detroit that set a world attendance record. And this past Veterans Day, Hollis helped stage the “Carrier Classic,” a basketball game on the flight deck of  the USS Carl Vinson, for a nationally televised showdown between MSU and the University of North Carolina.

David Brandon was a highly innovative CEO who had transformed two Michigan companies — Valassis Communications Inc. in Livonia and Domino’s Pizza Inc. in Ann Arbor — before taking a significant pay cut to accept the athletic director position at U-M in March 2010. At the time, Brandon was determined to turn the program around and give back to the university that had provided his education, saved the lives of his twin boys, and successfully treated his cancer.

In his first 20 months on the job, Brandon handled NCAA violations over football practice standards, hired a new head football coach and chief marketing director, reorganized the athletic department, added men’s and women’s lacrosse programs, announced plans for multimillion-dollar improvements at Crisler and Yost arenas, installed permanent lights at Michigan Stadium, and embarked on novel marketing initiatives.

Recently, Hollis, 48, and Brandon, 58, discussed the challenges they face overseeing multifaceted organizations that are subject to intense regulatory, public, and media scruting.

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