2020 gave college athletic departments just a taste of the financial hit COVID-19 would bring, as financial reports from the 2019-20 fiscal year that ended in June only captured 3.5 months of the crisis. As those numbers start to surface, the fallout is already clear: Substantial losses happened across the board, including at Georgia Tech, which was down almost $10 million last year, according to reports obtained by Sportico. Despite the losses, the school sees opportunity to rebound by investing in what it does best: technology and innovation.
In the black as recently as 2018 (a pair of coaching buyouts made for a costly 2019), athletic director Todd Stansbury attributes this year’s hit exclusively to the pandemic. Cost-cutting measures and cyclical furloughs were implemented, steps that will result in some savings in the current fiscal year. Fans and alumni also stepped up, converting $10 million in unused tickets into philanthropic gifts to the athletic department to get them through FY21. It has still been a struggle despite their support, but the Yellow Jackets’ tech-focused department has continued to invest in its future—largely because COVID has changed so much of it.
“When I came back to Georgia Tech as athletic director [in 2017], the idea was to have the innovation that’s central to the school’s DNA permeate throughout our organization. We wanted to leverage the technology ecosystem that we’re part of here, as a partner, executor or a test kitchen for any aspect of innovation that is related to sport,” Stansbury said in an interview. “[COVID-19] didn’t necessarily change the marching orders as far as identifying ways to do things better, but it did add to the list of problems to solve through innovation and to the potential opportunities to leverage the expertise that we have at Georgia Tech and in Atlanta.”
To give an example of how far they were willing to go: Stansbury said his department explored using drones to sanitize facilities to reduce risk to the cleaning crews otherwise involved in that process. While they didn’t end up with buzzing machines dropping Lysol over their athletics facilities (apparently not yet as efficient or cost-effective as humans), the department did serve as a testing ground for temperature and mask sensor prototypes an alum was working on. They also struck a number of more official deals during the pandemic, each innovating in a different area.
A September marketing agreement with alum-founded technology company Live Like and engineering and tech firm WMT Digital focused on interactive and virtual fan engagement and enhancing viewing experiences across the department’s platforms.
Satisfi Labs’ artificial intelligence tech was used to power a virtual Georgia Tech athletics assistant for fans—answering COVID-19-related questions before and during game days. The technology helped the department transition to a virtual ticketing process and reduced game operations points of contact as the Yellow Jackets welcomed fans back Bobby Dodd Stadium at 20% capacity last fall.
An agreement with Legends, the sports hospitality, sponsorship and sales consultancy co-founded by the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, should also help in post-COVID planning and financial recovery. For while each deal came with an undisclosed cost, they also boast new earning opportunities. Satisfi’s tech, for example, can hypothetically drive sponsorship revenue through the chat experience, now an important plus as revenue streams struggle.
Georgia Tech’s comprehensive business intelligence partnership with Legends encompasses moneymakers: multimedia rights, seating, ticket, fundraising, hospitality, e-commerce and more. The deal will also introduce new tech, data and analytics platforms with the purpose of supporting all of the Yellow Jackets’ revenue streams and identifying new opportunities.
All of these conversations started before the pandemic, but the tech-centric deals became increasingly relevant during it, as the future of college athletics seemingly changed each day. As Stansbury said, “Timing is everything.” Innovation was no longer a luxury but a necessity to find answers to an entirely new set of challenges.
“We’re always trying to maximize any opportunity that comes our way, which we were doing before COVID-19—but this environment has made solutions more important because the whole space is evolving,” Stansbury said. “Some of these new deals continue to become even more important as we look to navigate our way not only through the current crisis but also at how to come out the other side. I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to just stand still and do things exactly how we did it last year. We’re all going to have to forever innovate.”
Stansbury expects the financial belt to continue to tighten through 2021, with the economic effects of the virus becoming increasingly apparent as the months pass. “The financials will probably be reflected over a three-year period; we’ll probably be in a pretty fluid situation for a while yet,” he said, but innovation will still be a prioritized investment in his department when appropriate. And some solutions might not even have to come from big companies. There are plenty of problems for the student participants in Georgia Tech’s annual athletic department-sponsored Sports Innovation Hackathon to try to tackle this year, or perhaps the students in the athletics-created “Sports Intelligence Platform” class in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing can help.