A conversation with Charlotte 49ers Athletic Director Mike Hill

by Nov 2, 2021Athletics

Mike Hill with UNC Charlotte students at a tailgate
Mike Hill with UNC Charlotte students at a tailgate

Last week I sat down for an interview with Charlotte 49ers Director of Athletics Mike Hill to cover a variety of topics that relate to the Charlotte program, including budgets, NIL, women’s lacrosse and the pending athletics master plan.

Agent 49: Congratulations on navigating the realignment waters to find your way to the American. Clearly, Chancellor Gaber is extremely supportive of Athletics, and the way she views it as front porch of the University. I wanted to see kind of what the reception was like from everyone else on the university side that you may came in contact with since the move was announced to the American.

Mike Hill: The reception has been incredibly positive, I’ve not had a single negative reaction personally to this so far, nor as our executive staff. The Chancellor, I asked her the other day, what the reception had been, the same, she’s received incredibly enthusiastic, positive feedback about it, and I think people recognize this is an amazing opportunity for us.

Agent 49: Jumping to the American, one of the first things that I took a look at is the disparity in budget from where we are, we think we’re second (we’re 3rd, I misspoke here) in Conference USA behind ODU (and UNT) and 2019-2020 expenditures. The jump to the American is it’s substantial, so I’m curious about the goals or a growth plan that you guys have, if there’s potentially a target for where you want to be in three or five or 10 years to to get in line with with where our peer institutions will be in the American.

Mike Hill: There’s a delta for sure that we have to try to make up but we’re not as far off as you might believe at first glance. I think the American’s average budget certainly is  higher than ours, it’s higher than all six of the new members, so we’re not alone in that situation, which I think is also helpful. Six schools that are coming in represent almost half the league’s membership now, so you know we’re not way out of whack now, we’re suddenly maybe somewhere towards the lower end of the League in terms of budget. So are five other schools, and so, and when you compare us to the existing members, there is a gap, but it’s not something that we can’t overcome.

There are a lot of different ways that you can you know close that that gap through different revenue streams and part of that is sort of the chicken or the egg conversation. You know if you’re playing games that feel more meaningful to your fans then you’re probably going to sell more tickets. We sell more tickets, that’s the expectation. So for example, we’re going to have East Carolina on our football schedule every other year at home. You can count on that being a tough ticket, a sellout. You’re going to be playing Memphis, Wichita State, Tulsa, SMU and Temple in basketball. That just feels different for our fans. That actually kind of looks more like what our fans in basketball are accustomed to from the the days that they they recall so fondly, a lot of former league members in fact that we’re rejoining.

I think that ticket revenue and ticket related giving are connected for sure. You know we’ve talked a lot about this really since I arrived  in March of 18 (2018), that we had to elevate our annual giving. That we needed to probably at least double that, and you know so far, the first three years we set records every year in our annual giving, but we’re still not where we need to be. So my expectation is  that’s another area that will fuel some additional revenue that we need.

I think that there’s a chance as well to realize more through sponsorship partners at Learfield, I know are excited about this as well. We have guarantees that we receive from Learfield, but also revenue shares if you hit a certain threshold, and this is going to give us a better chance to do that now because of the exposure we’re going to receive on various TV platforms, primarily the ESPN platform that the American has. I think sponsorship is another space for sure that will look at. Apparel is another one, you know we’re Nike school, a Nike program, love being a part of the Nike family, and that relationship we will continue to assess with them, to see if there’s opportunities to further monetize this opportunity for us with the American.

With the American you also can’t forget the fact that we’re going to be receiving significantly more revenues from the conference and as those will escalate over time and it will get us closer to where we need to be. There’s a lot of work to do, we’re going to have to fundraise, we’re going to have to sell tickets, we’re going to have to be competitive in a way that excites sponsors. Those are all attainable, it doesn’t doesn’t worry me at all. I think that, again, we just have to get after it and get to work and everybody’s going to have to play a part in that, our fan base and our donor base to understand that, that everyone’s got to step up so that we can get to where we want to go. I’ll also tell you this, that while we were assessing this opportunity we benchmarked ourselves against a lot of the other schools, the existing members in that league, the the nine other schools eight football members and Wichita State. Frankly, we were very, very close in terms of operating budgets, when I talk about like recruiting travels for operation budgets, etc.  Probably one of the bigger gaps is coaches salaries, and those tend to be big numbers and that’s something obviously we’ll have to look at over time, but again, the reality is we have the revenues that we have, we’re not going to do anything here this irresponsible in order to be competitive. We’ll do what have to do to generate the resources, when we generate the resources that’s when we’ll reinvest them.

Agent 49: As it relates to resources, in the past it was discussed due to Title IX obligations that we need to add some more scholarships on the women’s side. I believe women’s lacrosse was a program that was identified, is there any timeline update for the addition of that program?

Mike Hill: Yes, so you know Covid, of course, got in the way like it got the way so many things. Our intention is to add lacrosse here so that we’re competing in the next two years or so. That means hiring the coaching staff, giving them a chance to establish the vision for the program, build the program, to be able to recruit. We’re not going to add a sport around here unless we think we can be competitive and excellent in it, and that’s the reason why women’s problems picked. Also, frankly from a strategic standpoint, we understood that it was a sport that the American offered, and we knew we we’re going to have a chance to join the American it was a chance to develop relationships with that Conference, so we’re excited. It’s a good, very good, women’s lacrosse league, and that is definitely on the horizon.

Agent 49: As it relates to your programs, while the the move to the American is obviously fresh and  there’s not a definitive timeline yet, from talking to the coaches have they they felt an immediate impact with their conversations with prospective student-athletes? Do they already feel a little buzz, some energy around that, that could help grow the programs from the recruiting side of operations?

Mike Hill: I would answer that with a resounding yes, instantaneous reaction from recruits, from coaches across the country. Frankly it’s it’s already opening doors with some athletes who were maybe intrigued or interested in us but not quite sure they wanted to compete here given the conference affiliation, right or wrong, I’m just saying that was reality. The American is certainly perceived in a different light, in a different way, and so that’s a strategy behind this is that it gives us a chance to elevate our talent level as well, and there’s no question that the immediate reaction and response from recruits been extremely positive and is reopen doors or open doors, with some recruits that you know, up until now, we were not really in on, for multiple sports.

Agent 49: I haven’t saw a whole lot of information about Greenlight since it’s been launched, the NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) project that you guys have in place. I wanted to see what are some of the learnings that you guys have had from that, maybe one or two takeaways for your team so far as you’re learning and exploring that that movement.

Mike Hill: We’re finding that we’re in the same boat as everybody else nationally, and that is we knew going into this, because sort of the chaotic approach to it by the enterprise, that when in the end when we were ready to launch July 1 that we were going to have to come up with our own rules and so we did. We’re really happy with the framework that we built, but we knew there would be some, I won’t even call them hiccups, but there would be some things that maybe got exposed and shortcomings, and this again this is, this is a very common theme if you talk to other schools across the country and, of course it’s all relative to the size and scope and the athletic program, but for us we’ve definitely noticed some gaps and you know I think one of the gaps is finding a way that we can without getting involved in negotiating or facilitating NIL agreements for our student athletes, making sure that you know the market has an awareness of the opportunity giving them a chance to connect with our student athletes if there’s an interest to have them endorse. We have no interest and no intention of getting in the middle of getting us directly involved in those sorts of arrangements, but I do think that, in a market like a market like ours, there is a ton of opportunity and so we’re actually very actively engaged right now and trying to figure out, how do we better connect our city our student athletes, so that doors get open without us having to turn the knob that makes sense.

Agent 49: Last thing I had relates to the the master plan, is there any information or potential timeline that could be shared around that. The  big question that I know personally I get from folks is around that.

Mike Hill: I think that the announcement of the conference is certainly accelerated timeline, and I know everybody’s anxious. That’s on me, because I announced publicly that we were going to do this, we didn’t really have to tell anybody, right. We’ve tried to be super transparent about our operating here, but once you sort set expectations people all excited they want to see it, where is it, where is it. It is substantially complete and we shared it with the American as part of our application to be considered. But the only reason that we haven’t released it publicly yet, one of the main reasons I would say, is they’re just a couple of tweaks that we’re making. We’ve gone back into it to make because we essentially had completed it about a year ago. And little over a year ago, in fact, and then Covid hit, so we decided to shelve it because it just didn’t seem appropriate that time to be talking about investing in new facilities we don’t really know what the world was going to look like. Since that time we dusted it off, there are a couple of facilities that were reviewing again. I will tell you specifically baseball and softball, we had plans for baseball and softball in the master plan already but we decided we wanted to go back and make some further modifications to that. Once we do that then we’re going to be ready to go, and I expect that’s going to be very, very soon. I can’t give you a date, again I don’t want to mislead people or set expectations, and I know people feel like we keep moving the goalposts but that’s the reason, we want to get that piece complete and once it’s complete we’re going to share it publicly. And we’re highly motivated want to get that out, so people can see it now, because we think it really dovetails very nicely with the announcement that we’re we’re joining the American. I have no doubt that that had a positive impact on the decision the American made and I’m thankful that we had the plan in place that we that we put those wheels in motion three years ago.

You know, it was really helpful to have that document to be able to demonstrate what we have, and you know our facilities show very well, they’re beautiful, but you have to continually grow your program and grow your facilities and and reassess your infrastructure on a regular basis to make sure that you don’t have aging facilities, that your your facilities reflect the growth of your program. So that includes bigger crowds in certain facilities, higher levels of usage and all sorts of things, so it’s really a great thing that we have this plan in place, and as soon as the slight modifications are done we’ll roll it out and let all Niner Nation see that.

Agent 49: Thank you, I did have one thought that popped into my mind, as far as the move to the American and a lot of content being on the ESPN family of networks, as well as ESPN+. Are there any infrastructure needs as it relates to our ability to broadcast games, or maybe broadcast more than one game.

Mike Hill: It is and we had already actually been looking into that prior to the developments this summer and this fall just because there was we had some frustration level about the platforms that we were able to put our programming on, and wanted to really enhance our capabilities, so we have been studying that over the past few months and still gathering cost. There’s no doubt that we’re going to have to invest in some infrastructure, there are  some capital expenditures as well as some other expenses related to production, and people to produce you know, so that we can really elevate our production capabilities moving forward and that absolutely will be a part of the next steps for us.

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