The Career Path of an Athletic Conference Commissioner

Do you desire to be a Commissioner of an athletic conference in your career? Then this article is for you! Whether you are a mid-level or new professional working in athletics, below are the top 5 areas of professional focus you should have in order to be successful.

  1. Know business + athletics. It is important that a candidate have a background and/or experience with the business side of athletics not just as a coach or administrator. If you are pursuing this position from outside of a traditional higher education athletics department, be sure that you build some of the same, if not all, of the same skills working for an athletics program: e.g. recruiting, coaching, budgeting, supervision, and event management. Finally, taking ownership of a budget not only to manage but also grow its revenue for distribution or for investments is also critical.
  1. Possess proven experience supervising staff. Managing others is just as critical as business management. Being able to demonstrate competence and success in managing a diverse and variably skilled staff will inevitably increase your chances of an interview. When Alden & Associates conducts searches for these positions, we often hear search committees appreciate candidates who have strong backgrounds working with people, who work hard, and believe in the mission and vision of the Division to which they are applying.
  1. Determine the athletics division that is the best fit for you. Athletics divisions vary greatly depending on the number of and types of sports of which they are comprised and their competition level (e.g. Division I and its subsets, II or III). You must also be aware that the more competitive the division and the higher the position to which you are applying, the higher the expectations are on all levels. It would be even more advantageous if you were able to understand conference office dynamics of all types so that you can fully comprehend their difficulties. Hint: Informational interviews with professionals in the position(s) you seek will help clarify the difficulties.
  1. Publicity, marketing and brand management must be your friends. The possession of a watchful eye on both the marketing and branding of your product (i.e. your conference) is critical as well. You have to protect it. Jim Delany is a great commissioner to watch and study in terms of his publicity management skills. Check out this video of him talking about the Big Ten. If a conference’s brand is soured, then the corporate partners will withdraw their support. Running championship events require corporate sponsorships plus great brands increase revenue with the general public. Aside from fundraising and brand management, a strong candidate will also have some experience dealing with television and the media as most will have their premier sports featured regularly.
  1. Diversity Insights.  The number of women filling commissioner roles is growing. In Division I, a woman holds this position for the following seven (out of a total 32) conferences: FCS, Horizon (Ivy League institutions), the NEC, Patriot League, America East, West Coast Conference, OVC, and the Big East- American Conferences. At least a half a dozen women who hold this position in the DIII level. Two Division II conferences, the CIAA and HBCU, have hired women for this role. Among these women, racial diversity appears absent. On the contrary, we regularly observes diverse staffs in the conference offices themselves. The question then becomes, is there a pipeline being created for women and minorities to this role? She could not be sure how many diverse individuals were applying or even aspiring to this high-ranking position.

Note: Mentoring and sponsorship is very important as per the above. If you are a candidate, please seek out conversations with individuals who are in the position(s) to which you aspire and assess the skills you possess and/or need to be sure you are as strong as you can be to achieve your goals.

Lastly, I wanted to share some of the realities associated with obtaining such a role.

  • Commissioner positions do not turn over often. For example, Tom Yeager ran the Colonial Conference for 31 years as the only Commissioner to hold that position since its inception.
  • Most often the women who are securing these positions replaced a woman or a man who had been there for years such as was the case for the Ivy League commissioner position. More Presidents are now seeing women as options for the positions at the same time that more women are applying.
  • College Presidents may open up the search for a commissioner but often prefer to handpick who they want. Conference often groom someone for the role such as an Athletics Director or high-level management professional with the NCAA or perhaps even a commissioner from another conference.
  • Remember: Commissioner position candidates typically have 10 years or more of very diverse experience in athletics and can handle being the “face of” a conference, Division, or team in their experience history. Make sure that you find opportunities both digitally and in person to be present in the community representing your institution, department and/or self.

Alfreeda Goff