On Thursday, Pitt athletics director Scott Barnes released a five-year strategic plan for the Panthers' sports programs. If you haven't yet seen it, you can do so here. Those involved with the plan's development included the athletics department staff, coaches, student-athletes, and other university staff and faculty.
First things first here. This plan isn't something that Pitt was mandated to release. I'm not saying fans should thank their lucky stars for seeing it, but it's important to remember that the athletics department is releasing this in the hopes of being transparent. I get that much of this is idea-oriented and many things aren't a specific list of what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. But the fact is that they're not under obligation to share details like this so keep that in mind.
Overall, there were six strategic 'big picture' goals - in a nutshell, they were to be competitive, recruit/retain the best players/coaches, graduate athletes, increase revenues, prioritize/allocate resources, and unify alumni and fans.
.There's a good amount there, so it's more than worth a look. It's also not a document spanning hundreds of pages - it's mostly bulleted and is limited to 17 pages with photos. Very readable. For now, though, I wanted to touch on some of the things highlighted and give some thoughts:
Improvement in Director's Cup Standings
The focal point, as you would expect in these sorts of things, is on winning. But one of the highlights you'll notice right off the bat is that Pitt is focused on improving its Director's Cup ranking. I've written about this before, but Pitt hasn't fared too well in those lately (more on that in a bit). The very first strategic goal says that Pitt seeks to compete at a level of excellence measured by several factors, including the Director's Cup standings. It's also the first objective stated in the plan. Specifically, Pitt wants to be in the top 20% in three years, in the top 15% in four years, and the top 10% in five years.
Now, of course the two are related. For those unfamiliar, the Director's Cup Standings measures the success of athletics programs across the board in all sports. There's a long, convoluted scoring system but essentially, the more competitive your programs are, the more points you'll earn. For that reason, you'll see some odd things when you look at the standings.
Pitt, for example is 106th in the most recent standings. Ahead of them? You'll see schools such as Akron, Tulsa, and Hawaii. The Panthers are actually the lowest-ranked P5 program on the board. Most people would consider Pitt above average in basketball and only middle-of-the-road in football - but not dead last. But the reason for their low rankings is because it's not just the major sports that count here. There are things like fencing and rifle shooting. And golf. And lacrosse and rowing, too. Those are five sports in which Pitt does not even compete so there's no way to pick up points there. Points are given out based on an aggregate, not just an average of how well you play the sports you field. If you don't play certain sports, it'll cost you. But also hurting Pitt besides the sports they don't play is that many of their non-revenue sports have been very weak - sometimes for a very long period of time. If you want to improve your rankings, you either need to be elite in a few things or balanced across the board.
Barnes' focus, as I've pointed out here numerous times, is to make sure Pitt is competitive in all sports. Football and basketball are the high-profile sports, but Pitt needs more success in any number of programs such as soccer, baseball, gymnastics, tennis, and more. Barnes' commitment to improving there has already been seen through coaching hirings. He re-signed Suzie McConnell-Serio who, despite this past losing season, has the women's basketball program on the right track. He also re-signed softball coach Holly Aprile after the team's strong season last year. He hired a world-class soccer coach in Jay Vidovich this offseason. He hired John Hargis to head the swimming and diving programs, a former Olympic gold medallist and assistant coach of some very successful programs. That's all in the past year, keep in mind. Some things like extending McConnell-Serio may be elementary, but Barnes has gone way outside the box in freeing up money to add coaches like Vidovich and Hargis (thanks, obviously to the ACC).
Pitt will probably never top the Director's Cup standings, but they should have a much more respectable showing and making that a focal point of the plan is a very good thing for the school.
Another area that Pitt emphasized was recruiting. One thing that caught my eye is that the school will reach out to incoming/signed recruits to have them complete a survey to talk about their recruiting experience and figure out what Pitt needs to do better. The mention was actually an action item, so it doesn't appear to be something they are currently doing. Obviously, it makes a lot of sense. Another new development is that Pitt will hold its first recruiting summit to bring together all of the school's head coaches to talk strategy, tactics, etc.
In addition, Pitt will continue to monitor their recruiting budgets in all sports. One of the things Steve Pederson said Pitt would do with the newfound ACC money when he was still here was to spread resources to all programs to help them improve recruiting efforts. That's continuing under Barnes and is another thing that ties back to improving the Director's Cup ranking. Pitt has some pitfalls, obviously. Trying to recruit the best baseball players when you're in a cold-weather winter city isn't the easiest thing to do. And top tennis players will likely be turned off at the prospect of having to play for a program that hasn't won much and doesn't even have its own facility. But Pitt can improve recruiting efforts and some of that starts with bringing in quality head coaches (i.e. that whole thing about hiring Vidovich and Hargis).
Maybe the thing of most interest to fans will be a few things mentioned regarding ticket sales. Of utmost importance was probably a bullet that mentions the university's plan to roll out a new premium seating plan at Heinz Field and the Pete (for football and basketball). In addition to that, the school says it will "implement fair, variable, and dynamic pricing" for football and basketball, while retaining a 90% renewal rate on season tickets. There are some other things mentioned, but these are the two big ones.
Obviously, Pitt needs to charge fair prices to attend games. And to be honest, many of the prices are pretty low compared to other schools. I wouldn't begrudge them of price increases.
My hope, though, is that greed doesn't take over here. It would be one thing if Pitt was selling out every single game, but that isn't really the case. Pitt not only doesn't have sellouts left and right, but they also have an attendance problem for their football games. The last thing the school can do is afford to alienate a customer base who has been through a lot of changes with the priority points thing, parking changes, etc. I want to see Heinz Field filled up for every game and price increases make it harder to do that unless the program all of a sudden starts winning ten games a year.
I'm not saying the fanbase wouldn't support an increase but the on-field product needs to improve and I also wonder if there would be concerns because, let's face it, the school has much more money in the ACC than they've had in the past. Even if it's not greed, aggressive increases could give that appearance very easily. Pitt needs to be cautious here if/when raising prices for football and basketball. Football appears on the upswing, but still won a relatively modest eight games last year. Basketball has regressed in the past five years. These decent programs but not ones that are competing for championships at the moment.
Again, I do believe the tickets are priced very modestly right now and an increase doesn't mean the tickets would be overpriced. But the fact is that an increase is an increase to fans. Often, it can become less about assessing the actual value and more about anger that a specific product simply costs more.
The other factor here is the third-party vendor. Many people do not buy season tickets but will instead choose to buy a la carte via a site like StubHub. At the time I'm writing this, you can get football tickets for games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech for as little as $6. Will people really pay more for a season ticket when Penn State isn't on the home schedule? Sure, some like having the convenience of the same seats, being near the same people, etc. But you almost wonder if fans will think differently if they see a price increase and realize they can get games significantly cheaper through a third-party vendor.
Lots to watch on this front.
Yeah, I know folks are probably getting a little sick of hearing about the script logo, but it was listed prominently here as well. This isn't so much about sports as it is about the university as a whole, so bear with me here.
One thing I wanted to mention was something we heard at the script reveal event. While the script is the primary branding piece for the athletics department, the goal is really to expand it into the non-athletics facets of the university as well.
Let me be clear - it will not be the only logo for everything across the entire university. The seal remains and Pitt script isn't taking over everything. But you will start to see it elsewhere outside of sports. One small example of that I noticed recently is in the license plate alumni program. If you live in Pittsburgh, you've probably seen the occasional car with a Pitt license plate. The old ones had the seal but the new ones being rolled out this month have the script. You'll still see older ones with the seal since people with them aren't required to get the new one, but all new ones are only being done with the script.
Again, you can probably expect to see the script used more outside of sports and around the university.
Finally, one final thing I noticed was a strong push for more alumni involvement. Not only does the end of the plan talk about collaboration between alumni and the athletics department but also engaging young alumni when it comes to sports.
If you're a Life Member in the Alumni Association, you got a letter earlier this year stating that the membership fee was being eliminated. Part of the reason for that was to involve more people and not limit the group to only those that paid a fee to be in. While I wouldn't mind having the $500 back that I paid to become a Life Member, I can appreciate the thought process and rationale behind that move and make things more inclusive. Think about it - it's better to get people engaged up front and then maybe turn them into ticket buyers and donors.
The plan also calls for season ticket plans for young alumni. I'm not sure what options currently existed to recent grads, but this is something we've discussed in the Fan Experience Committee meetings - keeping new alumni connected. If you were anything like me, you were more concerned about getting a job and supporting yourself out of school. Trying to figure out what options there were to attend games was way at the end of my list. So something like this that reaches out to new alumni a bit more is refreshing to hear and should hopefully keep those recently graduated as fans and (maybe a little later) donors.