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Missouri pushes donor drive to keep up with the SEC

March 21, 2019

ABOUT THIS SERIES: More than seven years after MU uprooted its elf from the Big 12 Conference, the Missourian examines whether one of the biggest decisions in the university’s existence has met expectations. In this series, we explore the benefits — and drawbacks — of the school’s move to the Southeastern Conference.

Last fall, Missouri executive associate athletic director Ashley Moore sat at a boardroom table and listened to fellow Mizzou Athletics staffers discuss donation initiatives. The group scrawled ideas on the whiteboard in search of ways to make the numbers less bleak.

In 2018, Missouri received athletics donations totaling $25.6M, a sum that puts the athletic department’s donation revenue ahead of only Arkansas and Kentucky among the 12 SEC programs that responded to the Missourian’s request for mandatory NCAA financial reports. One of the two that didn’t respond was South Carolina, whose sunshine laws allow public bodies a month to comply with requests. In 2017, though, the Gamecocks reported more than $38 million in donation revenue. The other was Vanderbilt, which, as a private institution, isn’t required to release its financial reports.

To compete in the SEC long-term, Moore and others knew Missouri had to increase the number of donors in the Tiger Scholarship Fund — the fundraising arm of MU athletics — and, in turn, the dollars coming into the athletic department. Missouri has one of the highest average donation numbers in the league, but it also needed to improve the quantity of its donor base, which at 7,000 ranked last among the 14 SEC schools.

Staffers in the room that day tossed out suggestions in brainstorming sessions. During one, the room produced a #ShowMe10K idea, wanting to attract 10,000 total donors by the next fundraising cycle.

If they reached it, that number would move Missouri past LSU and Kentucky in terms of total donors, but the Tigers would still be 11th in the SEC in that category. “We talked about it and were like, ‘You know what? 10,000 is not going to get us very far,’” Moore said. So they bumped the number to 15,000 donors.

Moore wanted to reach even further.

“I know it’s crazy,” she told the staffers in a later session, “but if we’re already at 15,000, why wouldn’t we go pay a little tribute to the founding of the university and go with 18,039?”

And so began the creation of the #ShowMe1839 campaign, an homage to the year of the university’s establishment that was announced in January. The purpose, according to the school’s release, was to “increase the financial resources needed to provide Mizzou student-athletes with the opportunities to succeed in the classroom, in their sport, and throughout the community.” Those resources, according to Moore, are scholarships, academic support, and money for travel and gear, among other things.

“You’re asking your kids to go win SEC championships, and if we can’t provide the necessary support, then that’s a tough thing to ask,” Moore said. “So, it’s pushed us a lot. We have to be creative. We have to be better.”

Moore, who grew up in Missouri, played softball at MU in the early 2000s. At that time, the Tigers stood in the middle of the Big 12 in fundraising. By the time school officials began exploring a potential move to the SEC in 2011, Missouri had fallen to the bottom third of the Big 12 in donations, far behind Texas and Oklahoma, two programs flush with cash from rabid donor bases.

When the school ultimately opted to move to the SEC in late 2011, its donation levels matched bottom-tier SEC programs such as Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, but Missouri was again far behind the elite group of schools that competed year in and year out for league championships. Gary Pinkel’s football program drastically exceeded expectations by winning two SEC East titles in Missouri’s first four seasons in the league. In his second season helming the men’s basketball program, Frank Haith led Missouri to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on the heels of a 30-5 final season in the Big 12 that pushed Missouri to a No. 2 ranking in The Associated Press and Coaches poll.

Since then, Missouri’s two biggest revenue-generating sports have struggled to bring in the kind of money they need to compete in arguably the richest college athletics conference in the country. The basketball program received a much-needed one-year boost with the addition of Michael Porter Jr. and younger brother Jontay Porter. But the nearly $2 million ticket revenue growth that their arrivals brought was largely offset by the football program’s continuing decline in its own ticket sales revenue.

Between 2012 and 2017, the athletic department’s revenue from contributions increased by more than 60 percent, but the $23.5 million Missouri received in 2017 was still $12 million below the median amount for SEC schools.

With college football and basketball attendance across the country on a downward trend, athletic director Jim Sterk and his staff needed something to bolster both ticket sales and donations. Enter the South End Zone Project.

Expected to bring in approximately $6 million in revenue each year, the project serves as a way to fund new football facilities, while at the same giving fans a tangible benefit for their donation.

And so far, amassing donations for the project hasn’t been a problem. A month after Missouri athletic director Sterk was hired at MU, the school announced a $10 million donation from the Kansas City Sports Trust, a group of anonymous donors. The school received another $8 million donation from an individual donor who wished to remain anonymous a month later. In total, more than $50 million has been raised for the project, and the rest will be covered by revenue bonds.

The projects those larger-scale donations fund are expected to pay dividends, but Moore and her staff also see the value in those who donate $50. At Ole Miss, average donations are only about half the amount they are at Missouri. But when you combine nearly 16,000 of them, you get to where the Rebels are — nearly $8 million ahead of Missouri in donation revenue. And as much as Moore’s staff can increase that number, the better, which is what brought them to the boardroom last fall.

She knows the 18,039 number seems far-fetched, even if it doesn’t have a specific deadline. It would be more than a 150 percent increase, and it would catapult Missouri into the upper echelon of the league in terms of donors. But with the challenge of keeping up in the SEC looming over her department, Moore doesn’t see any reason it can’t happen.

“There’s a lot of unrealistic things that happen in sports,” she said. “That’s why they play the game, right?”

Supervising editors are Keegan Pope and Michael Knisley.