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UB taking its athletics rebranding plan to the next level

Danny White probably knew more about UB than most candidates when the university sought to fill its athletic director’s vacancy. He served as director of basketball operations at Ohio. He toiled in the athletic development at Northern Illinois. Those positions at other Mid-American Conference institutions provided him something beyond a scant general awareness.

It’s what White didn’t know about UB until the university-commissioned search firm spelled it out that made the job exceedingly attractive.

“I had no idea it was an AAU institution, or the biggest public university in the state of New York, enormous alumni base, all the things about this university that I think give us unbelievable potential, unprecedented potential, in college athletics,” White said.

Subsequent discussions with alumni and Western New Yorkers convinced White that UB was suffering from an identity crisis. Few knew the institution is one of 22 public flagship members of the Association of American Universities but the only one unaffiliated with an elite athletic conference.

“In these conversations I learned a lot about the history of UB,” White said. “I learned about the transition 50 years ago from the University of Buffalo to the State University of New York at Buffalo. I talked to alumni that played for the University of Buffalo, talked to alumni who played for State University at New York at Buffalo in Division III and Division II.

“A lot of the conversation and questions and comments coming back to us was ‘Why don’t we look at positioning ourselves that we’re the big state school in the state of New York? They’d tell me stories about different movements in the past where there was thought to do that. I even found a 1962 football media guide where the front cover said ‘State University of New York at Buffalo’ and the inside flap said, ‘Formerly UB.’”

These revelations prompted White and his team to consider how UB is perceived among alumni, WNY residents and across the country. Shouldn’t everyone be made to know that UB is the largest public university in the state system? Shouldn’t prospective donors be presented with a vision that encompasses UB’s growth potential as the lone AAU flagship institution outside an elite conference?

“How do we get people to realize that at the first glance,” White wondered, “because when people watch in 1.8 million households, like they were when we played Ohio State, they know Ohio State’s a big deal in the state of Ohio, and that has a major impact on that institution in a whole lot of different ways.”

Those questions have resulted in what’s been dubbed the “New York Bulls Initiative.” Rumors that UB athletics aimed to leverage its status within the state university system commenced in March and became manifest with new “marks” on the basketball floor at Alumni Arena and the turf at UB Stadium. The New York ties also have been prominently incorporated into athletic uniforms and coaching gear.

The mark was created in conjunction with the Buffalo-based New Era Cap Co. The intent is to broaden awareness of UB’s stature within the state system along with its athletic potential. As part of the initiative, athletics produced a “Points of Pride” handout that reinforces UB’s status:

• New York’s flagship athletic department.

• Association of American Universities member (AAU).

• Ranked 51st among all public universities in the US (US News & World Report).

• Law, Medicine, Dentistry, Business and Engineering ranked Top 100.

• $1.7 billion annual economic impact on WNY.

• UB 2020 plan for “Enduring Prominence.”

The flip side of the card features “Points of Potential:”

• 1 of 22 public flagship AAU member institutions participating in Div. 1-A.

• Within 500 miles of 11 of the top 50 US media markets.

• City of Buffalo is the 51st largest media market in the country.

• Over 220,000 alumni worldwide, 198,522 residing in the U.S.

• Over 100,000 in (sic) alumni in New York State, over 85,000 in WNY.

Where is this all leading? White concedes he’s not entirely sure. For now #NYBI is about building momentum by enhancing UB’s public perception and relevance in the WNY community and among alumni, efforts that White said already have yielded fruit in the fundraising arena. A 1,600-seat East Club envisioned for UB Stadium has resulted in some 200 deposits, with 500 commitments the minimum for project launch.

Premium seating also is being introduced at basketball games. A tailgating experience that includes a concert now precedes all UB home football games. Increasing attendance and the ancillary revenue streams that come with that would be a step toward funding for the facility upgrades necessary for UB to compete in the MAC, let alone at a higher level. That includes a field house/football practice facility, something that’s been discussed for almost a decade.

“We’re selling this image of what this place can become,” White said. “The same thing with corporate sponsors. We’re selling what we call Team UB, higher-level affiliation agreements with corporations that believe in the vision and where we’re taking this place. And it’s the same conversation with someone who might purchase a club seat or make a 10-year commitment for a club seat, or the same conversation with someone who might make a major gift commitment.”

Might UB one day be a candidate for inclusion in one of the major conferences? It’s difficult to project what the college landscape will even look like, say, a decade down the road. At least for now it’s less about the destination and more about the journey.

“What we have to do is figure out how to dominate the Mid-American Conference,” White said. He notes most MAC schools have facilities “a little bit nicer than ours. We got to fix that problem. But I like the fact that all the things that are on that card, nobody else in the conference can say that. Nobody else in the country can say that that’s not already at the highest level. I think that we can figure out how to get consistently good year in and year and have some stellar years and really good things can happen at this place.”

The momentum seemed to pick up with the recent creation of an athletics advisory board consisting of local business leaders and prominent alumni. At the least it suggested that White’s vision has resonated with a group of individuals who have the business expertise to help UB athletics along. The board is chaired by Pete Augustine, president of New Era and a UB graduate.

“The relationships that we’re creating with them, I liken it hopefully as it grows to what UnderArmour in Maryland’s doing and Nike in Oregon,” White said. “But we have one of the most powerful sports firms in the world right here in Buffalo and the president is a grad.

“Ultimately, if that lends itself to an athletic department rebranding of the athletics nickname, that’s a whole another conversation for another day and we’ll do a whole lot of market research on that. That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish.

“We’re trying to really reposition UB so people understand what we are. I don’t care if we’re the XYZ Bulls, we’re the big state school in New York, we’re the only FBS public university in the state of New York and that’s a powerful position to be in. And it can’t be a secret any longer.”