Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1205/bbauction.htm
When items were placed on the block during the University of California’s spring fund-raiser auction, there was no auctioneer calling bids, no bidders rustling brochures, and no hammer-crash closing items. In fact, the most pronounced sound was the click of a mouse, because Berkeley’s athletic department hosted its fund-raiser online.
Held on Yahoo’s auction Web site May 7-18, 2000, the 12-day online “CyBear Auction” received amazing response. Not only was it the largest online auction ever hosted by a collegiate athletic department, but it also stands as the most successful charity auction held on Yahoo to date. When all bids were tallied, the CyBear Auction sold 226 items and services and raised an impressive $183,602 for the athletic department.
“In past auctions, we’ve raised maybe $90,000,” says Kevin Reneau, Associate Athletic Director/Marketing and Communications at California. “This basically doubled what we’d been able to do in the past.”
Donors were permitted to designate their item’s earnings to benefit a specific Cal sports team. Once sold, each item’s revenue was split evenly between the designated sport and the general athletic scholarship fund.
According to Reneau, the online auction’s remarkable success can be attributed to its novelty, convenience to the consumer, and the work of Cal’s 15 volunteers and staff. “I think we captured the people’s imagination—being the first school to do something like this,” he says. “We decided to use this technology and experiment. It seemed like a good way to create a new revenue stream.”
One of the auction’s goals was to engage fans and alumni from beyond the local region—both as donors and bidders. “The whole idea behind this auction was to kind of blur the geographic limitations of traditional auctions,” Reneau says. “For instance, we were able to tap into some of our [former athletes who are now] pro players and still good friends of the department. Hardy Nickerson gave tickets to a Jaguars game and a jersey. We received tickets to the Green Bay Packers opener through Ryan Longwell as well as a round of golf with him. And Doug Brien donated a kicking lesson down in New Orleans.
“At an in-person auction [which draws bidders only from the immediate area], those types of items are practically meaningless,” continues Reneau. “So this was a great way to involve people who hadn’t normally been traditional donors or bidders.
“The other advantage is that we weren’t tapping into the exact same donors’ pockets, and we weren’t just asking them for a check for $25,000. This approach really caught people’s fancy and they were more than receptive.”
To carry out the actual auction, Cal athletics enlisted the expertise of one of its athletic department sponsors, Yahoo After soliciting nearly 300 donated items and services, Cal registered the collection on Yahoo’s online auction site. Yahoo then hosted the auction items, processed bidder contact information, tracked bids, and notified Berkeley of the winning bidders.
Although Yahoo provided “booths” that contained Cal auction merchandise exclusively, Cal decided to supplement Yahoo’s service with its own auction Web site. A major reason was to ensure that bidders wouldn’t confuse charity-auction items for general public sale items.
“We felt that to serve the Cal audience, we needed to have our own separate Web facilities as well as what Yahoo offered,” says Chris Avery, CyBear Auction volunteer and owner of Avery Web Enterprises, a Web design and maintenance company that runs , a non-profit site for Cal fans and alumni. “It really takes time to build interest with an audience the size of the Cal Bear Backers [Cal’s alumni booster organization of 8,000]. You can’t just start an auction on day one and hope to have much of an attendance.
“So we set up a mock auction site that didn’t take bids but did show everything,” continues Avery. “It had all the photographs, descriptive information, donor information, and estimated price ranges set up in the same kinds of booths that would be operating on Yahoo later. And you could view all that information for two months prior to the actual online auction.”
By establishing its preview site, Cal was able to promote the auction long before the actual event and allow potential bidders the opportunity to review all auction items in advance. Once the auction was underway on Yahoo, bidders could locate Cal auction items in one of two ways: They could enter Yahoo’s auction site and click on a Cal logo to link to the page which listed the CyBear Auction booths; or they could log onto the CyBear Auction Web site, click on any booth, and be directly linked to the booth’s corresponding item page on Yahoo.
To make the changeover from Cal’s preview site to Yahoo’s bid site as easy as possible for potential bidders, Cal used a new booth customization option to design its Yahoo booths to resemble the booths as closely as possible. “Our site and Yahoo used almost identical categorization systems,” explains Avery. “Things were available by store on both sites, so you could go to the Golf Store on our site and the Golf Store on the Yahoo site to locate the same auction item. And then each auction item had the same title and item number on both sites.”
Besides being a great fund-raising idea, the CyBear Auction Web site proved to be a useful marketing tool, too. “We also set up a registration at the Web site so interested Cal fans could supply their name and e-mail address,” says Avery. “This allowed us to capture information for building Cal’s list of fans and contributors, and to e-mail notices to people when the auction started, when new items had been added, and when items were about to close. That really helped develop a flow of information and excitement as the auction progressed.”
Although running the auction online made some aspects of planning and execution easier (such as not needing event-day facility management and staffing), there was still a lot of old-fashioned manpower required. The hardest work entailed soliciting donations, building the pre-auction Web site, and processing the payments for winning bids. Some of the work was accomplished by volunteers, some by department staff, and some by Avery Web Enterprises.
“In January, we solicited volunteers and put together a committee to oversee this effort,” says Reneau, “and that’s not a lot of lead time for an early May auction. Then there was the process of soliciting gifts. There was nothing new there in terms of technology. It was just a matter of calling people and maximizing the great connections so many people here have.
“We had everything from a signed size 22 shoe from Shaquille O’Neal and golf clubs donated by FogDog,” he continues, “to tickets and limousine service to the opening game of the NBA playoffs and courtside tickets to the U.S. Open in New York.”
Although obtaining items like the U.S. Open tickets or the place-kicking lessons from Doug Brien may seem like a fund-raiser’s dream, Reneau confides that, for Cal, it presented some drawbacks. “While getting those donations sounds great,” he explains, “it also presents some significant marketing problems in terms of getting the word out to those specific communities: Green Bay, Jacksonville, etc. It’s not easy unless you’re willing to throw a ton of money at marketing to those regions for very few items. That’s where our association with a giant like Yahoo was beneficial.”
With Yahoo’s help, Cal was able to target online promotional banner ads to Yahoo users matching specific demographics. Interest from national publications in this first-of-its kind auction also proved helpful.
With the online auction now complete, Cal is casting a glance back at what it could have done better and thinking about when the next online auction will be. “You can’t necessarily think, ‘Hey, there are online auctions on Yahoo and eBay, let’s just use some of those. It will be a snap!’” says Reneau. “Our auction was hugely successful, but we put a lot of time and effort into it. We’ll certainly do another one in the future, but we need to analyze whether it’s counterproductive to do it too often—in terms of the burnout factor with volunteers, donors, and staff. We don’t want to go back to the well too often, but on the other hand, we don’t want to loose the momentum we’ve created, because people liked the whole process and enjoyed the auction.”
So what will they do differently next time? Two things: payment processing and big-item donations.
This year, unaware that Yahoo could have processed bidder payments on its behalf, Cal was left with the labor-intensive and tedious process of contacting all 266 winners by phone to process payments by hand.
Another change might be how they auction big-item donations. “We found that some of the higher-end items for larger groups weren’t very successful,” says Reneau, “like, for instance, a dinner party for 30 on the bay. It was hard for people to form a syndicate to bid on those types of items, and I’m not sure what the answers are for that.”
Avery, however, thinks he has the solution. “What I think we’ll do next time,” he says, “is build a page for group items on our Web site so that individuals can bid on individual seats. Then the Web site would automatically pick off the top bids from time to time and submit them. That way, people like my wife and I could bid for two out of the 50 seats available on the bay cruise, for example, and all winning bidders would go along together and have a good time because we’d all be Cal Bear Backers. You could pick up five to 10 grand on just one of those group-activity items.”