Q&A with Ian McCaw

Athletic Director, Northeastern University

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.3, April/May 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1303/qamccaw.htm

In 1997, at the age of 34, Ian McCaw was named Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Campus Recreation at Northeastern University. He previously served as Senior Associate Athletics Director for Development and Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs at Tulane University, where he was involved in development, sponsorship, media relations, promotions, licensing, and merchandising. In 1996, he served as Tulane’s co-interim Director of Athletics.

McCaw got his start in athletic administration at the University of Maine, where he began as Assistant Director of Sports Information in 1986. Over the next six years, he progressed to the positions of Sports Information Director and Assistant Athletic Director for External Affairs.

A native of Burlington, Ontario, McCaw earned a bachelor’s degree in sports administration at Laurentian University in 1985, and obtained a master’s in sports management at the University of Massachusetts in 1987. In the following interview, he talks about his career path, the five-year strategic plan he’s implementing at Northeastern, and the challenges of promoting an athletic program in a metropolitan area.

AM: Has coming up through the sports information ranks given you a different perspective on the job of AD?

McCaw: SIDs need to be effective communicators and work well with people—especially head coaches—and they need to be organized. Those skills have really served me well as an AD.

Tell us about the athletic department’s five-year plan.

Shortly after I arrived in 1997, President [Richard] Freeland asked me to conduct a comprehensive program review of both intercollegiate athletics and in-campus recreation, which I supervise as well. We took about seven months to review the program, and based on our findings we developed this five-year strategic plan. It really serves as the blueprint for our department.

The centerpiece of the plan is five goals we’ve developed: to provide student-athletes with the highest quality athletic, academic, and social experiences; to achieve competitive success in every program; to develop and maintain an environment that promotes sportsmanship, compliance, equity, and diversity; to enhance revenue streams and increase operating efficiencies; and finally, to provide quality leadership and management. We feel we need to be making good decisions and leading our program in an effective manner in order to achieve the level of success that we’re aspiring to.

We’ve also developed specific action items and objectives that if carried out, should allow us to reach those goals. We developed a grid that is updated annually, and it keeps us on track. We try to complete several action items towards each goal each year, and we feel this has been a valuable tool in terms of focusing our department on the priorities that we have set up.

So far, we’ve gotten feedback from our student-athletes that they’re having a great experience. We’ve had mixed success with our programs—some teams are bringing home championships, while others are trying to get turned around. So, to date, I feel we’ve successfully accomplished much of the plan; however, there’s a good amount of work to be done.

What is the school doing to enhance gender equity? Have you had to drop or add any sports?

We’ve done a few things, and overall we’re making good progress. Our undergraduate enrollment at Northeastern is 51 percent male, 49 percent female, and our participation rates mirror enrollment identically. We’ve also allocated financial aid in the same proportion, improved the locker rooms for female student-athletes, and renovated our basketball and volleyball facility.

Four sports were dropped in the mid-1990s before I got here, but none since then. What we want to do is be successful with what we have, as opposed to adding new programming.

What steps are you taking to ensure the department’s long-term financial stability?

I think every program in the country is facing some sort of financial pressure, although the pressures at Ohio State are certainly different than those at a place like Northeastern. We’ve focused our attention mainly on enhancing our revenue streams. We’ve made some good gains in ticket sales and fund-raising, we’ve implemented a licensing program for the first time with Collegiate Licensing, and we’ve worked hard to increase corporate sponsorships. Through all those means, we’ve been able to enhance the resources that we have to work with.

What are the challenges of attracting fans to your campus, located in the heart of Boston?

The city of Boston offers so many forms of entertainment—we’re competing against pro sports, the theater, shopping, museums—that it’s an enormous challenge to attract the general public to athletic events. What we’ve done is focus our energies on several target constituencies.
We started with our student base. We felt if we could get our students out to games, they’d create a lot of enthusiasm. And we’ve been doing that for the past three years.

The second audience was various community groups—we’ve tried to invite them to athletics contests through group sales programs, and that’s been very effective for us. The third group we’re reaching out to right now is our alumni. We have 120,000 alumni in the greater Boston area, and many of those alums have not been back to campus in recent years, so we’re working hard to get them here.
It’s been a three-pronged strategy—students, community groups, alumni—and we feel that it’s producing a pretty good yield for us at this point. Our attendance numbers have definitely jumped in the last several years, and we’re hoping that they’ll continue to grow.

The Center for the Study of Sport in Society is right on your campus. Do you draw on its resources?

We do. The Center does wonderful work in our community in terms of academics through sport, violence prevention, and community service outreach. And we work very closely with them on a number of projects. We jointly sponsor community service programs, and our student-athletes are involved in activities such as Project Teamwork, as well as in-Center programs. They support us very strongly, and vice versa.

Tell us about the renovation plans for the Cabot Center?

The Cabot Center is about 50 years old and located in the heart of our campus. It’s the main administrative building, and it also houses our basketball court, indoor track, and swimming pool. One of our top priorities was to enhance this facility, and we’ve completed two phases of renovation to date.

We did a $1 million renovation to the basketball/volleyball court, and we also did a $3 million renovation of the first floor of the building, which includes a new speed, strength, and conditioning center; a sports medicine center; and locker rooms for both men and women. In the next phase, we’d like to complete an academic center, coaches’ offices, and a hall of fame room/lounge area. We feel once completed, this will provide us with a high-quality, modern Division I athletic facility, and it will be a big enhancement to our program.

We’re in the midst of a big fund-raising campaign right now to help pay for it. Most of the funding will be private donations, but there also will be some institutional funding through a deferred maintenance program that we have access to.

As a member of the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey Committee, what issues do you see facing the sport?

College hockey is going through a very dynamic period right now with tremendous growth in the game, both on the men’s and women’s side. I think that will continue in the years to come.

The top issue the Committee is dealing with is an attempt to get the championship bracket expanded from the current 12 teams to 16 teams. That would do two things: enhance the revenue to the membership and allow four more teams the experience of participating in an NCAA championship.

As the parent of three young children, how have you balanced the rigors of directing a Division I athletic program with your family life?

It’s a challenge, no question. These jobs have a tendency to become all-consuming, and so much of your time is spent in the office or at functions, games, and banquets that you can rack up a lot of hours away from home. So, I think any successful athletic director has to have a supportive spouse, and my wife Heather is just wonderful.

We make scheduling family activities and individual time with the children a priority—whether it’s going to church, recreation, or taking a vacation. And now I’m trying to integrate our older kids into my work by bringing them to games, which gives them a chance to meet staff, coaches, and student-athletes. It’s a great opportunity for them, and at the same time, it allows me to spend a little more time with them in a work setting.

As a Canadian and graduate of Laurentian, what compelled you to work in the U.S.?

It wasn’t my intention to work here originally. I came down to attend graduate school at UMass-Amherst, and I found that the opportunities for employment in a sports-related field were so much greater in the U.S. than in Canada. I worked briefly for the Hartford Whalers and originally planned to make my career in the NHL. But as I had opportunities to work in college athletics, I started to fall in love with college sports, and I enjoy the ability to interact with student-athletes and be on a college campus. I’ve very much enjoyed my work and feel very fortunate to be a Division I athletic director.