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Meet the Vendor
A Career in College Athletics with University of Texas Athletic Director Chris Plonsky
by Chris Carver
on June 12, 2017
Photo by Texas WBB

 

INTRODUCTION
We started this interview series to shed light on the advice and expertise of different leaders in the event world. What we quickly realized is that the event world touches a number of different industries. And the fact is, when we look outside of our own inner circle, there is so much we can learn from all sorts of markets. Including major college athletics, where a division 1 program will produce hundreds if not thousands of events each year.

So think you have a career cut out for college sports? Well... You definitely need a diverse track record of hosting a number of events, and have the grit to go above and beyond the call of duty.

That's the case for this next interview.

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LET'S SET THE SCENE
When it comes to leadership and what it means to have strong work ethic, it is really hard to find a better representative than University of Texas Women’s Athletics Director Chris Plonsky.

She also is an Executive Sr. Associate AD for men’s/women’s athletics external services. 
She's a former Kent State basketball player turned Longhorn when she joined the University of Texas Athletics Department in 1982 (following two years at Iowa State) to build a career in college athletics.

This interview with Chris certainly revealed big similarities between event operations and college athletics. So... if you've ever considered trading in your events badge for a parking spot at one of the biggest athletics programs in the country, get your note pad out. Because running an athletics program with more than 500 student-athletes is no easy undertaking.

She says she's doing it for the kids.

I call it passion.

A FEW STATS:
University of Texas at Austin student population: 50,950
Number of UT college athletes: 500
Longhorn sports programs: 20
Campus location: Downtown Austin, Texas
National championships won since 1949: 52

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Photo cred: Shawn Clynch. Texas Associate Athletics Director, Chris Plonsky with the honorary 200th career win basketball for UT women's basketball head coach, Karen Aston.

So, you ready for this?

Yeah. I'm easy. You fire away.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Ohio. That's where I went to junior high and high school and then eventually went to college at Kent State University.

What was 17-year-old Chris like?

Gosh, pretty busy. I'm the eldest of five girls. Pretty typical, middle-class family. We all had jobs while going to school and I played a lot of sports. Played volleyball, basketball, softball. Academics were a priority, so we had to hit the books in order to do all of those co-curricular activities. Love my family. I'm still very close with my sisters and my parents. In fact, we just celebrated my parents' 60th wedding anniversary back home.

That's incredible. Fast forward to today. If we're hanging out after a UT game with some of your friends and they've had a couple drinks, how would they describe you?

Oh, I hope they would say I'm a good person and a supportive friend. I think people would say I'm fun. I like to be active and outdoors for sure.

I've been lucky throughout my life to have good friends who enjoy the same things I do. I value friendship and helping others, especially in a college sports environment. I like good food, like a good red wine and a good scotch every once in awhile.

I love it. Awesome. If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be?

That's a great question. I think I'd be a ping-pong table. Often in my work, you find yourself receiving and serving and having to catch the angle, make a difficult shot happen but try to be steady on the routine ones. College athletics today is a very complex business compared to when I got into it as a college sophomore. 

 

"College athletics today is a very complex business." twitter-128.png

 

You find yourself during the day making decisions with and for your staff and students that keep the ship moving forward. It's not a linear path all the time. You have to be prepared to multitask, you have to be prepared for crisis, to change gears or directions. That's what makes our business fun and exciting.

In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
Oh, I think we all have our inner quietness and concerns. I think if there's anything that I was taught early on is to be self-sufficient and confident. Sometimes you've got to step into the unknown and show a competence and an unflinching nature even though you might be roiling inside. When you get to a leadership position, you don't want to have the people you're serving or leading see you flinch.

You try to be secure in your knowledge and preparation and dare to be bold, but bold as part of a team. I love to work in a team setting. They are very, very few things in life that you can do by yourself that are any fun. I really love to be part of a group that is working for a greater good.

 

"They are very few things in life that you can do by yourself that are any fun." twitter-128.png

 

Do you have any routines throughout the day that help you stay productive?

I'm a lot better as I've gotten older than I used to be. You must sleep well. I get up twice a week and work out at 6 a.m. with a trainer. I try to stay fit and healthy and take short breaks. Taking three to four days to join friends, play golf, and then come back and catch up with work and then maybe three or four weeks later in the summer do the same thing, that's sort of my routine now.

I'm a list writer at work. I try and knock things out during the day. I like to be scheduled. I like to have somebody schedule me. That's where my Executive Assistant, Joy, is brilliant. I tell people if they want me in anything, they have to schedule through Joy. She keeps me going to the right places and the right meetings at the right time.

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On the weekend, Chris has golf on the mind. Here she is with her friends at a Susan G. Komen fundraiser. Courtesy of Chris Plonsky.

When you came out of college and set your sights on college athletics, what would you say was your goal for your career?
It was day-to-day then. It was just to be the very best I could be every day at my job. I still give that advice to young people. When you do the job you have well and when you work beyond job description, good things will happen. Get outside yourself and try to volunteer in other areas, expand your horizons, 

I did a lot of that early in my career. Volunteering at national sports festivals or the Olympics, serving on NCAA committees, conference committees, those kind of things. It puts you around leadership from different areas and you learn from others in our business.

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Now let's fast forward to today. We can all say you're at the top of the industry. Has the goal for your career changed?
The odd part of this, Chris, is that I really had never planned to be an Athletics Director. Our former women's AD, Coach Jody Conradt, decided that she wanted to return to coaching only. It was DeLoss Dodds, our venerable and wonderful men's AD who asked the president if he would consider me to assume the women's AD role as Jody stepped down. I ended up in the directorship in a very sort of unusual fashion. I had never set out, per se, to be an AD.

My background in communications and marketing has lent itself well to this role, but I must say that there's no more joy than being able to do something on behalf of students. That's really what athletics directors and coaches do.

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Big 12 press conference with former UT President William Powers Jr and Texas Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds. Photo cred: University of Texas

I'm curious, how has the role of a director changed over the years? Do you have any examples of the major differences between when you started and now?

I think the regulations, policies and procedures that we're under now have changed. The NACDA is a large organization, over 300 members, all of whom are not at the same level in terms of scope of sports. In a self-sustaining operation, it's expensive to operate a college athletics department.

If I were tell you that our combined men's and women's athletics budget at Texas when I returned (after seven years with the Big East Conference) in 1993 was $23 million, and today we're getting ready to do a submission of a budget for the '17-'18 school year that is probably going to approach just under $200 million dollars.

Wow. That's crazy.

That's exponential change no matter what business you're in. That's really been the biggest change.

What other job is the role of Athletic Director most like?
You're part teacher, you're part CEO, you're part lawyer, you're part parent. You've got to hire great people, so you're part Human Resource Director. You've got to let really good people around you go to work so that they can have an impact. You need to be part visionary because you need to set the path for the organization.

You have to lead by example so that people get motivated to follow it. The only other comparable work would probably be somebody that's leading a major nonprofit or somebody that's tried to lead a company that serves an age group of 17 to 23-year-olds and helps them become who they want to be at a very interesting time in their lives.

Do you have any tips on how you can make meetings run efficiently? Do you have any ways that you try to keep it on pace?
Yeah. Definitely, like I said, I'm a list writer. I think having a list of things that you need to cover, allowing time for exchange. I'm really not a big meeting person. I don't over-meet. I don't think anybody here at Texas really does. We have standing organizational meetings, a revenue meeting about ticket sales and things. We have an executive staff meeting to discuss what we're plotting out for the week.

If you're a really good leader, you don't need a lot of meetings. What you are is available, around, and accessible and that's what I've tried to be.

"If you're a really good leader, you don't need a lot of meetings." twitter-128.png

 

10 years from now, what do you see as biggest revenue opportunities in college athletics?
That's an ironic question. We were just having a strategy plan meeting yesterday on revenue generation and cost containment. We've been able to create non conventional revenue streams in trademark and licensing and retail, plus television with our ESPN agreement for Longhorn Network. ESPN has blessed us with a very handsome rights fee for our third tier sports and the channel is very successful.

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In the director's seat on set of Longhorn Network (LHN). Courtesy of The Austin Chronicle.

We were talking yesterday about, "Okay, what is the next interesting or bold step we could take for revenue?" We stepped out two years ago to allow alcohol sales in our facilities, again, with Austin growing as a market and catering to a very diverse fan base. In a state where they have a lot of pro venues, we felt like we had to offer the same services for an adult customer as what's offered at a Cowboys or Spurs game.

That was a bold move and has resulted in a good revenue stream for us. I think the next phase is taking a look at some of our athletics facilities like our stadium, a beautiful 96,000 seat stadium, but it sits idle 359 days a year aside from practices and games. Maybe having non conventional events like concerts or pro events in there is our next frontier.

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With a lot of pro teams having already done that, I'm curious. Why do you think it may have taken this long to say, "Well, maybe we should entertain that type of thing"?
You have to remember that athletics is part of a campus. There are classes and things around the clock. In order to do a week day pro soccer game, for example, campus would have to prepare by easing operations down around 3 p.m. in the day as classes wind down. Just to create traffic flow in and out, we would have had to adjust a little bit with campus operations.

These things don't happen in an athletics vacuum. You really need the support of your campus to make things happen, everything from safety to traffic to parking, and then you need the cooperation of your city, too. We're a metropolitan campus. We're sitting right in the heart of the north end of downtown. What happens at UT affects and impacts other cycles of business in our city, so we try to be sensitive to that.

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Photo cred: Gregory Brooks, A/E Firms. Even the campus building roofs are burnt orange.

As an AD, you're obviously surrounded by competition from athletes and teams. I'm curious from a business standpoint, how much are you thinking about competition and if so, who is your competition?
We live on a competitive cycle. That's what college athletics is defined as allowing young people to compete and represent their universities. The University of Texas decided a long time ago that we were going to have a sports program where whatever we sponsored in a sport, we were going to be extremely serious about it and try to win championships in it. It's incredible the number of championships we've won at Texas. When you look at our men's swimming and diving program, it really leads. 

We say this: Texas isn't for everybody, so our coaches have to be very discerning in recruiting. We have 500 student athletes in our 20 sports. This is a very rigorous institution academically and athletically. If a student comes here to compete in sports, they have to understand that the classroom environment is probably as ultra-competitive as any Big 12 or NCAA competition will be for them. They've really got to be serious about the education aspect of this experience.

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Photo cred: NCAA.com Texas Men's Swimming and Diving wins third straight national title this year.

If you were giving a college athletics state of the union address, what would be the three points you'd hit on?
It is one of the most rewarding and validating endeavors you can imagine where young people dedicate themselves to not only their sport, but to an academic career. They know that not all of them are going to be able to make a living through sports, so they prepare themselves to be a really marketable citizen when they finish. To me, that's worth validating.

I so believe in college sports. I think it's one of the few places that truly teaches life lessons daily. You're under scrutiny. You're judged on the wins and losses. You're judged on performance. You learn to operate under pressure. You learn to be uplifted by those who are cheering you on. It takes a lot to be a student-athlete today.

"I so believe in college sports. It's one of the few places that truly teaches life lessons daily." twitter-128.png

It really motivates all of us who get to work in this environment to do great things every day on their behalf. Every day I come to work, I purposely drive by the library to remind myself I work at a campus and an academic institution. Every time I see one of our student athletes with a backpack on and heading to class, I think, "That's really what it's all about."

Do you have any parting wisdom for those in the event and college athletics world?
I think just have a passion for it. You can live what you love and it's hard work, but college sports is a great thing to support. There's so many jobs in which you can contribute in this area. If you want to coach, be the best coach you can be and get around great mentors who can help you.

Put in a few hours, even if they aren't paid hours. If you get connected in a way that you can contribute and find out if it is your passion to work in this environment, you can go really far. You can set your own pace and tempo.

That's incredible. Chris, I appreciate the time. The fact that you gave me this much time is really incredible. I really, really appreciate it.
You bet. It's an honor to talk to you. I always have enjoyed your work, so appreciate what you're doing.

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