Sports Marketing and Fundraisers - Advice for School Athletics in 2021

Ryan-Hughes-EventBuzz-podcastPodcast speakers: Savannah McIntosh (Purplepass Marketing Director) and Ryan Hughes ( President and GM for Excite Fundraising, LLC.).

Jump to links and video notes below. 

The EventBuzz podcast: Excite Fundraising


11:27 - The future of events
13:39 - Advice to athletic directors for reopening
16:50 - School fundraising advice 
21:38 - Successful fundraising 
24:26 - Protocols for opening sports events

Podcast transcript: Excite Fundraising


Savannah (Purplepass):  

Welcome to another episode of the EventBuzz podcast by Purplepass. Before we get started, I realized that I've never really properly introduced myself. So for all the listeners that have been following along with the podcast or are just joining now, my name is Savannah McIntosh. I am the marketing director for Purplepass ticketing, an all in one event management platform.

I originally decided to start this podcast in direct response to COVID and all the questions I was receiving from our current promoters and clients when we kind of got shut down. They wanted to know how to transition to virtual events, how to do online fundraisers, all this simple stuff that I can help them with. But I realized a better solution would be to connect them with other event planners and professionals out there kind of going through the same thing or who have already made the mistakes and have the experience and have learned from it that can share their journey during this time so that other promoters that were originally reaching out to me can listen and learn from them, learn from their mistakes, and hopefully avoid them in the future.

As we keep making episodes and growing and we're moving out of the pandemic and slowly starting to open events, I've been starting to talk to other professionals about things beyond the virtual online world. All these different topics that always seem to come up in my day to day and questions that I receive. I'm taking them to the podcast and looking for specific experts that can answer them for our listeners.

So that was a little bit about me and the podcast. So let's get started.

On today's episode, we are talking with Excite Fundraising, who is actually a partner with us for their digital ticketing. Excite Fundraising is a full service fundraising company that specializes in promoting Athletic departments, and getting the most out of your fundraisers. Excite was founded in 2016, and currently works with schools and sponsors in over 30 states.

On today's episode, we are talking with Ryan Hughes, president of Excite all about sports marketing, and I look into running successful fundraisers. Plus we're talking a little bit about their journey during COVID and what the future looks like for sports.

Ryan, thanks for coming on the show today. I am really glad we're in the same time zone, because it's been difficult talking to a lot of different people because everyone's in their own different area. So it's been nice.


Ryan (Excite):

Well, thanks for having me.



Yeah. Okay. So just to jump into the episode, why don't we just start by introducing who you are and tell the listeners about Excite Fundraising?



Sure. Well, I'm Ryan Hughes, and I'm the president and general manager of Excite Fundraising. We're based in Bentonville, Arkansas, and we are a fundraising and sports marketing company that works with mainly high school athletic programs. But we do have some collegiate sports properties, helping them with marketing, and fundraising, basically, things from, you know, raising money selling products that we provide all the way to, you know, sourcing an ad on, you know, a stadium sign or a scoreboard, and any other kind of capital campaigns. So, we handle a wide variety of things, both in the sports marketing world and in the fundraising world.



Okay, so I know, I mean, it's called Excite Fundraising. I was just curious why you guys also decided to offer the marketing side as well, do you think that fundraising and marketing kind of go hand in hand



They do and what we found, so I founded and sold a sports marketing company in 2009. I founded it in 2007, sold in 2009 and so I had a lot of experience with the fundraising world and in the sports marketing world. And when we had a long non compete, and once that was over and we founded Excite. 

Our board, the first year really wanted us to focus on just fundraising in general, helping teams sell our products to raise money for uniforms, and things like that. And then what we realized is that, you know, at any given time on a high school campus, there's a lot of fundraising going on. But there's also some things that are going on kind of behind the scenes, in preparation of lobbyists, like, you know, the football game that Friday night. You don't flip the lights on anymore for nothing, like when I was playing high school football years ago, now, it's a pretty big business.

And we decided that we would incorporate and kind of become an all inclusive company that could allow an Athletic Director, instead of working with like so many vendors, you know, across four main product lines that we figured out that he or she could work with just one company and we can help them you know, you know, across those different platforms. So that's why we got more onto the into the sports marketing side because we just saw a huge need for it.



Like a one stop shop, basically, for your Athletic Departments.



That's absolutely what it is from, you know, helping them with their digital ticketing or their paper ticketing, to helping them with, you know, selling their signage. You know, when we talk to most athletic directors, they're like, you know, I'm an Athletic Administrator. First and foremost, I'm not a salesperson, I'm not a promoter. And so a lot of them just kind of either shy away from that, or they hire someone to do it like us, where we can go in and source, you know, that, that stadium signage for them, and, you know, make a commission on it, or depending on what our rev share agreement is, and they don't even have to lift a finger and they know that, you know, they've got a professional group that's going to go into their, their merchants in their area, and represent them professionally.

And, you know, be able to really like an ad agency for the high school Athletic Director.



So yeah, yeah, and you're right, especially football, it's a business. And it's crazy, because I am originally from California. So moving to the south, it's a whole new world, like, you don't really realize it until you come here, and it's really cool.



It is, it's, you know, we love our football on the south. And, you know, obviously, the southeast for circumference is huge, and very successful, generates hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year, maybe even more.

And, you know, it is true. I mean, the town shuts down on a Friday night when they put the lights on. And so there's a lot of things that that, you know, revolve around that. And we've just kind of inserted ourselves to where we can offer lots of different products on, you know, for any given school that we represent, and partner with to help them really streamline communications, and there's not as many vendors they're working with.

So, you know, communications better, and it's just really worked out well for us.



Yeah, yeah. It's, it's exciting to see for sure. And so I wanted to ask, obviously, with COVID, everyone's been affected. And that's specifically when you think about, events and schools. It's been hard. So I just, I wanted to kind of see what your guys's past year has been like?



Well, yes, absolutely. COVID has affected so much. It's, it's forever changed a lot of things, I think they won't go back to the way they were pre COVID. But, you know, for us, it was devastating. We were lucky to have had a record first quarter in 2020. And we didn't we complete the quarter, we went into kind of the shutdown, staying at home order type stuff, you know, early on, really in April. But really, the everything shut down, you know, about this time for maybe a week after this, you know, about the 20th of March.

And so, you know, we saw an immediate effect, we initially worked from home. And after a few weeks, I realized that this is not going to get better, this is going to get worse. And we had to make some tough decisions personally financially for the business. And so we laid a few people off and just basically hunker down for lack of a better term.

For a while our revenues, like I said, we had a record first quarter and that was great, because it was it allowed us to have cash flow through the pandemic. And then we eventually got back to to hiring people back. And, you know, state started opening up and, you know, being from the south, you know, some of the, you know, some of the southern states open sooner than a lot of the other states that still aren't even open.

And so luckily, you know, the bulk of our business was in Arkansas, and Oklahoma and Mississippi, and Texas, and those states opened up early. And so, you know, we got schools back reopened, and then we started playing athletics again, which I think was huge.

And then, you know, if it wasn't for things like digital ticketing that we had gotten into and partnering with Purplepass, you know, we wouldn't have been able to offer solutions to some of our schools to safely safely reopen and, and have sporting events with fans. And so that's been, you know, we're still not out of that yet. I mean, it's been limited capacity.

And so, you know, actually today, New Mexico votes on that they've reopened and are going to have some, they're going to play every sport. They extended the sports through June, but they're going to play somewhat of a limited amount of games and then they're going to be you know, they're voting today on actually having indoor events.

So with that being said, we got the double whammy with fundraising. If teams aren't there and raising money, then you know, obviously, our revenues hurting. And so when they're not at school, or they're not playing games, and they're not, you know, a lot of Athletic Directors made the decision, we're not going to fundraise this year, because of COVID.

We're not going to ask our merchants to do anything, because they're all hurting. And so the other part of it is, you know, they're not playing, you know, the full game. So they're not using as many digital tickets, and that affects our revenue. And so, yeah, it was kind of a double whammy, but we're out of it.

And a lot of the states we work in are, are almost fully open, and, you know, revenue starting to really increase again, so it's a good thing.



Good. Yeah. I was thinking about that that, it must have really hurt you guys. I mean, everyone was hurting. Your story sounds like, everyone's like, that was ours, too, because we're events. Sure. Definitely a tough, tough year. But I'm glad that I mean, yeah, everything slowly starting to roll out and it's better than nothing.

Looking at like now and moving forward. Do you think like, how do you? What do you think the future of sports will look like? Do you think it's gonna be like this for a while? Or do you think we're, do you think we are really ever going to be able to go back to what it was before, or it's always going to be kind of thinking about how we can make it a safe sporting event?



Yeah, I think the future looks digital. I think we have done some r&d in digital ticketing. Early on, like before the pandemic, we were kind of knee deep in that, and then the pandemic hit, and I realized, okay, we have to offer digital ticketing now, versus later. The time horizon for us wasn't that soon, but COVID forced our hand. And that's how our partnership came about with Purplepass, you know. I started cold calling CEOs of these digital ticketing companies, because I thought, you know, at this point, they're probably in a spot where they're the concerts, and the festivals are all canceled.

What can we do as a company to partner with someone that already has a strong platform, robust engine that can handle a whole bunch of high schools on Friday night, across the country using their digital ticketing platform.

And that's how we ran in the Purplepass, you know, talking to Gabriel and seeing what they offered, and you guys have kind of like, figured it out, it's been 12 years, that you guys have been doing this and offering the service.

And we initially, he got it, what I was where I was coming from and I got where you guys were, you know, in your business with COVID. And we were able to quickly introduce it to any of our clients, any of our partner schools that wanted it. And we had some huge school districts that immediately adopted it and absolutely love it.

Some of those districts just did it for football season, and said, we'll look at winter sports and, and then they came around, they said, "Hey, it works so well, during football season, we want to use it for winter sports for basketball."

And then a lot of them are rolling it out, obviously, in spring sports right now. And we've been meeting with a lot of our partners, and they're saying, "Hey, we're going 100% digital", we still have the hybrids, call them out there that are like, look, we got fans that maybe don't have a cell phone, don't want to go get an app or buy a ticket digitally, don't have a credit card or whatever. And they're few and far between, though, I think COVID, you know, my advice to every athletic director, that I've talked to during the COVID and I talk to them more than I ever have, because of COVID and ever the uncertainty out there, and my phone ringing off the hook every day, during COVID when we were when the country was really shut down. "What's going to happen, you know, what's the future gonna look like?"

And, you know, we just, we said, you know, let us be a partner, we got a great solution with Purplepass in their, their, their touch-less cashless solution to where you can just have one person scanning tickets, not handling money, and you can open up safely and have sports and that's that's what happened.

You know, some of the governors in some states said, you know, you're gonna have to have at least some what are the solution for digital ticketing. And so a lot of you know, that, in the future, I just think that a lot, it was a paradigm shift for a lot of people in their minds. And they said, "You know, I wanted to do digital, but this forced me into, like, I'm gonna have to do digital because it's the wave of the future."

So that's really what we've seen and what I think the future looks like.



Yeah, it's crazy. Because, like you said, we were doing concerts, festivals and all the normal events and then when that pandemic hit, and then it's like, a few months go by and then it just took like a complete 180 and we're like, okay, we're doing schools now. Cuz it was mostly schools after that, because everyone was online registration, we had to learn fast like, "Okay, this is what they need."

So it's interesting. But yeah, I think the partnerships awesome, because you guys now are fundraising marketing and you have, you know, the digital ticketing resources to help them out.

So it really kind of completes your guys's portfolio.



Absolutely. It's been a great thing, a great partnership. But the thing that we really liked is it's been so turnkey for us that if an Athletic Director calls me or any, you know anybody in our office and says, "Hey, I'm on wanting to look at Digital ticketing", we can have an account up that day that can be scanned in tickets as soon as you know, the best the next day on their phone while they're waiting on their scanners to get there.

So it's been really I mean, turnkey is, is it's been great for us.



Awesome. I'm so happy. I'm so happy it's working out and yeah, that we're moving forward and kind of seeing it pick up. Okay, I did want to ask to kind of switch up the conversation a little bit. A lot of schools that have been using us are also using us for online campaigns fundraising for like the department's like selling t shirts and different things online, because obviously, they can't do that in person right now.

So I just wanted to pick your brain and ask, like, what are some fundraising fundraising strategies you found to kind of be effective, or maybe some advice when it comes to raising money in an online world, because I know a lot of people, a lot of schools doing this now are really, really new to it.



Sure, I, you know, it's a struggle it has been for us and for our partner schools. Um, to a certain extent, there's some products that just naturally sell better, digitally, you know, online. We are 100% online with all of our fundraisers. So you can go in any school at any time can set up a fundraiser with us. And we can set it up and they can send out the URL, they can put it on social media, and say, "Hey, go buy our tumblers, we're trying to sell these tumblers to raise money to go to cheer camp or, or to fund new uniforms" or, you know, whatever their their needs are.

And, you know, the problem with that, again, the whole paradigm shift with the problem with, with digital to, you know, a certain demographic is, you know, it's a lot easier for a student to approach, let's say, you know, you know, a neighbor or something with a actual printed out sheet that shows all the products are selling. And on the back of it is an order form, and they take a check or cash and they fill out and then they, once the product comes in, they go deliver it right?

Well, when you're telling someone you've got to log in, and, you know, check out with a credit card, and then you know, it's not going to be delivered to you, it's going to be delivered to the school and you got to come pick it up, or I'll bring it to you.

Not that that's not what I think that's where we're going with most everything. But I have to be, you know, honest and say that we had, you know, it's it's been a little bit tough to get people in that mindset of, you know, this is safer than handling cash, you know, this is everything's moving towards an online experience.

And so the advice we're given is just DO IT just go headfirst into it. Because next year, people are going to go, okay, you know, I did, it wasn't that bad at all. That's the way things are going and that's kind of the way of the future. And so it has affected, you know, we've seen our apparel sales drop off a little bit. But we also think that that's because there's not as many people going to game. So maybe they're not buying the year, this year.

And you know, there's a lot of reasons. But one of the things that we've been able to do, and we've been proud to do that is to get everything online. And so, you know, in the past, we would have blitz days where we call them a blitz day where we would have, you know, every athlete would come together on a Thursday evening and they would just, you know, hundreds of athletes would go out into the community and they would sell, you know, discount cards, or it usually was discount cards or coupon booklets or something like that. And come back and we would do prizes and drawings and all this stuff. Well, that COVID change that, you know, you couldn't bring that many people together, and you couldn't send kids out into the community anymore.

And so we just we just said, look, that will probably come back. But for now, I mean, if you could do it online and not have to pull all those kids together and do those things and people get used to it. Why not get them used to a digital fundraiser right now? So yeah, we're wrapped with that.



I yeah, to be honest, like it, this is how we're moving. It's more digital, but it does make me kind of sad because I just think, I remember the days when I was fundraising and I did different things like you said the coupon books we sold like, you know cookie dough, easter egg. We sold the chocolate bars, like all that stuff. It's just, it's a different connection. And I get it like I understand like what you're saying, like, it's just easier to go to their door, have them fill out that one form, and then you're done. And they can kind of see your face, it makes them want to donate or want to contribute to support you.

It just makes me sad, because it was on like the news, I think last week, but they're talking about like Girl Scouts and how they're teaching them to do it online. I'm just like, oh, I don't know, like, they're so young. It makes me, it just hurts my heart. So I hope, I hope like, I think the best would be to do it hybrid, where they have the option to go online for those people you can't reach or distant family members that want to contribute. That's great. But then people are still going out and putting in that, that face to face time because that's really important.

And, yeah, I think about that all the time, like, especially the Girl Scouts, because they're just so young, they're so young. And it's just, it's crazy, that you're already teaching them to do it online. And and, and, you know?



Yeah, you missed that personal touch in the same way, my three daughters, I mean, I've got one in college, but my youngest one, I mean, she needs to get off a TikTok and, you know, go sell some girl scout cookies as someone that makes change, and, you know, learn that personal interaction.

I don't think we're going to be completely in a digital world anytime soon. But, you know, yeah, the main thing, you know, our advice in any fundraising environment. And what we've seen the most success in, is really educating the players, the students that are selling, what they're selling for, they're not just selling "Oh we're just raising money". You know, people want to know, what are you doing with it, you know, or we're going to a camp we really need to go to.

We had a pretty decent success at a smaller school on the year before last on a discount card campaign. And, you know, it was a small school in Oklahoma, and they run the wishbone offense. And, you know, the University of or the Naval Academy, army runs that at the collegiate level. And they were raising money to send the entire coaching staff to spend time with the coaching staff over the summer.

And, you know, kind of, West Point sorry. And I mean, I thought that was so cool that the kids really weren't benefiting from it, you know, directly, maybe with new uniforms or travel to somewhere or new equipment, but they are indirectly going to benefit from it. Because your coach is going to have a better understanding of how that offense runs. And they had a really good campaign and raised $20,000. And but everybody that I mean, they were so excited about it, because they knew what they were fundraising for.

And so I guess the shorter answer was, would be, you know, know what you're fundraising for, and be excited about it, get the kids get the students fired up about it, so that the people that are one that are going to buy from you can can really be, feel like they're a part of something.



Yeah, that's good advice. I agree. And I would also add, if you're fundraising online, and you're excited about it, put a face to it. Like if you can add a video, if you could show, you know, anything to show where this is going people will connect.



Now, I mean, everybody's got to get a camera in their pocket, you know, pull it out, do a selfie type video with your, you know, all the students behind you and talk about what it's going for that way when they're doing it online. You know, grandma can click on that and say, "Oh, this is so cool." What they're doing, you know?



Yeah. That's great. That Thank you, that's good advice. But yeah, I hope I hope we transition slowly back to in person stuff again, because, yeah, technology's so convenient. I get it. But I don't know. Sometimes it's it's better to take the extra time and the extra steps to have that human interaction because we need that. So important.

And then I think to wrap this up, I did just one last thing was, I was just thinking about events opening, opening up now. Athletic Directors trying to see how they can open up their events. What are the different protocols would you say? I know it's digital ticketing for sure to make sure that's touchless. But what other other any other like protocols, you would suggest kind of looking into or falling to, to open up those events or sports?



Yeah, I mean, this has been so different in from school district to school district, because we are our stadium is set up this way. And to get to concessions, we're doing this well. We're not having concessions. Well. We are having concessions and it's just been the uncertainty and the chaos has been unbelievable.

And really, it's been. So our entire, you know, value proposition to our partner schools is how can we cross pollinate ideas, you know, this school over here is doing this and it's working really well, you can have a similar setup, if you ever thought about doing it that way, you know what we've never thought about that, let's look at that.

During COVID, it was hard to cross pollinate ideas, because everybody's so different, and some had some restrictions that others didn't. And it just became like, hey, they're doing this, or we can do that.

We can't even we can only have one coach to every two players. And, you know, to practice and things like that, are we, we can't go indoors. So we have to social distance here in the gym versus a different way over here. And so one of the things that we thought was really important, um, you know, really just to educate, you know, but really more from the liability standpoint. Is you know, is something that Purplepass offers through their digital ticketing is having that that kind of the terms and conditions of buying that ticket, so that a person that buys a ticket can read through and say, you know, I agree to these two, I agree to social distance, I agree to not take my mask off, I agree not to congregate in common areas.

You know, before it was, you know, can't bring an umbrella into the stadium, but you know, things like that. Now, these are really important things, because, you know, we want it to be able to continue to play. And if we didn't follow the protocols, we weren't going to continue to play. And so we wanted to really educate people and said, look, you you clicked on the terms and conditions and agreed to wear masks to be here. That's what it's going to take for us to be safe and to be open.

And so, you know, just that education of that and to make sure that it was easily enforced by the Athletic Directors and their staff to be able to go to and say, "Look, you know, we can't, there's 10 of you standing here, two have you have your mass down, you're going to have to, I mean, you have to separate so that we can continue to do this, because we have people here from the state, you know, the health department they're watching, and the governor is going to shut us off, if we keep this up."

And early on, it was a, it was really tough a lot, there's a lot of frustration with the Athletic Directors that people just aren't complying. And I think people eventually got the message that if they don't comply, you know, they're not, we're not going to play get to play the games. And, you know, for me, and for anybody with kids in athletics, you know, it hurts not to be able to see them, um, you know, their senior year, the last time you're ever gonna be able to watch them.

So you want to ensure that, that people, you know, we're able to do that. And so, you know, I don't think that there's ever going to be a way to have a completely safe sporting event. I mean, there's going to be viruses, we've had viruses for centuries, there's going to continue to be but I think COVID has taught us some things that we can do ongoing that are going to, you know, prevent, you know, any other viruses. Not prevent them, but, you know, slow the spread of them, you know, because anytime you gather a bunch of people during flu season, anytime things are gonna spread, but there's a lot of things with the hand washing, you know, the mask wearing is not going to continue on.

A lot of governors have already dropped the mandates. So, you know, I think this has been good for people to understand that, you know, to safely get back to where we have where we want to be, you're where we were before, in some sense of normalcy is that there's all these protocols they've got to follow.



Yeah, yeah, that's a good point. Because, like I said, my family's in California, I'm in Texas, two complete different worlds right now. So to complete different, like opposite as they can get protocols are wildly different. So yeah, it's crazy, I guess, just know, know what works in your area and let people know before they go to that event so they aren't surprised. And I hope people don't get mad, I hope people are able just to respect the rules that you put in place so we can keep doing so we can keep events going and have them open more and more.



Yeah, everybody wants to get back to that normal that we had before. I think it's going to take a little bit of time to get back fully normal. But you know, we've seen the effects of it, even on advertisers, even strong partners of ours that are seeing some states where they see a good you know, return on investment. Not opening right now even in even not opening maybe even fully next school year, and so that has affected sponsorships, you know. It's like, we would love to continue our sponsorship, but they haven't been in school in this state. And there's really not a plan for them to get back. They're going to get back in play, but there's not going to be any fans.

Like in New Mexico, there may not be any fans. And if there's no fans, you know that there's no digital ticket need. There's no, you know, sponsorship dollars aren't going to be there and so it truly is affecting the schools and the money that can raise because they hit, you know, most of the schools we work with, are I mean, I would say 99.9% of schools, we work with our zero budget from the school district.

They are their own budget and it's typically generated by their gate receipts, and their events, their games, and all that big track meets in football games, and all the things that tournaments, holiday tournaments, they make good money on, things like that, that all went away.

And so they got to get back open. And I just got to go through those protocols so that we can get fully open again, and and get these these athletic departments funded again.



Yeah, yeah, my heart also goes out to the students that were, I don't even know, relying on scholarships to get them to college sports scholarships. I don't know, it's just has had a snowball effect on everyone. It just makes me so sad.



It has it in again, it's going to get better, it's going to get back to normal on a lot of areas. Some will take longer than others. Just because of you know, you've got different opinions on things. And I won't get into politics and all that.

But yeah, I feel good getting open in some states and some will stay, you know, a little bit more limited. But I think eventually we're gonna get there.



Yeah, I do too. So you just have to keep going. Well, thanks for talking to me and I think you just you had great advice for everyone listening and to all the Athletic Departments out there that are looking for a partner to help them get through this and get going into the year.

Look for Excite, Excite Fundraising people.



Well, I appreciate that Savannah. Great to talk to you and I appreciate the platform to be able to share some things. 




Video notes and links

Excite Fundraising: 

About Excite

Digital ticketing


Purplepass resources: 

Digital ticketing for school sports

Online fundraiser and donation ideas 

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