PULLMAN – Pat Chun’s first documented success in the fundraising arena came in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State, where for a decade-and-a-half he climbed the proverbial ladder from an unpaid intern in the sports information office to an executive athletic director who drove the Buckeyes to some of their most bountiful fundraising years in school history.
So, Chun will credit his alma mater for his start in athletic administration and consequently, his baptism into the business of fundraising.
But the Washington State athletic director, now six months into the job, might say his persuasion skills – especially as they relate to summoning money from others – were honed at a much earlier phase in his life.
Born into a family of blue-collar Korean immigrants who moved to northeast Ohio in pursuit of a better opportunity, Chun was forced to start working in grade school and, back in a more lucrative age of print journalism, he had a daily paper route.
“To be in grade school and to knock on people’s door, collect money,” Chun said. “When someone new would move on, I’d have to knock on the door, introduce myself to them and say I’m your new carrier. I think growing up, having all those experiences, I would say I’ve always been learned in a way in which I like people, I like relationships, I like learning about people. I think everyone’s a sum of their life experiences, so for whatever reason the sun of my life experiences put me in front of a lot of people and put me in front of a lot of situations where you get to articulate and sell a vision at the purpose of an institution.”
Chun is now applying those same traits on a much more macro level to sell a product the athletic director himself is still getting familiar with: Washington State Athletics.
Some might say these are precarious times for an AD in Pullman. On one hand, Chun desires to finish the job his predecessor Bill Moos started, and continue to move the Cougars’ athletic facilities into the modern age – no cheap endeavor. On the other, he’s dealing with a massive financial shortfall that rivals any in the country.
WSU is close to raising the final dollars that would be necessary for major baseball facility renovations.
“In a baseball term,” Chun said, “we’re definitely in the ninth inning in terms of getting that thing finished.” It would help the Cougars close a widening gap between them and their Pac-12 peers, especially those in the Pacific Northwest.
“In the history of the Pac-12, we’ve always been in and around the front seat,” Chun said. “The greatest baseball player in the history of the Pac-12 is John Olerud – that is not debatable. We need to get our program back to those levels and we have a coach in place we believe in.”
WSU needs approximately $9.5 million in private funds to subsidize the baseball clubhouse and donors will have to fork over another $28 million to cover the costs of an indoor football practice facility – the next capital project in the works – that would replace the archaic “bubble” adjacent to Bailey-Brayton Field.
But those agenda items, while pertinent, may not require the same attention from Chun as the department’s crater-sized deficit, which is projected to reach $85.1 million by the AD’s fifth year in office. WSU has set in motion a plan to balance the budget by 2023, but even containing in it the short-term could be tricky.
To do that, the school is counting on a few non-guaranteed sources of revenue, like increased student fees, which need to be approved by the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU) before granted, and a spike in men’s/women’s basketball ticket sales. Those programs take a combined NCAA Tournament drought of 27 years – 10 for the men, 17 for the women – into the 2018-19 campaign and to entice students/fans to attend home games at Beasley Coliseum, the school has often fallen back on promotional efforts, rather than a successful on-court product.
Chun was partially responsible for three record fundraising years at Ohio State – the athletic department generated $39 million in 2010, $41 million in 2011 and $42 million in 2012 – but he cautions those also went hand-in-hand with landmark seasons for the Buckeyes’ football and men’s hoops programs.
“So that is a big piece of it and if you look at those years, the vast majority of the sports weren’t winning,” Chun said, “but the highest profile sports were competing in Final Fours and national championships so that does matter, that is important.”
An external look at the department’s current financial status may indicate a bleak reality, but Chun carries a more optimistic outlook – and it’s not totally misdirected if you glance at the numbers.
According to USA Today’s annual fiscal report of NCAA Division I schools, WSU has increased its overall revenue in ticket sales, from $5,532,126 in 2016 to $7,656,362 in 2017, in addition to contributions, from $7,718,902 to $8,212,785, rights/licensing, from $35,207,583 to $38,045,924, and student fees, from $818,961 to $1,571,828.
When the 2017-18 fiscal year closed, Chun, in a letter, reported record donations to the Cougar Athletic Fund, with annual giving revenue at $7.76 million and overall giving at $15.49 million. He believes WSU is “geared up to do some things in fundraising that we may have not been equipped to do in the past” and expects major movement “in the next 12 to 24 months.”
Since Chun inherited his job six months ago, he’s spent ample time shaking hands, forging relationships and immersing himself into the school’s culture. And there have been more than a few lessons in “Becoming a Coug 101” along the way.
One of those came at a mid-February “Night with Cougar Football” function held in the Tri-Cities. At the door, attendees were given lanyards to hold name badges and two drink tickets.
“My name badge kind of got flipped over and you could see my drink tickets were still in there,” Chun said. “I just hadn’t used them yet and this kind, older woman comes up to me, kind of grabs my arm, puts her arm around me and says, ‘Hey new AD, I’ve got some advice for you.’ I’m like, ‘What’s that ma’am?’ And she says, ‘A real Coug uses all their drink tickets.’”
So, Chun’s still learning in some ways, but it didn’t take him long to sense the devotion and spirit WSU alums carry – “not a four-year proposition at our institution,” he described, “it’s a 40-year proposition.”
“And as we get more people to invest in our cause,” Chun said, “I believe we’re going to be able to do some special things and make the next chapter in the history of our athletic program one of the greatest ever.”
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