Babcock excited about past year and future of Tech athletics

By Jimmy Robertson

With the exception of track and field, all of Virginia Tech’s sports have completed competition for the 2016-17 academic year. Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock took some time Tuesday afternoon to answer questions about the past year and wide array of topics that pertain to the immediate and long-term future of Virginia Tech athletics.

Q: So we’ll start off by asking what were the hot topics discussed at the ACC meetings? What can you tell us?

WB: “I thought the meetings were productive. It was nice to have a business-as-usual meeting. There was no talk of expansion. The television network is already set. Football scheduling is already set. It was a pretty standard meeting. We covered a lot of television and football scheduling, certainly, but we also covered a lot of things related to Olympic sports, student-athlete safety, loss of value insurance, and things like that. We took me, Desiree Reed-Francois [deputy AD], Joe Tront [faculty athletics representative], Buzz [Williams], Kenny [Brooks], Justin [Fuente] and John Ballein [senior associate AD for internal operations and sports performance].”

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the ACC Network and its pending launch. It looks as if ESPN is struggling, but ACC Commissioner John Swofford insists the ACC Network will launch. What can you say about the perception versus reality here?

WB: “I believe we have the good fortune of knowing a little bit more than the general public. You certainly don’t want to have your head in the sand, and all of us, including ESPN, acknowledge that television is changing and what it’s going to look like in a few years.

“Whatever you read about layoffs and ESPN … this is a different deal. This is about a revenue-generating project. To get that channel distributed to the cable providers, it’s not only a wonderful opportunity for Virginia Tech and the ACC, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity for ESPN. Cost cutting is one thing, and a lot of companies do that, but if you can find something amidst the cost cutting that is revenue generating, I believe you’d be full steam ahead on that.

“Even though television is changing, we’re fine to hitch our saddle to ESPN. They’re the worldwide leader and the best, and we like being aligned with them. Not exactly knowing what TV will look like, we have faith in this, no matter how people consume it – television, hand-held, computer, whatever we invent in the future – there is still a market for exclusive sports content. I don’t know that they’ll be watching on the big screen on the wall or however else, but people tend to consume sports live. You don’t Tivo it or DVR it.

“In some form or fashion, there is still value to live sports content, and I believe wholeheartedly that ESPN will find the best way to distribute that, whether it’s through skinny bundles or Hulu or YouTube or Sling TV. It’s a dynamic time, but I sincerely believe that talk of ESPN’s demise is very greatly exaggerated. If ESPN is having trouble in the television space, I can only imagine that its competitors are as well. It’s a market industry issue.”

Q: How important is that revenue stream to Virginia Tech’s future?

WB: “It’s huge. It’s really big for us to lessen the gap on the Big Ten and the SEC. If you take the revenue that we get from the ACC, which is around $25-26 million, and hypothetically teams in the SEC are getting $40 million per year … $15 million is a lot of money, but it’s a whole lot of money over a 10- or 20-year period. It’s almost like compound interest, and that’s a big gap to overcome.

“The difference that jumped the SEC up was their own network, and that’s exactly why this channel is getting started. It’s for revenue, and also visibility, recruiting, Olympic sports and all of that. ESPN is the best in the world, and we know the landscape is changing, but we have great faith in them that this will be a revenue generator for both us and ESPN. We’ll be 50-50 partners in the new channel.”

Q: Obviously, Virginia Tech is in the process of meeting the demands of the network, and that is going to take a substantial investment in dollars and staff. Where is Virginia Tech in the process?

WB: “Jed [Castro, senior director of visual and broadcast communications] and Tom [Gabbard, senior associate AD for facilities and operations] and all their staffs are working on it, and we’ve had ESPN executives on our campus a couple of times. They essentially give you a laundry list of all the things that you need to have the capability to do, and ESPN would like all of that done by next fall – a year before the channel launches – so that everyone is in place and ready to go.

“It will be a seven-figure investment for us, but if the channel does well, it shouldn’t take long with the return on investment to pay that off. We’re excited about doing that. We don’t know exactly where our studio will be, but we’ll figure that out soon, and then we also like the fact that it can be a learning laboratory for students on campus. There is just a whole lot of potential for people who are interested in broadcasting and journalism and video. There is a lot of good across the board and a lot of good exposure for Virginia Tech.”

Q: What about football scheduling? Certainly, ESPN wants the best games possible.

WB: “I think you can look for some strong week 1 scheduling, perhaps even games with conference opponents, in 2019. It’s similar to what the SEC did. They opened, I believe, with South Carolina and Texas A&M on a Thursday night just to start off with a bang and bring some visibility to it. It also creates some demand from fans who may not have the channel yet that, ‘Hey, if those types of games are going to be on there, then I want to make sure that I can watch my favorite team.’”

Q: Will that result in any changes to Virginia Tech’s football schedule?

WB: “A little bit here and there, but not a tremendous amount. We may have to stagger, as a league, some of the dates that we play FCS opponents. If every ACC team played an FCS opponent in week 1, that might be a little tough on the TV inventory, so there may be a little more scrutiny on when we play those games or ‘less’ marquee matchups and having those spread throughout the year rather than every school have them on the same week.

“We’ve got a small working group here that’s looking at our football schedule from 2018-2023. Are we in the right spots? Do we want to tweak anything? The real attractive marquee games, Virginia Tech fans can rest easy. We’re not getting rid of those.”

Q: Was there any talk about eliminating football non-conference games against FCS opponents, as some conferences have done?

WB: “There was some talk of it, but I’m pleased that they did not do it. We all want strength of schedule, but I think there is a lot of merit to helping the other schools in Virginia. That’s not to say it’s an automatic that we’ll beat them, but I like playing Richmond and James Madison and William & Mary … I believe it gives those schools great opportunities financially and in terms of exposure, and it also gives our team some time to break in some new players in years when we have a young team. But rest assured, we don’t take those games for granted. I know sometimes they beat you as well.”

Q: Rector Field House, Tech Softball Park and Union Bank Park will be done within 6-8 months. What will be next on the facilities horizon?

WB: “We’re really looking extensively at the fourth floor [of Jamerson] – the Bowman Room area – and re-doing the entire area all the way to the basketball concourse. We’d like to put a new patio on it and really make the Bowman Room area a signature piece. It could be a training table for all of our sports. It could be more room for donor hospitality before basketball games. It could be used for graduation, and other things. We feel that is great real estate for our building, but instead of using it 60 times a year, we’d like to use it 300 times a year.

“We also take a lot of pride in having our stuff right here. I think culture is not impossible when you have people spread out all over the place, but when you have everybody all together like a family … I like the casual interactions and the chemistry it provides. We’re always going to have our guys and ladies go across Washington Street and be general students, but when they’re on this side, we love the way our facilities are set up and we want to keep working on those. The fourth floor is dated and way behind, and I think that’s something people can look forward to.

“We’re also going to be doing some work in tennis [the Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center], and then probably a couple of years down the road, a major renovation to Cassell Coliseum.”

Q: What is the timetable on the Bowman Room project?

WB: “Fundraising is ongoing. It will be a $15 million project, but we have a strong sense of urgency on it.”

Q: The Rector, softball and baseball projects alone are running a combined $36 million. Are you comfortable with the debt service plan for these projects?

WB: “Yes, for those, it would be around a $2 million payment for 20 years, which is certainly a lot of money. However, we got a lot of help from Carilion, and we got a lot of help from Union Bank, and then we have some other debt that is falling off. We felt we were very fiscally responsible. And all this is a testament to [former Tech AD} Jim Weaver, who did a great job of keeping debt so low. It put us in position to be able to do some things, and he should continue to be commended for that.”

Q: In addition to facilities, you and your staff are making substantial investments in coaching staff and support personnel. Obviously, you feel comfortable with the department’s budget, right?

WB: “Certainly. Our salaries and benefits for all our staff is about 37 percent of our budget. I believe 10 years ago, even though the budget was much smaller, the payroll, so to speak, was around 30 percent. What I was taught was that any time it [salaries and benefits] was below 39-40 percent, then you’re in a pretty good spot. We might be a little up there, but we also felt like it was a time of transition and investment, and by putting our best foot forward, we believe our revenue will catch up. It is a little higher, and we’re aware of it, but we still feel like we’re in the safe zone, so to speak.”

Q: With your dismissal of Pat Mason as the baseball coach, you will be in the process of making your seventh coaching hire in a little more than three years as the AD here. That is a lot of transition. What are you thoughts on that?

WB: “It is a lot of transition. Keep in mind that Coach Beamer retired, and Kevin Dresser’s decision was his, but I will say this, I don’t take it lightly when we do make a change. In fact, I don’t enjoy coaching searches. I don’t enjoy letting coaches go. It impacts a lot of families and livelihoods, and it’s the hardest part of this job. At the same time, I believe that the hires we have made have pumped some new energy in here, but I would prefer not to make any coaching changes. It’s just the way it worked out.

“I’d also note that we’ve got a lot of really good coaches here, and Jim Weaver deserves a lot of credit for that. He made a lot of smart hires, and those coaches have been successful. So I think we’ve got a really nice mix of younger and veteran coaches.”

Q: Being a former baseball player and the son of a baseball coach, do you take this search a little more personally?

WB: “You’re probably right. I’m, by no means, an expert. In fact, I got disconnected from college baseball for a long time, but what helped this year just by chance is that I’m on the NCAA baseball committee, and it’s been enjoyable to reconnect with baseball. Being on the committee has also enabled me to watch other games and other coaches and hopefully that will be an advantage when we get into our coach search full force.

“But do I feel a little extra pressure? There’s always pressure. People assume that because I played it, and my dad coached it, that this one is easier. I probably know a few extra questions to ask, but I’m, by no means, an expert on it. It is near and dear to my heart. I’m involved in all of them, but yeah, I’m probably more invested in this one.”

Q: There have been a lot of changes in the Hokie Club, with the per-seat model and Drive for 25. What is your general feeling of all those changes?

WB: “I’m very pleased. We’re going to keep striving to get to 25,000, but to get to 13,000 for the first time in our history … I believe our messaging will have to be consistent for a number of years before we reach our goal, but that’s OK. We’re pleased with the people that have chosen to give, and the fact that we’ve been able to draw some attention and light to, ‘Hey, the more, the merrier.’ Whether you have interest in tickets or parking or not, or wherever you live in the world, if you ask what is the one thing you can do to help Virginia Tech athletics, that’s at the top of the list. A lot of people have answered the call.

“To set an all-time high in that and fundraising this year, the Hokie Club, our alumni and our fan base are to be commended. The Drive for 25 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We’re thrilled that Coach Beamer is involved as the chairman, and that No. 25 is pretty special around here.”

Q: Were you surprised at the record?

WB: “Not totally. You certainly hope for it, but it’s better to under promise and over deliver rather than get your hopes up and have it go the other way. Pleasantly surprised, but I felt like we had a good system in place, and that it would work out. Again, it’s a testament to our fans and our staff. I know there were some growing pains, but now we’ve got a platform to play some offense and narrow that revenue gap – and fund our scholarships.”

Q: Tuition is going up every year, which means you’re going to have to raise more money every year. Is this a long-term issue?

WB: “I believe it could be. That’s why the number of donors that give annually … it’s a gift, and they can always choose to not give it. Ideally, they make it each year, and it continues to fund that scholarship bill. You’re right. Our bill this year was $15.7 million, and six years ago, it was $9 million. Our fans and alumni probably didn’t know all this. Maybe they thought that when someone came here on full scholarship, then he or she went for free. But no, if they’re from out of state, we play the out of state amount across campus. Every year before we turn the lights on, so to speak, we better find a way to pay the scholarship bill. I don’t know that the state of Virginia funding for higher education will get back to the old levels, so we’ve got to figure out a way to do it.”

Q: Virginia Tech won the Commonwealth Clash over Virginia for the first time since the Clash went to the recent format. You took a lot of pride in that, didn’t you?

WB: “Well, we all should. We have a lot of respect for UVA, and we like to beat UVA. Just the chance to hopefully beat them more than they beat us is a good thing. When we do that, we’ll win ACC championships and NCAA championships and get where we want to go, but we don’t want to get too high on the hog. It’s a one-year victory, and the real proof will be if we can have some consistency in it. Certainly all of us as a department and as coaching staffs took pride in that. It’s the first time we’ve been able to do that, and hopefully we can keep it up. I like, and we like as a department, to be great in all 22 sports. It’s like having 22 kids. You love them all, so let’s make them all great.”

Q: Last question here, but what is your vision for Virginia Tech athletics looking toward the future?

WB: I’m so excited by the culture and the upward trajectory right now, but just like momentum in a game – when you have it, it’s gold, and you don’t want to have any penalties or turnovers or self-inflicted stumbles to lessen that momentum. I really like the direction we’re headed.

“Our vision is to be the pre-eminent athletics department in the ACC across the board. I believe we’re getting lined up to do that. We’re through some of our transitions, and we have a younger team in place. We’re going to be humble about it, but our goal is certainly to be the best in all aspects. We want to be the No. 1 athletics department across the board in the ACC, and we always want to bring pride and visibility to what’s really important – and that’s Virginia Tech, as a whole.”

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