EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of four stories looking into the state of the Eastern Illinois University Athletic Department.
CHARLESTON -- Fundraising is a crucial aspect for any athletic department. When a department is asked to slash 20 percent of its budget, fundraising becomes even more of a focal point.
Eastern Illinois University Athletic Director Tom Michael said he has been happy with the job that The Panther Club, EIU’s athletic fundraising circle, has done over the past few years. However, he knows there’s more work to be done and would like to see the Panther Club grow substantially over the next few years.
“The fundraising piece is critical to everything that we do. The Panther Club has been very supportive and successful at EIU and continues to be critical to how we move forward,” Michael said. “That being said, we need to continue to expand that circle. We have a great, loyal base in the Charleston area and we need to make sure we expand that to other people and make that circle bigger for those that have a true interest in Panther athletics.”
Michael estimates that the Panther Club brings in around $600,000 to $700,000 a year. While that might seem like a substantial amount, Michael thinks more can be done.
“Whatever that number is, we have to continue to find new revenue sources and those opportunities,” Michael said. “You are never ahead of the game, whether it’s scholarship or facilities. I don’t want to make it sound like money is the answer to all problems, but it does help things from a competitive standpoint. It’s an arms race at every level.
“We have to raise the bar and get to that bar in regards to that. Those are our goals and it’s not to say what the folks have done hasn’t been great, we just need to do more and that’s where we have to go out and engage and find those individuals.”
EIU athletics provides more than $3.6 million in athletically related student aid. The total for an in-state scholarship is $21,316 and the total non-border scholarship is $23,476. This past academic year, EIU had 229 student athletes from Illinois, 34 from Missouri, 25 from Indiana, 10 from Wisconsin, nine from Iowa and seven from Kentucky. So most of the students come from in-state or bordering states.
The Panther Club, which consists of EIU alumni, fans and friends of EIU athletics, assists in providing the private funding that is necessary to support EIU student-athletes.
That’s where Gary Nettles comes in, who was hired as the new EIU assistant athletic director of development in January of 2017. Nettles currently oversees all development efforts for EIU athletics, including the management of the Panther Club as well as major gift fundraising.
Nettles has a wide background in athletic fundraising. He came from Lock Haven University where he was the senior development officer for the university foundation. Nettles worked in sales for Learfield Sports at their Penn State, Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa properties.
His first experience was at Florida State. While he was completing his master’s degree in sports administration at FSU, he worked as a graduate assistant with Seminole Boosters, Inc.
“Seminole Boosters was the best opportunity I could’ve had,” Nettles said. “I’ve always joked that my office was the mail room. It was interesting to see their model. … I got my hands in everything and I was so blessed and so fortunate and it came down to good timing and it was the best experience and helped me move forward in my career.”
Nettles has been on the job for about nine months now and when he came in, he didn’t rebrand the Panther Club. But his goal was to put better materials together in order to explain how the Panther Club works.
The message is "Together we ROAR."
“It’s positive messaging. Together we roar and we are running with that. There’s a lot of things going on, but if we come together and work together, we can do some really positive things and make some noise,” Nettles said. “I think it’s been very positive and I think our donors have really responded well. A large part of it is how we present ourselves and brand ourselves. We have to be upbeat and positive.”
The first few pages of the pamphlet Nettles hands out isn’t even directly about fundraising efforts. It highlights the mission, values and purpose of EIU athletics and goes through the history of the athletic department, on the field and off. Then it goes into the ways someone can support EIU financially, from annual giving to endowed scholarships and planned gifts and capital projects.
The Panther Club has different levels, from the Panther Pride ($100 to $299 in donations) to a Legacy member ($10,000-plus in donations). Each level has its different perks, too.
“I think people forget sometimes that there’s so many things going on and people are getting flooded with info,” Nettles said. “If you aren’t getting out in front of that, they forget about you. We can’t have that happen. That meant getting out and telling our message and telling it consistently and promoting ourselves as an athletic department and as a university and as a community.”
Since Nettles has been on board, the Panthers have had their annual Spring Fling, which is one of the biggest fundraisers of the season. But Michael and Nettles wanted to expand with major fundraisers in the summer, with golf outings, the ROAR tour that involved a couple of coaches and student-athletes and even a concert and dinner after one of the outings.
“The Spring Fling has been an event that has a long history of success and the community engages in that event,” Michael said. “We feel like we’ve got something special here with the programs and student-athletes. There’s a number of folks that have been supportive from a community standpoint.”
What the community consists of is a big sticking point with Nettles, whose main focus is not just Charleston, but all of Coles County.
“The first thing was to come in this year and make sure we get everyone locally on board. We have a really strong group here in Coles County and we want to get engaged with them,” Nettles said. “There’s a lot of opportunity in Mattoon and that’s something we’ve tried to do and focus on. … Not every county like this is fortunate to have a NCAA Division I department. We are a great product and for families, we are a very cost-effective product.
“We are right here in the backyard of Coles County. If you want to make a 10-minute drive, you will be surprised with the experiences we offer.”
Not only is Nettles trying to expand the donor base in Coles County, he wants to expand it outside of the area. He especially wants to reach out to alumni across the nation.
“We probably need to do a better job of reaching out to former student-athletes who aren’t local. We have to be able to reach out to those who are in Texas or Florida and such,” Nettles said. “We have a lot of former athletes and we don’t want to forget about them. Then it’s looking at the information and pockets around the state with large alumni bases and how can we get there and do other events where these alumni are? You want to go in the direction of large alumni bases.”
Before the football game at Northern Illinois a few weeks ago, EIU held an alumni event in DeKalb. EIU has held various alumni meet-ups before games in Chicago or St. Louis.
All of that is an effort to increase fundraising efforts at EIU with the Panther Club. Nettles said there isn’t an exact number he wants to be at each year; he just wants to see the fundraising numbers grow year by year.
“I don’t know if I could sit here and say XYZ number. We are fighting and clawing to get to XYZ,” Nettles said. “I expressed to Tom, provide a solid foundation and whatever we were doing last year, match or exceed that and each year, have that goal to increase that. I really feel that we are nowhere close to our top level of potential. We have a long way to go.
“We certainly want to reach that full potential. The first step, before we all come together, make sure everyone’s educated and remind them who we are and the success we have had academically and athletically. Say, 'here’s our goal and the impact it will have.' It’s certainly an ongoing process.”