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New University of Arizona athletic director says cutting sports is off the table

Desireé Reed-Francois, the new athletic director at the University of Arizona, has a lot on her plate: changing conferences and the university’s ongoing budget problems chief among them.

The University of Arizona College of Law alum says she’s excited about the work ahead.

Reed-Francois signed a five-year contract and became the athletic director in March. The Show spoked with her about what led her to decide this was the job she wanted right now.

Full conversation

DESIREÉ REED-FRANCOIS: Returning home to a place that's been really special to me was a fantastic opportunity. I went to the University of Arizona. I graduated in 1997, which was a great banner year for athletics here in Tucson. Coach Candrea won a national championship in softball. And I remember exactly where I was when coach Olson cut down those nets and just on a professional level, this is a great opportunity, but on a personal level, it was a chance to come home to a place that has been really special not only in providing my legal training, but also just they were there for me when I needed them, the law school was.

MARK BRODIE: So this is obviously a, a sort of a time of transition for U of A sports, especially in the sense that, you know, you're moving conferences, leaving the Pac-12 going to the Big 12. What are some of the, I guess the challenges with that, that you see and maybe some of the opportunities that you see in terms of U of A athletics leaving the conference they've been a part of for many, many years.

REED-FRANCOIS: I'm a double Pac-12, back then it was Pac-10, graduate and so I, I really do, I was, there was a mixture of sadness and nostalgia when I was at the Pac-12 basketball tournament, but I'm really excited about the opportunity to join the Big 12. Candidly, it it is opportunity, we have a really large footprint in Texas, and it's an opportunity to get the University of Arizona brand in an important market. You know, we're already in, in Colorado, but we get to go Texas, Colorado, Florida. So it's really an opportunity to have national exposure for the University of Arizona.

BRODIE: Is that mostly an impact in recruiting do you think? Are there other potential benefits to having the U of A in those markets?

REED-FRANCOIS: When you have a strong athletics department, it benefits not only the university in terms of brand awareness, alumni support and engagement, admissions, of course, philanthropy, Anna, you mentioned recruiting, but it's a way for us to engage in our alums. I think in Texas. We, it's the third most number of alums we have in any state. I think it's Arizona, California and then Texas. So we get to go out to a new market and go to people. So this is Arizona's a national brand and now we're going to be part of a very national conference.

BRODIE: I've got to ask you also about the financial situation at the U of A because there's been so much written about it and discussed about it and it's obviously a pretty serious situation in Tucson. How does that affect you? How has it affected you so far? What kind of impacts are you looking at, you know, in the immediate future from, from that shortfall. 

REED-FRANCOIS: This has been a priority since day one, I came into the athletic department recognizing that we did have financial challenges and that's no secret. But so many other athletic departments are in the same boat, but I'm a firm believer that challenges are also opportunities. So we're gonna face this head on in a very transparent way. I've been working collaboratively with my colleagues, with John Arnold, who is our interim university CFO and a great partner. The board also hired a global services firm that's actually here on campus and that has today and they're assisting us in really evaluating all of our revenue streams. They're looking at all of our expense line items and helping us as we're building that modern model in our collegiate athletics. So it is a high, high priority, but it's one where we are linking arms and taking on this challenge and using it as an opportunity to get even better.

BRODIE: Do you anticipate that there will have to be either layoffs in the athletics department or sports that are eliminated to try to make up some of that shortfall.

REED-FRANCOIS: Thank you for the question, and I was asked on my opening opening press conference as well and no, we're not going to cut our sports. We are, our goal is to be the modern model of intercollegiate athletics. We are going to look at our revenue streams. We are going to look at our expenses, but cutting sports is not the way that we grow and we, we fulfill our commitments to our student athletes.

Are we going to, to make some our decisions in terms of how we operate? Absolutely. But that's why I'm very appreciative of our global services from colleagues and our colleagues on campus and their assistance for helping us identify those ways that we can be, we can be more innovative when it comes to revenue, we can be more aggressive when it comes to revenue. You don't always just grow a business by just cutting. 

BRODIE: Well, it sounds like what you're saying is that you, you have, you're going to have to make decisions on both sides and maybe take action on both the revenue and the expenses side.

REED-FRANCOIS: Yes, we are. but I don't cutting sports is not part of our plan.

BRODIE: OK. So when you look at potential revenue streams, like, what are some of the options that that might be out there for bringing in more money for the athletics department for the university?

REED-FRANCOIS: And like I mentioned, I don't mean mean mean to be redundant, but EY is looking at every single one of our revenue streams and looking at our best practices doing comparative analytics as it relates to where we are in our conference. We're looking at philanthropy, we're looking at ticket sales, we are looking at everything from our experience. What are we selling in terms of experiences? What's our multimedia rights? What does that look like? What does our naming rights look like? How about our concessions? What are we doing to grow our licensing revenue? There's nothing off the table and longer term. What are we looking at our, our real estate footprint? How can we be the model for being innovative and aggressive in revenue growth?

BRODIE: One other money issue I'd like to ask you about is name, image and likeness, the the NIL program that you know, for some schools, they've used it to great effect, some have have sort of been hurt by their inability to do it. What to you is the right balance, What's a realistic type of program or option, I guess for, for U of a athletes to be able to partake in that.

REED-FRANCOIS: Competitive, aggressive and innovative. NIL is an opportunity to provide for our student athletes. It's a massive, massive change in our athletic landscape as you know, but when we were at the prior institution, we used it as a competitive advantage and that's what we need to do at the University of Arizona. Whenever you have a massive shift like name name, image, likeness, there are going to be bumps and bruises. We know that, but it's also an exciting opportunity and you know what in the end we're providing for our student athletes. 

BRODIE: What does success for you in this job at this institution look like?

REED-FRANCOIS: So success starts with a belief, a belief in one another, a belief in our mission, a belief in that Arizona athletics is the modern model of intercollegiate athletics. We need to be skating to where the puck is going. We need to build a strong business model that supports our student athletes, supports our coaches so that we can provide those resources so they can hope they can live their hopes and their dreams. We need to execute at the highest levels and then we need to constantly evolve. There's shifts in our landscapes, we all know that there are shifts in our business model, there's shifts, but that's the best part. And it's also a challenge. We have to continue to be nimble, we have to continue to be flexible and, and evolve as college athletics is evolving.

BRODIE: All right. That is Desireé Reed-Francois, the athletic director at the University of Arizona. Desireé, it's nice to talk to you. Thank you very much.

REED-FRANCOIS: Thank you very much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.