FOUR QUESTIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH… Karen DeHart
Karen DeHart, associate commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, is responsible for directing, administering, and coordinating Business Development, Marketing & Sponsorships, Merchandising & Licensing, and Endowed Fund effort . She is a graduate of Eastern Wayne High School and earned her bachelor's degree in physical education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1990). Serving the NCHSAA since July 1994, Karen has actively participated at the national level through numerous presentations related to sponsorships, investments, and marketing at National Federation of State High School Association meetings.
How would you describe your primary duties with the NCHSAA?
I am responsible for developing, coordinating, and administering efforts related to Branding/Marketing, Sponsorships, Merchandising, Licensing, Grants, and Endowed Funds for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Essentially, I am responsible for guiding and leading my team towards achieving annual fundraising and revenue goals to meet established funding needs for the numerous programs and services provided by the NCHSAA to the member schools and student-athletes. In conducting these responsibilities, I have the privilege to work with each department within the Association since the cross-over is significant – fundraising requires a team effort.
Has the landscape of corporate sponsorship and high school athletics changed since you’ve been in this work, and if so, how?
Definitely. When I joined the Association in 1994, we had a small, yet consistent corporate partner base and most partners were involved with the NCHSAA because of existing relationships with staff members as well as the values and life skills they experienced through participation in high school athletics. The general feeling was that these partnerships were “feel good” relationships and return on investment (ROI) wasn’t addressed.
Over the past two decades, however, various brands/corporations have come to recognize that the high school niche is virtually an untapped audience – teens, their parents, their younger siblings – and the potential for developing brand loyalty among these population segments, especially the younger groups, is keen. With this comes more corporate focus on the ROI – increasing consumer sales or use of services and products and being able to quantify the data. This presents challenges in that prospective partners are demanding more direct contact with these targeted populations and there is a fine line between developing partnerships that are mutually beneficial (to the company, the member schools and the NCHSAA) versus over-commercializing and “selling out”. One thing that has not changed is the Association’s commitment to partnering with companies whose philosophy, vision and beliefs align with ours. A prospective partnership must provide a benefit to our member schools and/or school administrators, parents, and students. A partnership for the sake of revenue is not a value.
Over the years, the individual high schools have become more entrenched in local sponsorships beyond the classic scoreboard and beverage donations and field or courtside banners. With shrinking local budgets for athletics, school administrators have become savvier in developing partnerships with local business people to help fund their athletic programs. High schools have looked at what colleges are doing – punt/pass/kick activities during home games, facility naming rights, seasonal sport passes, preferred seating and/or parking, facility rental opportunities to outside groups within the community during summer months and other times when the school is not using their facilities and fields, to name a few examples – all creative ways to generate funds for their programs.
In previous years, there was some hesitancy to involve corporate America at the high school level, but it has become increasingly prevalent and when done tastefully, can positively impact the local schools’ budgets and ability to provide quality programs for their student-athletes and general student populations.
What are the biggest challenges you face as you work with companies after they have partnered with the NCHSAA?
Before I go there, I will say that it is increasingly more difficult to secure new partnerships! Trying to find the right person to speak to and get a foot in the door is a challenge. Shockingly, it has been difficult to develop relationships with some of the more prominent North Carolina based companies. Also, given the plethora of sports properties at many levels in North Carolina – professional football, basketball, hockey, baseball, collegiate influence, NASCAR to name several– we’re all competing for partnerships and revenue. We must differentiate high school athletics from these groups and demonstrate the value that prospective partners can derive from building relationships with our property. And despite the mounting pressure for ROI and measuring ROI, high school athletics are intrinsically good…we learn and teach valuable life skills through participation in high school athletics.
Moving on – onceOnce a partnership is developed and an agreement made, the challenges we face include fulfilling the elements of the contract with a small team (this is where we rely on other staff members to assist), ensuring that we do what we’ve promised to do and documenting the performance with data, pictures, etc. Proof of performance is essential and measuring ROI is key for partners. However, measuring ROI is challenging in itself. Tangible benefits can be measured to some degree using multipliers and formulas in conjunction with attendance numbers, estimated impressions, unique visitors online, followers/likes in social media and similar areas. The intangible benefits are difficult to measure – these include the prestige of the property or event and the company’s involvement with said property, naming rights related to programs, category exclusivity, to name a few.
Another challenge is demonstrating that a long-term agreement (3-4 years) is more beneficial than a one-year term. Like any relationship, the first year entails trial and error, growing pains, learning more about one another while simultaneously executing the partnership. Educating the target audience takes time, so with one-year partnerships, just as the audience “gets” the program, a partner may decide to pursue other marketing directions and this is frustrating. Fortunately, the NCHSAA has developed some very tight bonds with good corporate citizens and we have numerous partners that we have been fortunate to work along side for years. These partners understand that it takes time to develop the relationships with their target audiences and they are patient. While often challenging, developing new relationships and creating viable partnerships that positively impact and benefit the membership and the NCHSAA’s ability to provide services and programming for our hundreds of high schools is a rewarding responsibility.
Away from your work, what are some things that you enjoy doing?
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have three children and this year, they are in 3 different schools across three levels – elementary, middle and high school. Aside from attending the various school functions and volunteering for PTA events, all three children are participating in athletics so I spend numerous weekends at YMCA swim meets or lacrosse tournaments and this year, weeknights at Chapel Hill High School games. It’s fortunate that I love sports! As a former high school and collegiate athlete, it is a delight to watch my girls grow and learn through sports participation and I value and acknowledge the dedicated coaches and teachers who are helping to shape them.
I also enjoy teaching the three to five-year-old Sunday School class at our church at least once a month. On the community level, I am fortunate to serve on the Board of Directors of the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau and just recently accepted an opportunity to serve as a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA Advisory Board. I feel a sense of obligation to serve the community in which I live and work, and these two entities are vital to the community and make a difference in the lives of many. Finally, I love to read, garden, cook and spend time at the beach. Life is good and I am blessed!