Since assuming the role as the Deputy Athletic Director for the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017, Chris McIntosh has learned a lot about what folks outside of UW think he does. And naturally, as a Deputy AD, he wears a lot of different hats—managing day-to-day operations, student-athlete recruitment, strategic planning, business development and human resources— just to name a few of his priorities. Still, McIntosh and the UW-Madison Athletic Department have an unspoken top priority: ensuring each student-athlete transitions to a successful post-collegiate athletic career.
Enter UW-Madison’s Career & Leadership (“C&L”) department.
Led by Bridget Woodruff, this department has been empowered to think outside of the box to make the department’s ambitious priority a reality.
As the C&L department has grown, so have their programming efforts and ability to gather insights across the department. Despite many successes, though, the C&L team noticed an opportunity for improving how former student-athletes (“letterwinners”) and employer partners were being incorporated into the Badger community to open doors for current student-athletes.
“Everything we were doing between student-athlete development and alumni relations was somewhat siloed, despite the fact that our letterwinners are perfectly positioned and willing to help our current student-athletes,” says Bridget Woodruff, Assistant AD for C&L. “We had to do something.”
The first thing they did was reshape the paradigm of how the Badgers Letterwinner Club (“W-Club”) was viewed internally: from a traditional “development” lens to a career and leadership lens. The W-Club now reports to C&L. This simple change is fundamental in bringing cohesion to how letterwinners and student-athletes engage.
Secondly, they began the journey to find the right technology platform for facilitating engagement among letterwinners and student-athletes. After dozens of meetings evaluating pre-existing tech solutions already being used in-house at UW-Madison (and with new solutions from every software company they could find), Bridget and her team did not find a single solution built for their team to facilitate engagement among UW student-athletes, letterwinners, and employer partners. In their research, two common themes emerged:
1. They needed a platform that student-athletes, letterwinners and employer partners would want to use since they were not in a position to mandate utilization
2. They needed a platform with robust permission sets, that adhered to the highest security and compliance standards without compromising the user experience
In the fall of 2019, the athletic department partnered with Grafted to offer its community a modern platform focused on providing peer-to-peer digital experiences that would foster actual career opportunities for UW-student athletes. After all, they knew students were constantly engaging with each other via popular video platforms. Could they leverage this same technology to create a compelling community for those in the C&L network?
“Grafted has provided an innovative solution to accomplishing our goal of 100% meaningful career outcomes for all graduating student-athletes," says Deputy Athletic Director, Chris McIntosh.
It’s only been five months since the C&L department onboarded its first batch of letterwinners and student-athletes, and the results have been insanely positive. The leadership and hard work of Bridget Woodruff, Nick Pasquarello and Brittany McGowan have infused a sense of enthusiasm and excitement in the student-athlete and letterwinner population. Already, they’re sharing stories of how football players are walking into their offices asking about how to get internships at companies they are hearing about through letterwinner broadcasts. At a tactical level, the process and technology underpinning the community has been the difference-maker.
An intentional, high-trust online community
In October 2019, in partnership with Grafted, the C&L department launched the Forward360 mobile app with the primary goal of empowering its community of student-athletes, letterwinners, and employer partners to help each other achieve success. A core driver for the initiative was the department’s goal to function like a platform by connecting its members rather than trying to meet the individual needs of all 800+ student-athletes by themselves.
“You can’t just pump more content at these kids—you’ve got to connect them to people who can help. Even with a team of 10, we can’t do it all on our own. The needs of our student-athletes are increasingly diverse, and we have to work smarter to properly serve each one,” says Bridget.
As a component of building a high-trust, intentional community, Grafted’s technology sits entirely behind the scenes so student-athletes and letterwinners view the front door (mobile app icon) to their community through the lens of their university’s initiative. The Forward360 initiative is a holistic student-athlete wellness program, and C&L’s community uses the mobile app to help members pursue their personal and professional development goals.
“The trick is meeting the needs of each user group (student-athletes, letterwinners and employer partners) in a systematic and scalable fashion until the support from letterwinners and employer partners is so top-heavy, every student-athlete has multiple paths to a meaningful career," says Executive Director, W Club & Strategic Partnerships, Nick Pasquarello.
From a technology perspective, building a private, high-trust community required the following items to be in place:
Each user who downloads the Forward360 app and attempts to access the community, authenticates with their university credentials. This automatically filters the types of users who can request access to join.
Onboarding consists of a series of questions the user answers after they’re granted permission to join the community. These questions are tailored to each user type and frame the purpose of the app as a user progresses through them.
Even after a user authenticates through single sign-on and completes onboarding, he/she’s still at the mercy of the community administrator to assigns him a role and grant him access. This process ensures each person who joins the community has both opted in and been verified.
With each of these primary components working together, the Badger community now has an exclusive, high-trust, intentional online community to leverage.
But creating a space for engagement to happen in is only half the battle. You still need experiences that incentivize the users to take action. Otherwise, you are left with a great app that tons of people have signed up for, but that no one uses.
An easy to use, engaging channel for letterwinners and employer partners to get involved at scale
While having letterwinners and employer partners come to campus and share their perspective is something the athletic department will continue to invest in, it doesn’t scale. Even for locals living in Madison, aligning schedules and getting on campus requires a lot of work for both parties—but that’s only half of it. Getting student-athletes to show up is even more challenging.
Instead of repeating the same actions expecting different results, UW-Madison partnered with Grafted to leverage the technology platform’s ability to facilitate live broadcasts through the mobile app. This reduces the barriers for letterwinners and employer partners to engage, dramatically increasing the volume of people who can get involved.
“It’s no secret student-athletes have extremely demanding schedules, where attending late night programming after a very long day isn’t always enticing. Rethinking how our student-athletes can get the same information from letterwinners and employers—but without the logistical barriers—is one of the core purposes for leveraging this app,” said the Director of C&L, Brittany McGowan.
Not only can they now schedule anyone in the Forward360 community to host a broadcast for others; that host is now available to answer questions via in-app messaging which creates unique connections that open the doors to opportunity.
“I thoroughly enjoyed hosting a broadcast. It was awesome to be able to help fellow Badgers by sharing what I’ve learned from my professional and personal experiences," says Jonathan Orr, former UW-Madison football and CEO of Athlete Transition Services.
In addition to live broadcasts generating unparalleled engagement between student-athletes and letterwinners, each one is recorded for the host to post as a video story on their profile for anyone to watch on-demand. In the first month (30 days) UW’s Forward360 stories were launched, with only having rolled the app out to 40% of the student-athlete population and only ~125 letterwinner users, these stories received 533 views from student-athletes and 485 from alumni. In one month, stories alone received more attention from student-athletes than onsite visits Badger's Go Pro, Employer's in the Lobby and Leadership Lessons combined all of last year. This blows traditional channels out of the water—and the best part is, the content doesn’t go away. With each new broadcast, new content is being created by people who are available to answer questions that will serve the Forward360 community for years to come.
Here is what broadcast hosts have said about their experience:
“It was a great time! It was easy to do.”
Real Estate Broker
Former UW-Madison Men’s Basketball
“It was nice to discuss my transition out of sport. It was not the easiest thing for me and took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do. I think that can be normal. When going through it, I didn’t think so. Hopefully it can help some student athletes out in that respect.”
Former UW-Madison Swimming & Diving
“It was a great opportunity to shed some light on my career path. Touching on things that I wish I would have known prior to graduation. The feedback with thumbs up, hearts and clapping provided nice responses during the broadcast.”
Account Manager, phData
Former UW-Madison Football
Strategic implications for recruiting across every sport
Within the last few weeks, Bridget introduced the Forward360 app to all UW-Madison coaches in an all-hands meeting. Of the 50+ coaches in attendance, almost half immediately took action to gain access. These coaches constantly interact with recruits and their families, all of whom want to know that athletes will be taken care of after their playing careers are over. Now, instead of pointing to an abstract example or asking recruits to take coaches’ word for it, UW-Madison coaches have a powerful platform they can immediately access to demonstrate the power of the UW-Madison letterwinner community.
“I want to present this (Forward360 app) on all official visits,” said assistant volleyball coach Brittany Dildine. It’s not just that the app is a visual representation of the commitment UW-Madison has to their athletes—it’s literally generations of former athletes at arm’s length, ready and willing to make sure current athletes have inroads to career pathways and continual community when their playing days are over.
And Forward360 provides value to athletes hoping to play professionally as well. Recent broadcast hosts have included former NFL receiver Jonathan Orr, Olympic Swimmer Carly Piper, and NFL quarterback Joel Stave. Each of these UW-Madison letterwinners hosted a broadcast on topics related to elite performance, athlete transition, and adjusting to the lifestyle of elite athletics.
Regardless of a prospective recruit’s likelihood to play professionally, Forward360 provides compelling evidence that UW-Madison is deeply invested in its athletes’ success after graduation. When a recruit has a tough decision to make between a lot of great options, having the ability to show them and their families hundreds and even thousands of former student-athletes and employer partners who are ready to help them transition after graduation can be the clincher in a recruit’s decision making process..