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.
Led by Bridget Woodruff, this unit 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 out our current student-athletes. 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:
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."
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.
InOctober 2019, in partnership with Grafted, the C&L department launched theForward360 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 850+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 9, 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,” said 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."
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 users authenticate through single sign-on and complete onboarding, they are still at the mercy of the community administrator and are assigned a role to be granted 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.
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."
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 or in-app one-on-one or group video calls which creates unique connections that open the doors to opportunity.
In addition to live broadcasts creating memorable experiences between student-athletes and letterwinners, each one is recorded for the host to post as stories on their profile for anyone to watch on-demand. In the first month that stories were launched, with only having rolled the app out to 40% of the student population and only ~125 letterwinner users, these stories received over 533 views from student-athletes and 485 from letterwinners. In comparison, one month of stories received more attention from student-athletes than the combination of on-campus panelist discussions (125 attendees), individual employer visits (170 attendees) and on-campus speakers (160 attendees) did all of last year.
The best part is, the content's consumption by student-athletes and alumni is only increasing because the content doesn't go away. With each new broadcast, new content is being created that will serve the Forward360 community for years to come.
Perhaps the most surprising benefit we're seeing is the positive affinity it is creating within the letterwinner community. 100% of letterwinner's who have hosted a broadcast said they'd host another one anywhere from twice per year to once a month.
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.