St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg (photo from St. John’s athletics)
STUDENT ATHLETES

Boardroom Q&A: Putting the Pieces Together With St. John’s AD Mike Cragg

Mike Cragg has guided the Red Storm through coaching transitions, a pandemic, and into a new era of college sports. Here’s how he views the challenges ahead.

The college sports landscape has seemingly always been in a state of transition. In 2022, that’s as apparent as ever with NIL opportunities, the transfer portal, and an entire reshuffling of the NCAA’s leadership structure ahead. St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg has been in college sports administration for more than 30 years, spanning time at Duke and now in Jamaica, Queens, where he took the reins in 2018.

As AD, Cragg is tasked with overseeing 17 varsity sports, most competing in one of the nation’s premier conferences, the Big East. As he says, his goal is to give the student-athletes the best college athletics experience he can, but there’s a lot to that. He needs to put the proper leadership in place, make constant improvements to the department’s infrastructure, and help them make the most of their college experience off the court and field. He likens it to putting a puzzle together — something he admits he loves.

This week, Boardroom sat down with Cragg to talk about the evolving nature of his job and the future of college athletics, both at St. John’s and beyond.

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RUSSELL STEINBERG: I want to get a sense of what your day-to-day is like, because I don’t think a lot of fans really understand what an AD actually does.

MIKE CRAGG: No two days are the same. I think where I try to keep my core and my center is that I’m here for the student-athlete. I got here about a year before the pandemic, and so it’s been a little nuts. In that case, it was a lot of reaction and a lot of concern about health and safety — that was always our first priority. Now that we’re getting back into “normalcy,” the first priority is how you make the best possible experience for your student-athlete in the classroom and the community. 

That comes in a whole lot of different forms. I’d say the No. 1 thing is trying to provide an infrastructure and quality coaches to be able to give them day-to-day experience. By that I mean that you want to make their facilities the best they can be. You want to provide them nutrition the best you can, provide them travel and style of life as best you can, and then provide mental health resources and other resources [for] their living. We have 340 student-athletes that are under our care and we provide them the best opportunity to compete and win because we want to compete and win. I think that’s where it starts. 

And then, you have the business side of everything on top of that. How do you gather as many resources as possible to support all the things we’re talking about? How do you creatively sell tickets, have strategic thinking, marketing, NIL? It just adds up to what I love. 

RS: Health and safety coming out of the pandemic, mental health resources, NIL — a lot of these things weren’t a focus even just a few years ago. How has the role of the athletic director changed since you got into athletics administration?

MC: It’s changed beyond comprehension. There’s just so much more money in the business and the enterprise itself.

How do we figure out how student-athletes are really employees? I truly believe we’re heading down that path now. That seems to be the latest round of lawsuits. I’m more of a proponent of figuring out on the front side creatively: What does that truly look like? Because it feels like in the last five, 10 years, we’re just reacting to court cases and that’s not being strategic. That’s just reacting to the law.

It’s led to good things, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather be proactive to it and reinvent and reimagine, because there is an appetite and there is competition and I believe college sports isn’t the same as it was, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the same to be great, and it’s still great.

RS: How has NIL changed college athletics?

MC: Everything that was illegal or believed to have been happening at any school at any time is basically above board. It’s in the light. I didn’t see coming the idea of these collectives and pooling of money through the use of companies to basically create NIL deals.

I saw the things that were surface-level as far as social media and truly enterprising opportunities, whether it’s camps or autographs or appearances. That would be the way, and I thought it was a positive. I’m not as sold on this idea of collectives being the future. 

 It’s not wrong that somebody should benefit from their talent and skills just like you and I can. There’s nothing wrong with the school being able to benefit from our name, image, and likeness as well. I tell that to our student-athletes: Let’s work together. Should there be a contract between a student-athlete and a school and let that be the primary focus of performing and competing in the name of the school? I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t have the answers, but I’d rather have lawyers looking at that rather than just going to court and fighting for it to stay the same, which we’re likely to lose. 

Let’s study what contractual employment looks like and then let’s see a reaction to that in the era of NIL.

RS: One thing that I didn’t expect to happen with NIL — these school-affiliated collectives surely have something to do with it — is that we’re seeing a lot more athletes benefit than we first thought, including many athletes in the so-called “non-revenue sports.” Is this something you’ve seen at St. John’s?

MC: I think we’re seeing some interest in that and I did think that would happen. In the engagement of social media and influencers and the world we live in, I did think there’d be opportunities way beyond the headlines of basketball and football. That’s why I’m very much in favor of this and why I’m very bullish on it for St. John’s, in a New York market, that there’s opportunity. And so if we have a softball team that gets successful and makes a run and does all those things, I think there is opportunity in NIL to be able to start their career financially while in college.

I think that’s what college is about, is finding those opportunities and careers and learning.

RS: You’re tasked now with building and maintaining interest across sports for a university that exists in a market with two pro teams in every major league. What are the challenges to getting fans really into the Red Storm?

MC: It’s a double-edged sword. We’re in a city with a lot of people, and we’re in a city with a lot of options. What I’ve tried to do is to instill the belief that if you’re an alum, that this is your school. It’s a professional sports market, which tends to be more focused on, ‘hey, when you win, I’ll be there.’ I do wanna win and I look forward to winning, whatever that means, but who’s gonna define winning? I’d like to define winning in that we’re doing all the things we’re doing: graduating kids, winning our share of basketball games, being competitive in every sport.

That may not fit the definition of winning in a New York sports market, where, ‘Hey, if you go to the Final Four, I’ll be there. If you win the Big East, I’ll be there.’ Those are our aspirations, too. But those don’t come around just every day for everybody. We’re building towards those. But meanwhile, we need to bring everybody along before we reach those. When we reach them together, it’s much more rewarding. 

And then we’ve really focused in this offseason around: How do we become a more entertaining in-game product? We’re gonna trend towards minor league baseball when it comes to giveaways, themes, fun that maybe every college basketball team doesn’t have to do. But our program in this market kind of begs that you’ve gotta be different. We’re gonna try everything. I mean, that’s the fun part of what my job is, too.

Cragg and men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson (via St. John’s athletics)

RS: You saw the breakup of the old Big East from an outsider perspective when you were at Duke. You see what the conference is now and how it has succeeded. Has it surprised you that a conference is able to succeed like this without football?

MC: I would say 10 years ago from my seat, I’m definitely surprised. I felt like they were taking a high risk, but I saw the benefits of it, and I think we have reaped the rewards as a conference now 10 years later. And that’s what I love about the Big East, that 10 of the 11 schools are very like-minded: private, no high-level football, and all 11 extremely focused on men’s basketball and women’s basketball. I think there’s great advantages to that.

I think that’s where the Big East has an opportunity to be a leader among all of college basketball, in that as other schools are focused on football and basketball, we’re looking at the future of men’s and women’s basketball. That’s our main focus every day, and so I think that’s to the benefit of the game as we go through this transformation of college sports.

I’d like to see more focus on what’s best for the game of basketball, and that’s been talked about for a lot of years and it’s really never come to fruition with some siloed approaches. Volleyball should be thinking about what’s best for volleyball, too. Selling it, marketing it, branding it, all of that, every single sport. Really having strong leadership in every sport I think will benefit everybody, including student-athletes. I hope we get to that. In our case, I think the Big East can be a huge leader in making basketball better.

RS:  It seems like a big reason for the success that the Big East has had has been the relationship with FOX. I associate the Big East with FOX more so than I associate any other conference with any network. What has that relationship been like, and how has that helped St. John’s?

MC: I think we were a marriage at a perfect time, as they were launching FS1 and the Big East was launching a new era of basketball-centric schools. There were immense opportunities for growth. This year, there’s a 20% growth of our audience through the past year and we’re back at above pre-pandemic audiences.

I think they have a very bullish look at college basketball [and] so do we, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for growth still further ahead. And then we’ll see where things land after the contract is up, but I know all parties wanna keep making it bigger and better. We have a great relationship and we’re thrilled with it. And again, I think the timing is a big thing. FOX Sports and the Big East growing together from day one was perfect timing and continues to be.

RS: It’s funny, because that’s almost the exact same thing that happened when the original Big East was founded right as ESPN was taking off

MC: You’re right, exactly right.

RS: When your time at St John’s is done, how do you want people to think about St John’s athletics?

MC: Well, hopefully, that’s about 10 years from now. I think we want them to think of St John’s athletics as a vital part of our campus that represents our university at the highest level of excellence. That we’ve experienced a period of growth as a university. That we rebounded from a pandemic to the point of being an attractive place for anybody around the world to come to school and to compete. I think that would be an amazing legacy.

Obviously, when it comes to sports, we wanna be known as a place where in every single sport we’re competing for championships and that we greatly improved our facilities and our day-to-day living of our student-athletes –because, frankly, we are way behind in that right now compared to our peers.

RS: Where do you stand right now in the facilities arms race?

MC: Honestly, St John’s really stopped investing probably for about a 20-year period, and so we’re in a catch-up mode. We are in the middle of a feasibility study and engaged in a fundraising private phase of looking at our men’s and women’s basketball facilities — not the playing arena, but just the locker rooms, training room, weight room, all of those things that everybody recruits with and we are way behind on. We’re hopefully gonna be announcing something pretty soon on that front and a plan going forward. And then our fan experience: How do you make a 50-year-old arena with modern amenities? That’s a challenge.

I think one of the main headlines to being an AD at a school like this is you have to be a puzzle lover and hopefully a puzzle solver, and I do love puzzles. So, trying to put all the pieces together and come up with a finished puzzle is the goal. But you have to love that and you have to be passionate about it. And I am those things.

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