Monday, May 20, 2024

Naismith Awards’ Nonprofit Keeps Eye on Sponsor Prize

Caitlin Clark grabbed collegiate basketball’s top athlete honors, but it may have been Eric Oberman who felt like the afternoon’s biggest winner.

On Wednesday in Cleveland, the Iowa basketball star—to scarce surprise—received her second consecutive Naismith award, recognizing Clark as the women’s college player of the year. Taking the podium to accept her award, Clark began her remarks by noting how “very cool” it was to see the growth of this particular award ceremony, now in its third year.

That was music to the ears of Oberman, president of the Atlanta Tipoff Club, the small nonprofit behind what are arguably the most prestigious annual awards for college and high school basketball players and coaches.

“It is great exposure for us, the live-streaming, the social media—it has been incredible,” Oberman said in a telephone interview afterward. “It is one thing to announce an award but to have an event like this and see the turnout—it is something I would not have dreamt of three years ago.”

The week each year that encompasses the men’s and women’s NCAA Final Fours marks the harvest season for ATOC.

“This is our Super Bowl, our Academy Awards—everything rolled into one,” Oberman said.

While the Naismith college men honorees have been feted with an awards brunch since 2009, this was only the third year in which ATOC has done the same for the women. In its first year, Oberman estimated that about 40 people attended the women’s college award banquet; this time around, about 300 people, including 19 credentialed media, jammed into the banquet area of a private, street-level club inside the Cleveland Browns Stadium.

The men’s awards will be announced Sunday at the Phoenix Art Museum and live-streamed on SiriusXM Radio. Finalists for Naismith male player of the year include North Carolina’s RJ Davis, Purdue’s Zach Edey, Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and Houston’s Jamal Shead.

The Atlanta Tipoff Club currently confers 14 Naismith basketball honors, including both male and female winners, and Oberman thinks that’s sufficient.

“We don’t want to grow for growth’s sake,” Oberman said. “How many times have you seen a corporation try and explode that ends up derailing it from the main task? I don’t want 20 different Naismith awards.”

Rather, his most pressing long-term goal is to lock up presenting sponsors for the three award categories that are thus far without a corporate backer. He says he had positive discussions Wednesday in Cleveland with the representative of one company he declined to name, which had expressed interest in coming on board.

The Tipoff Club was originally founded in 1956 by a group of Atlanta sports figures and business leaders, seeking to celebrate high school basketball in the area.

In 1969, hoping to increase its national profile, ATOC began honoring the country’s top men’s college hoops player, naming its award in honor of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, who had a relative who was then serving on the club’s board of directors.

UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who then went by Lew Alcindor, was the award’s inaugural recipient.

Over the ensuing decades, ATOC has steadily added additional awards to its array: the women’s player of the year in 1983; college coach and boys’ and girls’ high school players in 1987; men’s and women’s college officials in 1988; boys’ and girls’ coach of the year in 2008; and, most recently, men’s and women’s college defensive player in 2018.

Most of ATOC’s revenue comes from contributions and award sponsors, which include Jersey Mike’s and Werner Ladder, who lend their names to the college player and coach trophies, respectively. The Club also hosts an annual golf tournament in September, and charges money for membership. The nonprofit brought in $730,000 of revenue in 2022, according to its most recent tax filings, about a third which went to compensate Oberman, its lone employee.

Oberman repeatedly referred to ATOC—a 501(c)(3) federal charity—as a “company,” which is also how it refers to itself on its tax filings.

Prior to ATOC, Oberman spent a number of years in corporate communications—for Nike, public relations firm Ketchum and Home Depot, which originally brought him to the Atlanta area.

In 2007, Oberman left to take the job as vice president of business properties for the Atlanta Sports Council, the civic group charged with bringing big sporting events to the area, and which had recently taken over managing the Tipoff Club.

“I wasn’t all that schooled in the nonprofit world, and you learn quickly how to grow, and it is not always the easiest, because you are constantly seeking revenue,” Oberman said.

In 2010, he became ATOC’s executive director, and four years later, the club broke off as its own entity, in what Oberman said was a mutual and amicable decision.

“If you look at the model of both organizations,” Oberman said, “they really did not go hand-in-hand.”

For Oberman, going alone was a double-edged sword.

“All of a sudden, you are your own boss—the only employee of a company,” he said. “The flip side is I had no staff and no sponsors.”

A year and a half later, in 2016, ATOC secured its first big sponsorship with Werner Ladder, which had already established itself as the official ladder of the NCAA; the club’s current partnership with Werner now runs through 2026. In 2018, Jersey Mike’s signed on to be title sponsor of the Naismith high school player awards, then agreed to sponsor the college player trophies in 2020. That same year, the organization began reviewing its bylaws, putting more structure around its board, and “having the terms be a little more clearly laid out and governed.”

Oberman says ATOC is also “kicking around” the idea of finding a national broadcast partner that would promote the Naismith Awards throughout the year.

“We get a lot of organic media coverage, but don’t have an actual broadcast partner,” he said.

Acknowledging that the Tipoff Club was “late to the game on social media,” Oberman said Naismith’s social accounts expect to generate more than 35 million impressions this year, compared to around a million impressions in 2017. (ATOC relies on unpaid college interns to do the bulk of its social media content creation throughout the year.)

While the world of college athletics undergoes one of its most disruptive periods in history, Oberman said neither NIL nor the transfer portal has yet to have any real impact on his operation. Nor does the attention on what athletes earn off the court seem to have diminished the honor of what they accomplish on it.

Given the limits to his organization’s bandwidth, and the already-condensed schedule between the men’s and women’s Final Fours, Oberman says he is not sure if there is much else ATOC can do to make hay in early April. Though opportunities abound, the Atlanta Tipoff Club remains just a one-employee organization.

“I just want to grow things in an efficient, smart manner,” Oberman said. “I have been around long enough to not get too excited and then boil the ocean.”

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