WHERE ARE THEY NOW? September 2008
Allison Supports Game in Different Role
By Lacy Lee Baker
From athlete ... to coach ... to executive ... to attorney ... to teacher, Rayla Allison has done it all. Currently, the assistant director for the University of Minnesota’s School of Kinesiology and CEO of the university’s Sport Business Institute, the former NFCA executive director is still finding ways to help others succeed.
It’s been almost 15 years since you left the NFCA in 1994. Fill us in on your activities since that time.
The original plan was to get my law degree, since I had been involved in many Title IX cases during my work with the NFCA. I thought that with a law degree, I would better be able to help, and I had been accepted into the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. However, before I could get started, I was asked to be a part of a new professional league based out of Minnesota – Women’s Professional Fastpitch.
I worked with the WPF until 2000, while completing the law degree at night. Then, I went into private practice, before teaching at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and now at the University of Minnesota.
In addition, I serve on the Board of Directors for the Babe Ruth League, Inc. (first woman in the history of the organi- zation) and am a founding board member on legal counsel for Foundation IX (raise money to give to girls so they may participate in sports) and Cultural Jambalaya (non-profit that celebrates and educates about diversity).
The thing that I enjoy the most, however, is being a parent to my son, Alex, who’s nine. I even returned to coaching since I coached his youth baseball team this past summer.
What is the Sport Business Institute that you are involved with?
Since I teach sport management, I wanted to give our students some real-life job experience, so I came up with the idea of the Sport Business Institute. Sport Business can hire us and our students will develop ticket strategies, sell sponsorships, do consumer research, and more. Currently, we're working with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and do all the marketing for its women's championship, and we sell sponsorships for the men's championship and the entire association. The beauty of it is that we can bring the resources of one of the top research institutions in the country to sports businesses, all while providing job training for our students. It's a win-win for everyone.
What about your law practice? You were very involved in representing coaches and institutions in Title IX and employment law issues.
I still get a lot of calls, but unfortunately, I just don’t have as much time as before. Right now I’m working on a Title IX case for a small NCAA school, and I’m still involved in some coaches’ employment issues.
What led you to this interest in Title IX?
It really started on day one of my employment with the NFCA (known then as the National Softball Coaches Association). I was at the Women’s College World Series and the board informed me that I had gotten the job as the first full-time executive director of the association. On the same day, I got a call from Oregon State University head coach Vickie Dugan who told me that the school had just dropped the softball program. We started a campaign right then and there, and did some research into OSU’s student body enrollment, athlet- ics finances and more. We found that the school was out of compliance with Title IX. We had other coaches write letters and fax them to the university president, and we released our findings to the media outlets in Oregon. Within two weeks, the program was reinstated.
Shortly after that, the University of South Carolina dropped its program, so we used the same strategies. We even got a call from the USC president’s office to ask our coaches to quit calling and faxing. I encouraged the school to contact Lamar Daniel at the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) regional office in Atlanta so the officials could better understand Title IX compliance. The program was shortly reinstated.
Then we saw a complete shift from dropping programs to adding programs at both the collegiate and high school levels, and the change-over from high school slowpitch to fastpitch in states like Kentucky and Georgia. During my association with the sport, from my playing days to this point, I saw people’s perception of softball athletes change from a negative connotation and “tomboy” reference to be an accepted and positive activity for girls and women.
During your three-year tenure with the NFCA, you doubled the NFCA’s membership numbers and tripled revenues. What stands out as some important milestones during your involvement?
First, I want to give credit to the board for having the foresight to hire a full-time executive director . We had been in existence since the early 1980s, and I was hired as the first full-time executive director in 1991. When that decision was made, our income was not enough to cover a full-time salary, so I needed to generate income.
We also needed to revamp our bylaws. At that time, the power of the association was in just a few people’s hands. Sharon Drysdale was the main person responsible for rewriting the bylaws, and the goal was to spread out the power to engage more people. We added reps from each active membership classification to our board and developed an affiliate category.
We also partnered with Louisville Slugger. Besides bringing in revenue for the NFCA, we wrote in the agreement that they would sponsor “X” number of schools a year. In addition, we borrowed money so we could print information about the NFCA on the back of 15,000 softball posters they were sending out, giving us even more exposure.
I also was involved in Lisa Fernandez’s relationship with Louisville Slugger. She was the first female softball athlete signed by a sporting good manufacturer, and that was followed by Julie Smith’s signing with Spalding, who owned Dudley at the time. This, in turn, led to better products being designed for women. A funny story was that when I was president of the NFCA prior to being the executive director, I had asked Louisville Slugger why they didn’t have any batting gloves or fielding gloves that fit smaller hands. They said that they didn’t have a pattern, so I asked our members to trace their smaller players’ hands on typing paper, and we sent the drawings to Louisville.
How did you solve the revenue problem for the association?
We started off by doing a cash flow analysis and found that most of our membership fees were paid in September and October. We started the rolling membership, which meant that if someone paid in December, his or her dues would be paid again the next December. In addition, we started the summer recruiting camps, which brought in more money in a normally slow revenue time for the association. We also developed more properties that we could sell from sponsorship, in addition to giving our members additional benefits (like the scholar-athlete awards program).
Since you’ve been involved in the sport for the last 35 years, how have you seen it change?
The Olympics and international world media exposure have been fabulous for the sport, as well as television exposure here in the U.S. When I was with the pro league, we had a contract with ESPN for a weekly league game.
And the television ratings have been impressive, which supports the theory that we have great viewership. This has led to greater in-person attendance, which has led to larger and nicer facilities.
The equipment has changed dramatically. When I played, I never wore a helmet or shin guards as a catcher. I played with a wooden bat. Not only is the equipment better, but it’s more consistent.
There’s more prestige and money for the coaches of the sport, and that has increased the number of male coaches. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the same op- portunities for women to coach men’s sports.
We also have the greatest number of girls playing softball ever in our existence. On the downside, I do see problems with the specialization that’s taking place. Research shows that “specialized” athletes are not as well-rounded as the athletes who have to juggle two or three sports. Plus, it takes away from the sociological experience and can have negative repercussions on health.
What do you think happened to the women's fastpitch game? We certainly don't have the numbers there?
When I was growing up, girls were steered to certain careers or avenues, like teaching and health care. Teachers had the summers off, so they could play all summer. Others had jobs where they could dictate their hours. There were so many teams that you could play closer to home., and go through a qualification process in your own state to get to nationals. Most of your play was in league play, so there wasn't a lot of travel.
Then, the internal structure changed. All the teams weren’t at the same competition level, so they wanted more divisions. More travel was needed to qualify for nationals, which cost more money and meant more time away from work. Plus, society was changing and didn’t limit the career paths of women, so many took jobs that were more demanding and less likely to allow time off for softball.
Do you have any advice for the coaches of today?
I started coaching in the early 1970s as a head coach; I was never an assistant. To better myself, I took management and group dynamic classes. I looked at my team as a business, and I was the manager of that business. That’s really what coaching is ... getting a group of people to work together to achieve the mission.
I sought out information from everyone I could, no matter what position that person held. I remember recruiting one tournament and sitting by a young graduate assistant coach, who happened to be Rhonda Revelle (now head coach at Nebraska). She had a great way of motivating players through a goal log that she had developed for San Jose State. It was a great idea that I immediately incorporated with my team. So, first and foremost, I would encourage coaches to seek out information, while being a good listener and observer.
I also suggest that coaches look for new ways to think about things. For instance, when I was hired as the general manager for the WPF (NPF), I looked to the hospitality industry to get ideas on how to entertain people. Coaches should always look at other sources and see how they can apply those success stories to softball. After all, that graduate coach sitting next to you on the recruiting trail may have all the answers.