Culture Catalyst: Louisiana’s Nico Yantko On Growing Athletics With One Of The Most Unique Cultures In America

August 2nd, 2018 | by CollegeAD
Culture Catalyst: Louisiana’s Nico Yantko On Growing Athletics With One Of The Most Unique Cultures In America
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nico yantko

To understand what makes the people and culture of south Louisiana so unique, one must first understand the Acadians. A group exiled by the British from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, the Acadians made their way to south Louisiana with two thoughts, survive and build a thriving community. Through hard work and that binding sense of community, the Acadians took an inhospitable land and turned the swamps of Louisiana into one of the most welcoming places in America. This sentiment holds true today. Acadiana, (a-kay’-dee-anna) encompasses the “joie de vivre”, the “work hard and play hard” attitude exhibited by the people who live here, and the love of the land settled generations ago by the Acadians. For this reason, there is nothing like the culture of south Louisiana.

But have you ever stopped to really think what culture means and why so many in both the professional world and private industry constantly strive to find the right culture? The word itself can mean several different things. Webster defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization” but culture can also be associated with a region or area. The United States, from coast to coast, is filled with numerous cultures that make each region of the country unique.

In that sense, Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time”

Combining both definitions of culture can prove to be a tough thing to do, but if you can pull it off, you really have the opportunity to leave a place in a much better state than when you first found it.

That’s the challenge that the new administration at Louisiana is facing. Merging the culture of south Louisiana and the Lafayette community with a culture of athletics excellence.

“Culture trumps strategy every day of the week, and for us here at UL, its imperative for us to continue to focus on cultivating that mindset day in and day out. I think we’re incredibly lucky to be at a place like Louisiana where we have a true identifiable and amazing culture. Louisiana Deputy AD Nico Yantko told CollegeAD.

Yantko, getting ready to start his second year at Louisiana, followed Ragin’ Cajun athletic director Bryan Maggard from Missouri after Maggard was hired to lead the department in February of 2017. Together, the two, along with new football coach Billy Napier have undertaken the task of bringing a new culture to the Louisiana athletic department.

Like everyone else in the world of college athletics, the Louisiana team is constantly searching for new ways to grow resources. Resources for the student-athlete experience, resources for coaches, and resources for alumni, fans, and donors experiences. It’s Yantko’s job as head of the Ragin’ Cajuns external team to make that happen.

“Everything we do is to position our head coaches and our student-athletes to compete for and win championships.” Nico Yantko said, “I think it’s an important part for us to continue to integrate with constituents, donors, head coaches, and university leadership, to focus on partnering with them to figure out how are we going to generating new revenues to support that initiative and enhance the student-athlete experience.”

So what does the next step look like for the Ragin’ Cajuns?

Resources

No matter where you are in college athletics resources for players and coaches are crucial for the success, and community buy-in is a must to achieve that success.

After living in Acadiana, a region of south Louisiana with over 800,000 residents across its nine parishes, Yantko has gained a better understanding of the Cajun culture and what makes the people of south Louisiana so unique. A community hungry for a winner, with the resources and ability to help the Ragin’ Cajuns. But as Yantko freely admits, it hasn’t always been the easiest for fans and donors to become involved, which is one of the reasons the department has decided to revamp the Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Foundation (RCAF) fundraising model.

nico yantko

L-R: Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, Louisiana AD Dr. Bryan Maggard, University President Dr. Joseph Savoie. Photo by Brad Kemp

“I’ve been here a year now, Bryan’s been here almost a year and a half, and after visiting and listening to many of our donors, fans, and season ticket holders, we want to implement a more user friendly model, something more fair and equitable in our benefit allocation to be more transparent on that front.” Yantko notes the changes will allow the department to equitably recognize gifts across the board providing an opportunity to grow resources altogether.

In addition to the changes to the RCAF, Nico Yantko also pointed to Louisiana’s recent multimedia rights agreement with Learfield. The partnership, a first of its kind for the university, brings a guaranteed cash value of $14.15 million to the department. Louisiana will also begin to implement a new parking fee structure that will benefit several new projects aimed at improving the student-athlete experience for athletes on campus.

“We continue to focus on enhancing the brand on a local, regional, and national level. Our new partnership with Learfield is going to be incredibly instrumental on that front. I look at the opportunity for exposure we get from the Sun Belt Conference’s agreement with ESPN and our agreement with Cox Sports Television. The newest area we’re focused on growing is our digital strategy and creative media team, we believe this is the next arms race for recruiting and fan engagement.” Yantko added.

As part of the effort to grown and enhance the brand, Louisiana added to it communications department last Spring, hiring Patrick Crawford as the Ragin’ Cajuns Assistant AD for Communication and Digital Strategy. Yantko notes Crawford’s addition has been vital in the growth of Louisiana’s creative and digital media presence.

Investment

As the trio of Maggard, Yantko, and Napier, with the blessing of university president Joseph Savoie, or T-Joe as he’s known, continue to mix the culture of Acadiana with the culture of a revamped athletic department, they realize it’s not enough to simply rely on the community, they must do their part as well. They too, along with the entire department staff have to invest in Louisiana.

For Yantko it all boils down to three things: enhance the brand, broaden the base, and surpass all numeric goals that have been set for the external team.

As a complement to the Sun Belt Conference’s partnership with ESPN, last year, Louisiana was able to reach a new television deal with Cox Sports Television that will bring the Ragin’ Cajuns brand into households ranging from Connecticut to California. In addition to finding ways to spread the Ragin’ Cajuns name through television, the athletic department is currently conducting a feasibility to study to enhance Cajun Field, and the area surrounding the school’s football venue, making the athletic campus viable for more than just six Saturday’s in the fall.

“The next step for us, is looking at new opportunities to generate revenue and drive individuals to our footprint 52 weeks a year.” Yantko told CollegeAD, “What we want to look at in our facility master plan is a structure that is attractive for both the game day experience, which we constantly are finding new ways to continue to enhance, additionally focusing on how we are engaging the fans and constituents day in and day out.”

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Nico Yantko noted Dr. Maggard has encouraged him and his team to think outside of the box and embrace the Cajun culture of turning everything into a party.

“Our fans really enjoy the tailgating and festival experience, coming out and hanging out with 6-12 of their best friends, but the hardest part is keeping them in their seats on game days.” He said, “Instead of fighting them on the traditional seat structure, we want to look outside of the box. How do we focus on an alternate to the traditional seat or premium seating experience? Is there a new premium experience on the horizon for us here so that we can get fans in the venue investing their time and discretionary income, with the Ragin’ Cajuns?”

The other big investment for the Louisiana athletic department, perhaps most importantly comes in the area of improving the student-athlete experience. The Cajuns have added a nutrition department, a full-time staff of three individuals who will work with all of the Louisiana student-athletes along with Assistant Director of Athletics for Athletic Performance, Candice Walls and football Director of Strength and Conditioning Mark Hocke.

Additionally, the athletic department has invested in the full cost of attendance stipends for student-athletes and has also launched a new program designed to bring a holistic experience and development program to the Ragin’ Cajun student-athletes. The Geaux Cajuns program is designed to provide student-athletes resources while they’re on campus to help change their life course trajectory.

Together, Nico Yantko believes between new resources and investment, the athletic department, along with the community can bring a thriving culture to Ragin’ Cajuns athletics, embracing the past, while moving forward.

“I think it’s really important to embrace the culture of south Louisiana, champion that culture, and at the same time develop the mindset internally that we’re not going to accept the status quo. We’re in a great position here where our campus community has high ambitions to continue to grow the Ragin’ Cajuns brand nationally.”

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