Experience, Expertise Help Diboll Lead Fresno State's Athletics Marketing
May 18, 2005
Deena Diboll has just returned to her office from a morning meeting, one of nearly 20 she will attend this week. She totes with her piles of paperwork and folders in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in another. Looking for room on her desk to drop her things, she elects to set them next to her computer, one of two on her desk. On this computer, she has nearly 50 e-mails begging her immediate attention.
She says goodbye to a colleague who stopped by and then plops down in her chair. Diboll, Fresno State's Assistant Athletics Director for Marketing and Corporate Sales, then is asked perhaps the most difficult question she will field all day - to concisely describe what she does on a day-in, day-out basis.
Diboll gets a look on her face. It's a look that quizzically and yet silently inquires pointedly, "Concisely? You're joking, right?"
It is a job description that has truly been molded to fit Diboll's myriad talents and abilities, and one that has been two decades in the making. Because of this, it is also not a description for which one should ask if they are either double-parked or the owner of a small bladder.
A 22-year veteran of the athletics department, Diboll's answer to what her day-in, day-out duties are spans over 200 words in length and concludes almost apologetically with, "My job is sort of all over the place."
Simply put, Diboll has been the point person for the marketing of Fresno State Athletics since she arrived on campus in 1982. She has played a vital role - some would say the vital role - in the change and expansion of collegiate marketing at Fresno State from an area that simply runs promotions during events to one that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the athletics department.
As long as her job description runs, Diboll's list of awards won is even longer. She practically needs another room in her house to display all of her commendations and achievements. She served on the initial slate of officers of the National Association of Collegiate Marketing (NACMA), providing an instrumental role in the influential organization's inception, growth and development. She chaired the organization's convention and served as its president.
In 2000, she was honored at the national convention with the NACMA Award for Outstanding Achievement honoring her career service to the development of collegiate athletics marketing. In June 2003, Diboll received NACMA's highest honor when she was inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame.
"Deena's success at Fresno State has come from a tremendous work ethic and ability to deal well with many different people," Interim Athletics Director Paul Oliaro said. "She brings great ideas to the department and during her career has brought in millions of dollars to Fresno State, which has contributed to the success of countless student-athletes."
She has a perspective and savvy that comes only from being in the same place, and dealing with many of the same people, for over 20 years. Perhaps most importantly, however, has been Diboll's largely uncredited place in the construction of the road traveled by Bulldog athletics in the past 20 years, from the days when Beiden Field, the Save Mart Center and sky suites at Bulldog Stadium were pie-in-the-sky dreams to the present, when Fresno State's sports teams are considered among the best in the nation.
The years of devoted, unsung service in the athletics department have done nothing to wipe away at Diboll's love of her job, or especially her love of the Fresno State community. It is a community that drew Diboll to the Fresno State athletics department in 1982 and one that she talks about with a gleam in her eye 22 years later.
"Everything here has always been unique," Diboll said. "But that's how the people are here. Some say that people put their money where their mouth is. This community puts its money where its heart is. And it's obvious the heart of this community is with Fresno State and the Fresno State athletics department."
From Foundation to Fruition
Her know-how in identifying revenue streams was one of the principal reasons why, in August 1998, university president Dr. John D. Welty assigned her to the Save Mart Center project to assist with marketing and development. It was a flattering, and yet daunting, appointment, given the monumental task the project team was staring at - fill the 48-acre vacant space on the northwest corner of Chestnut and Shaw with the largest privately funded project in the history of the California State University system.
It was to be a building of grand proportions, and it would catapult Fresno State into the forefront of any conversation regarding on-campus basketball facilities. The total price tag exceeded $100 million, and Diboll was front and center in assisting with the financing of the building, which came through revenue from corporate sponsorships, private gifts, leasing of luxury suites, the sale of Arena Builders seats and personal seat licenses as well as revenue from advertising and signage agreements.
"We knew that we needed corporate partners involved in the project," Diboll said. "It was going to be a culmination of those partnerships along with suite leases and personal seat licenses [that would fund the building]. It was going to take all of those things working together to bring this project to fruition.
"I was heavily involved in developing the inventory of opportunities for the building and for ancillary projects so that we might be able to create relationships with the building that corporate sponsors might be interested in. Basically, it was much like I had done in the athletics department in terms of developing our inventory of opportunities for different kinds of sponsorships and advertising programs."
One of Diboll's more significant recommendations was the concept of the Arena Builders seats. The rows that flank both sides of center court closest to the playing floor, the Arena Builders seats are the prime real estate to watch men's and women's basketball games at the Save Mart Center. Along these lines, Diboll also added the recommendation for the utilization of courtside seating on one side of the floor.
Both ideas stemmed from her past experiences in the athletics department and the knowledge she had that such an idea, though relatively untested in college athletics, would work at Fresno State.
"I remember the first 7 a.m. meeting when I proposed [the idea] that people would be willing to come forward and assist at that higher level," Diboll said. "It wasn't a new idea. All I had to do was look back on the people who had the foresight to build Bulldog Stadium initially. There was a group of people that paid $10,000 for seats on the 50-yard line. So I wasn't inventing a new idea."
Being so heavily involved with the financing of a building that transformed the landscape of area entertainment - when before had acts such as Elton John, Britney Spears, World Wrestling Entertainment and Andrea Bocelli all performed in the same building in the same year in the Central Valley? - brings Diboll a certain level of pride. Driving down Cedar Avenue and gazing at the 96-foot clocktower on the southeast entrance of the building, Diboll sees not just the home of the Bulldogs, but rather a home she he helped bring them.
"I look back on that experience as a really exciting time," Diboll said. "We were doing something on the Fresno State campus that literally hadn't been done, certainly not in the CSU system anywhere. I think the combination of creativity and different ways of finding revenue streams wound up all coming together to bring that building to fruition. To be a part of it gives me a great level of satisfaction."
A Diamond in the Rough
Along that vein, like any self-respecting Washington State graduate, Diboll had one problem with the school - its location. Specifically, Pullman, Wash., a place about which former Washington State (and USC) men's basketball coach George Raveling once said, "It isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from there."
So after her graduation, Diboll had a choice - stay in Pullman or move away to work. For Diboll, the choice was easy, and she relocated to Fresno, where she accepted a job at a local radio station selling advertising. But she would volunteer at Fresno State events, knowing all along that college athletics was what she wanted to get into.
It didn't take long before Diboll made the jump to Fresno State, a decision made simple by the relationship she witnessed between the community and university, and most specifically, the athletics programs.
Though she wasn't here when it was opened, Diboll points to the construction of Bulldog Stadium as not only the prime highlight in the love affair the community has with Fresno State, but also as a flashpoint in department history.
"[Bulldog Stadium] was purely built with the blood, sweat and tears and financial investment of the people of the community," Diboll said. "You look at the price tag of $7 million, and that's not a lot by today's standards. But back then, it was a lot. And it was built solely with private funds.
"That demonstrated to me that this place was a diamond in the rough. There was a relationship that existed that was very unique."
Diboll credits the building of Bulldog Stadium, and the way Fresno State fans flocked to the new facility, as the impetus behind future projects that brought crown jewels to the baseball (Beiden Field) and softball (Bulldog Diamond) programs.
In part out of pride and part out of just being honest, Diboll frequently uses the phrase, "ahead of our time," when talking about Fresno State Athletics. When she talks about marketing, one of her areas of supervision, Diboll notes the department was often "ahead of its time" in their ideas and strategic implementation. She uses it again when the topic is the Save Mart Center, and then again when discussing the construction of Beiden Field and Bulldog Diamond.
"Facilities like [Beiden Field] just didn't exist in college baseball back then," Diboll said. "That was followed years later with the building of Bulldog Diamond. Again, another statement of how unique Fresno State and this community are. Those two facilities were built when a very, very small few had facilities like that, so we were certainly ahead of our time."
Pat Ogle, the long-time Executive Director of the Bulldog Foundation, is among the many who have worked with Diboll for years and is thankful the department has access to her experience.
"Deena and I joined the Bulldog family in the same year, 1982," Ogle said. "It's pretty dizzying to try and remember all the different Fresno State assignments in which Deena has had a major part, especially in the area of venue improvements. I'm happy for her that she has had the family support to juggle all the Bulldog balls and still enjoy being a wife and mother."
An Enduring Comeback...and Sticking it to Johnny Carson
Deena Diboll is one of these individuals. Each has their own views on the department, the special people with whom they've come into contact and the student-athletes whose lives they have touched, and in turn the student-athletes who have touched their lives. But there's one thing the group can largely agree upon - how fate broke its stoic stare in the 1982-83 athletics year and smiled broadly upon Fresno State.
Diboll still calls that year, her first with the Bulldog athletics department, her highlight. The entire year, she is quick to note, not just winning the National Invitation Tournament in men's basketball and beating DePaul at Madison Square Garden in the championship game.
It was much more than that, Diboll points out. Much more.
"That year was unbelievable," she remembers with a grin. "It wasn't just the NIT win. You look at the successes of so many of our men's and women's sports programs from top to bottom and the number of championships we won that year. That whole year seemed special."
Indeed, it was a halcyon time for Fresno State. The baseball team won its conference (the Northern California Athletic Association) and played in the NCAA Tournament; softball did the same, claiming the NorPac crown; the men's golf team won the PCAA and finished 12th in the NCAA Tournament; the men's track team won the PCAA Championships; and in unforgettable style, the football team defeated Bowling Green 29-28 in a thrilling California Bowl, played at Bulldog Stadium.
It was a bowl victory that Diboll has no problem remembering over 22 years later. And given the excitement in the closing seconds of the game - Fresno State trailed 28-7 heading into the fourth quarter only to come from behind and win with 11 seconds left - it's no surprise.
"I was standing at the south end of the stadium at the base of the ramp and was just watching people leave because the outcome of the game was not in question," Diboll said as the Bulldogs trailed by three touchdowns late in the contest. "We were down by 21 points with some unreasonably short period of time left.
"And then, the comeback started. We scored. And then we scored again. And pretty soon, I looked behind me, and I see the people coming back into the stadium. People were stopping in their cars on the side of the road listening to the radio broadcast of this dramatic come-from-behind, unbelievable 29-28 victory over what was then a big opponent for us in Bowling Green. It was exciting to win a bowl game, and it was exciting to win in our own backyard."
Diboll recollection is just as remarkable about another famous moment in Fresno State history, the 1983 NIT title. Still thought of by many as the greatest victory in the annals of Bulldog men's basketball, Diboll's describes with unerring accuracy each minute detail of the team's ride all the way to the improbable championship.
From the opening 71-64 win over UTEP before a sold out Selland Arena to the upset of DePaul in the finals, Diboll makes it clear what the Bulldogs did was much more than just win a basketball game.
"I'm not from here, so this is sort of an outsider's perspective, but I think Fresno sort of had an inferiority complex," Diboll said. "I can remember when I was at Washington State and Fresno was the place that Johnny Carson made jokes about. Fresno was always lumped in there with Bakersfield and Taft in movies.
"And then we play in the NIT, and there seemed to be almost an orchestrated way to get Fresno State out of the tournament. Send us on the road, send us on a long trip. And it just didn't happen. I think the community knew it was special. Fresno had been tagged as the place to make fun of between San Francisco and L.A. And then we win, and there are stories about it on the covers of magazines and newspapers, talking about all the people in red, this Red Wave, coming from Fresno. I think it gave a huge boost to community pride. Others in the sports world had to sit up and take notice."
On a roll and with an attentive audience, Diboll continues, underscoring the importance of 1982-83 by leaning forward in her chair and softening her voice ever slightly.
"That year was the defining year for Fresno State and for this community. I think the interest and the support just really started to skyrocket after that. It paved the way for all the good things that have happened since then."
Family Woman, Disney Woman
A 45-year old oak tree resides in front of the house, and from its strong, large branches hangs a tire swing. The home is something she wanted to give her children based on her experiences growing up in Washington state.
"I remember going down to the end of the street and playing in the empty lot that had the berry bushes," Diboll recollects. "There are relatively few places that like that anymore. And if there were, I don't know that you'd want your kids playing there. So I wanted a place for my kids to grow up that could replicate that, but where I would also have the sense of security about their well-being."
The happiness she feels at home with her husband, Don, and two children is evident whenever Diboll speaks about the subject. But Diboll really lights up when talking about the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland. Having never gone as a kid, she had the opportunity to visit for a first time - during a two-hour window in her schedule - when the men's basketball team played their conference tournament in Anaheim, Calif., the home of Disneyland.
The first experience did not go exactly as planned.
"I had heard all of this talk about the Matterhorn, and it was closed for renovation," Diboll said. "I had heard of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and it was closed, too. At least I was able to go to the Haunted Mansion."
On a later visit, the Pirates of the Caribbean was open, and Diboll jumped on the opportunity to ride it. By the end of the ride, Diboll was hooked, not only on the theme part, but on the ride itself.
So hooked, in fact, that Diboll couldn't contain herself when the movie Pirates of the Caribbean opened in theaters.
"When they made a movie about it, I just made a complete fool of myself," Diboll said. "I paid to see that movie over and over and over. And I found something new and different and hidden in that movie that other people that haven't experienced Disneyland or haven't spent what I could call `quality time' there would miss completely."
Sheepishly, Diboll admits, "I've spent money to watch that movie 10 times."
"But," she notes, as if trying to justify her fascination, "it was matinee money."
Whether funding magnificent athletics facilities, generating revenue for the department or just going to the movies, Diboll has ingrained in her the one characteristic of every accomplished marketing guru -- keeping the eye on the bottom line.
It's a trait she's brought to her job for over two decades, and it's a trait from which Fresno State will benefit for generations to come.