Shawn Heilbron stands in front of an image of LaValle Stadium, which he hopes to see expand to 25,000 seats from its current 8,300. Photo by Janelle Clausen.
By Janelle Clausen
It took Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron months to build a plan to transform the future of Stony Brook Athletics.
Heilbron remembered talking with President Samuel L. Stanley on “growing the athletic department” to “shine the spotlight on Stony Brook University.” He also spoke with staff, campus leaders, donors and supporters to determine what was needed and how the university could “move forward.”
The result was “Together We Transform,” a five year plan aiming to benefit student athletes in every aspect of their lives and improve standards and positively represent Stony Brook everywhere — be it on Long Island or across the country — in order to grow Stony Brook Athletics and draw people to the university.
“What we are trying to do is change lives,” Heilbron said.
Some things this plan will include are a $10 million indoor practice facility, renovating LaValle Stadium to have 25,000 more seats and creating a baseball-softball complex. Stony Brook Athletics seeks to grow the program, add staff, make it self-sustainable and “positively transform the life of each student athlete.”
Heilbron estimated that $100 million needs to be raised to accomplish everything. But, Heilbron said, “the $100 million, quite honestly, that’s not the focus. Our goal is really just to grow organically.”
The financial lifeblood of “Together We Transform” will come from “Seawolves United,” a massive fundraising initiative which will take advantage of individual gifts, annual gift giving, season tickets and corporate sponsorships and partnerships.
A big part of the plan comes from a partnership with Connoisseur Media Long Island to promote Stony Brook Athletics and bring people out. This builds on a partnership with WUSB and networks showcasing games featuring the Seawolves. The plan also emphasizes raising money through football because of its national prominence and its power to generate money, which Heilbron hopes to circulate back to the rest of the athletes.
“Football is so important from a marketing perspective,” Heilbron said. “It’s the one sport that brings large numbers to campus on the six or seven Saturdays a year. It’s a sport that can help us generate revenue that we need to become self-sufficient as an athletic department.”
Louise Badoche, a Stony Brook tennis player and an Academy of Leaders representative, said the need to focus on football was explained, and noted that Heilbron heard the concern from other teams. In her eyes, the Athletic Department had a new openness and gave them a voice.
“Basically before we didn’t know about the athletic director [Jim Fiore], we had no contact, we were not talking to him,” Badoche said. “So he [Shawn Heilbron] wants us to be more open to him and he’s more open to us.”
So far, athletes have received iPads and backpacks. Internal groups like the Academy of Leaders — which has representatives of each team voicing concerns to the Athletic Director — were established, and vitamins and nutritional supplements are more available. Sixteen staff members addressing things like education, welfare and development, strength and conditioning and even mental health, have also been added.
This plan builds off the momentum of an athletics program that has exponentially grown in the last few years. For example: A few years ago, ticket sales for every game totaled only $150,000 — last year they reached $700,000. Meanwhile, nine of the top 10 attended football games at LaValle Stadium were in the past five years.
Rob Emmerich, the senior associate athletic director for external services, said the state of Stony Brook today would have been unimaginable to its leaders when he was hired 18 years ago.
“A lot of people might’ve said ‘well, there’s no way they could ever go to the college world series, they couldn’t get to an NCAA tournament, they couldn’t do this,’ and it happened,” Emmerich said. “And that reality happened because of the passion, the desire, the vision to get it done.”
Heilbron and Emmerich agree that there are challenges. They include changing the culture, reaching out to alumni, acquiring funds at a time where state school budgets are declining, marketing to the local community better, attendance dropping off in winter, and getting more students to come out in general.
“The last thing you want is a beautiful stadium with a lot of empty seats,” Heilbron said.
However, Emmerich is optimistic that Stony Brook can become “an institute and beacon for Long Island.” Not only does he want everyone to enjoy the “game-day experience,” but he believes Stony Brook can become a community hotspot whether through its movie and football nights or its medical and educational reputation.
“I think this university can be something the entire island is proud of and will support in making Saturdays ‘Seawolves Saturday,'” Emmerich said.