For Noreen Morris, a simple sign on the door wasn't going to do the trick.
It's why visitors to the Northeast Conference headquarters in Somerset will find a space that looks more like a basketball court than a typical lobby — with its hardwood floors, blue NCAA logo and a reception desk that's surrounded by a free throw lane and three-point line.
All of it drawing a sharp contrast to the organization’s prior office.
“There was no excitement when you walked in,” said Morris, the conference’s commissioner since 2009. “We really wanted people to walk in and know where they were.”
That’s no surprise for someone who has committed to building the brand and raising the profile of the conference, whose footprint spans 10 schools over six states, but operates from the heart of Central Jersey. She and her staff have achieved those goals in recent years, helping the NEC leap forward in areas such as corporate partnerships, digital content and visibility on the national stage, while bringing a more business-like approach to its member schools.
Room for expansion? It’s complicated
Aside from supporting the Northeast Conference’s 10 member schools, there’s at least one other “constant agenda item” for Commissioner Noreen Morris: weighing the potential for expansion.
It’s not an easy consideration, she said, given that having 10 schools is especially conducive to scheduling basketball. Under its current format, the men’s and women’s teams each play an 18-game round-robin schedule, and eight of those teams go to the NEC championship tournament.
“For basketball, it’s a perfect number,” Morris said. “But you’ve got to always look at the landscape and figure it out.”
The NEC has six members and one associate member that play football, giving each team six conference games. That number is less than perfect, she said, and “ideally, we’d love to find a way to solve that problem.”
But when it comes to potential additions, Morris said “it’s got to be the right fit from the footprint, the sports they sponsor, the academic missions of the school and, financially, can they handle the transition?
“It’s not just ‘That would be a neat school to add,’” she said. “There’s a lot of factors that play into if you expand or not.”
She also acknowledged that the New Jersey Institute of Technology was vocal in its quest to find a home before joining the Atlantic Sun Conference last year. As for whether that was ever a possibility, she only said, “Yes, we had conversations.”
Morris will convene with her counterparts and other NCAA leaders this coming weekend when she travels to Houston for the men’s Final Four. It’s a reminder that basketball is still king in college sports — even if the NEC’s lone representative, Teaneck’s own Fairleigh Dickinson University — was given an early exit from the tournament earlier this month.
It’s also a chance for Morris, a Westfield native, to celebrate another year of increased exposure for NEC members. For instance, the 35-year-old conference this year assembled its largest-ever television package for men’s and women’s basketball, broadcasting 34 games across various ESPN platforms, MSG and other regional and national networks. That’s up from 30 telecasts last year and 21 in Morris’ first year as commissioner in 2009.
Expanding that platform helps NEC teams and coaches with recruiting, Morris said, but it also has its limitations. For instance, the conference must pay to have its games broadcast on television, and the major networks have a limited stock of prime windows for college sports.
It’s one reason why the NEC set its sights on new media nearly four years ago, launching the digital network known as NEC Front Row.
The platform, the brainchild of Senior Associate Commissioner Ron Ratner, is anchored by its free video streams of live events from across the conference. Since August 2012, the NEC has broadcast more than 2,500 such events and attracted more than 1 million unique viewers, while viewership per event has grown 55 percent from the first to the third year.
“We pride ourselves on being very mature in terms of social media and active and also fan-friendly,” Morris said, noting that NEC Front Row also offers content such as highlights, coaches’ shows and pre- and postgame shows for television broadcasts. “That’s something that we work at.”
The NEC at a glance
54,000 students attend NEC institutions
The project — which she says is “probably the biggest initiative that we’ve had in our league, ever” — results from an effort to put the NEC’s reserve fund to use and reinvest in its member programs. That meant an initial investment of $250,000 to cover bandwidth, software, cameras and other equipment for each school, she said, and the conference has spent $100,000 in subsequent years on enhancements such as high-definition equipment and DVR capabilities.
“We’ve always had good commissioners, but Noreen was able to engage with the presidents in ways that the previous commissioners hadn’t,” said David Langford, athletic director for Fairleigh Dickinson University. For instance, he said, Morris has managed to weigh presidents’ concerns about spending, while convincing them that, with men’s and women’s basketball, “we have an opportunity to do some things together that we couldn’t do individually.”
It’s also been a catalyst for adding corporate partners, thanks to the addition of more content and more branding opportunities. All told, the NEC has doubled its sponsorship revenue over the past three years — with new partners such as Bayer, the sponsor of its Building Communities Award, and Provident Bank, which sponsors its Student-Athlete of the Year Award.
Morris said the conference is now in discussions with a company in the financial services industry, which would be important because it could lead to internship opportunities for NEC students.
“We really look for fit: Does it fit what we’re trying to do as a conference and is it going to be a win-win?” she said. “Can we offer them what we need for our portfolio and do they bring us something that we don’t have?”
How a mid-major conference goes digital
For the Northeast Conference, the launch of its own digital network has provided a source of consistent broadcasting. It also has allowed the conference to pursue other upgrades through collective purchasing, such as the addition of LED boards that have been added to each school since 2012.
NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris said the boards have helped modernize the experience for fans and created new inventory for advertisers, while also serving as an amenity that can be used for other campus functions.
“That’s how you could sell the presidents on this: It’s going to enhance not only your arena for basketball games, but your ability to do things and other events on your campus,” she said.
For athletic director such as David Langford of Fairleigh Dickinson University, it’s an example of how Morris has convinced the NEC’s presidents “that we all need to put more time, energy, money into men’s and women’s basketball … we looked like we were a Division I conference.”
“The presidents did that across the board,” Langford said. “And frankly, our institution was one of those institutions that needed to get pulled up, and she was able to convince our president to make the kind of investments that were necessary. And this year we’re seeing the results of that.”
Morris, who co-captained the Cornell University women’s soccer team in the mid-1980s, started her career as an administrator at the University of Connecticut. After five years there, she joined Conference USA in 1996 and rose to the rank of associate commissioner by 2002, before leaving two years later to for a job with Northwestern University.
Morris spent five years with the Illinois-based school, ultimately becoming senior associate athletics director, before being named NEC commissioner. And she credits her experience with major programs and major conferences for her ability to connect with administrators at the NEC’s member schools, while encouraging them to think bigger than they have in years past.
“You can be a good commissioner without having done that, but ... I’ve been there,” Morris said. “I’ve been in the trenches — I understand, so I can say, ‘Yeah, I get that, so let’s figure out how we can make it better.’ ”
That mindset also had led Morris to focus on national engagement and getting her conference more engaged at the NCAA level. She has led by example by serving on committees such as the NCAA Division I Leadership Council, which she chaired from 2012 to 2014, and the NCAA Women’s Basketball Officiating LLC Board of Managers.
Altogether, Morris said the NEC has 19 representatives — administrators, coaches, student athletes — serving on NCAA committees. Two NEC representatives, including Associate Commissioner Andy Alia, serve in leadership positions.
“It’s all volunteer, but the more you’re in the room, in the dialogue, the better off we are as a conference,” she said. It’s also about “trying to help drive policy, policy that’s good for all 32 but also good for those who sit in my chair, which is not the Power 5 guys.”
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