“This has to be a collective effort”: A conversation with the new Associate Athletic Director of External Affairs

| Managing Sports Editor

In late April, D’Angelo Solomon started his new role as Senior Associate Athletic Director of External Affairs, following Chelsea Petersen’s departure. Solomon’s background is primarily in Division I Athletics, starting when he himself was a student athlete at Wake Forest. He previously held the position of the Associate Athletic Director for Revenue Generation at Miami University in Ohio, and his hiring fills a senior leadership role within the athletic department that has been empty for months.

“What he was able to sell to us is an approach and his experience,” Director of Athletics Anthony Azama said. “This is one of the hardest positions in athletic administration, to not just have to go out and engage with folks, but to get them to buy into something that probably wasn’t on their radar. And people are always going to judge the work by looking at the stands.” 

This position is the evolution of Petersen’s role as Associate Director of External Operations, where she was the point person for a myriad of responsibilities, including marketing and communications. After departing her role in the Athletic Department, she transitioned to the University’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, leaving behind a playbook that Solomon said has eased his transition into the job. 

Student Life sat down with the new Associate Athletic Director to talk about his vision for his new role. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Student Life: This is a question I ask a lot of athletes, but why WashU? What drew you to this program?

D’Angelo Solomon: Having had a background at a Division I institution is great — you learn a lot. But I think there are some similarities as well as differences. I think one thing about WashU, overall, is just its reputation. I think you probably hear that a lot. You talk to the student athletes or whomever it might be, and you hear about the reputation of the institution academically. What a lot of people don’t know is that athletically, really, we’re pretty good at what we do. My role is to make certain that we start to spread that gospel. And then I looked at the employer, WashU.  To me, something I look for is how the employer values their employees.  WashU has been on the forefront of the [Diversity and Inclusion] space, and it is really committed to that with with the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor really committed to the job. And to me, that’s impressive. The more diverse thought we can get to any table, whether it’s in a chemistry lab, the business office or the athletic space, the better we are, long term. So again, I’m looking at reputation, the commitment to diversity and the commitment to just being excellent on a lot of different levels.

SL: What made you consider other options from your position in Ohio?

DS: When you’re at a particular place, at a certain point, you realize that this is home for you. And at the same time, you also want to realize, “You know what? I have something that I’m looking to accomplish, and I want to leave this place better than I found it.” And I felt like I was able to do a good amount in my time at Miami — we were able to accomplish quite a few things. And I felt like my objective and my goals were reached at that point. 

SL: Coming from a Division I institution versus Division III — how does that change your job and your position from your prior opportunity?

DS: Our prior responsibility was focused on generating revenue. So a lot of my purview was ticket sales, overseeing sponsorships and other things of that nature. Here, you don’t have to worry about ticket sales, so that’s a huge change there. So the focus goes from, “How do we generate revenue?” to now “How do we tell the story? And how do we engage others? And how do we create more access points for people to come on campus?” Because there’s no heavy focus on generating revenue, but there is a heavy focus on engagement and getting people on campus to support our student athletes.

 SL: So what are your short-term goals that you presented when you were interviewing for this position?

DS: As I understand this, this position has evolved a little bit. It used to be primarily focused on pure marketing. That is great, because you want to make something for getting the word out. I think that there’s a difference between when you market something versus when you engage with your target audience. I think what I’m looking to bring to the table is, how do we take our people, our resources, and our facilities to the community? If I look in one direction, it’s an area that’s pretty well off.  But if I go in a different direction, there’s probably a lot of opportunity, where those communities have never stepped foot on campus. If we drill down even more, sports is a great medium for bringing communities together, right? So we take this platform and spread that wealth across the table. I think the byproduct of that is if we can start to get younger people to think, “Oh, college is accessible to me,” then mission accomplished. Short term, I want to get more people on campus and get them to our student athletes. But the longer-term play is how we are planting seeds so that these kids can see more than just the current environment.

 SL: You’ve talked a bit about the external community, but part of the challenge at WashU is engaging other students who might not necessarily have a great understanding of what WashU athletics has to offer. What are your thoughts on that and increasing engagement, not only within the St. Louis community, but the school specifically? 

DS: I think part of it is you don’t know what you don’t know. So for me, it’s identifying which of the student groups are pockets who aren’t engaged with WashU Athletics. Going straight to the source, I think we have roughly 300 to 400 different student organizations on campus. Now, I’m not saying I want to go and sit with all of those 400. I do think understanding what’s important to each of those organizations is important to us being able to align our strategies. As well, I think most people want to be recognized. So how do we utilize our platforms already established in play, timeout, halftime, whatever the case may be, to recognize some of these individuals for some of the great things they’re doing on campus as well as off campus?

SL: You’ve only been here for two weeks, so what have your first impressions been?

DS: The words would be “welcoming” and “opportunity.” The staff on this campus have welcomed me with open arms. I’ve been in the workforce for 20 plus years, I’ve worked for both the private and public sector and I’ve never felt a welcoming like this. This truly does feel like you’re part of something that’s special, which I think is a fantastic, fantastic thing.

 SL: You talked a bit about making connections across St. Louis, and I’m curious if it’s been an intimidating transition given that you’re new to St. Louis and don’t have any established relationships yet.

DS: Intimidating? Probably not. Daunting? Yeah. But it’s a great opportunity, and it’s right in front of us. I’ve always worked from the lens that says that the answer’s always going to be no, especially if you don’t ask. To me, relationship building is truly getting out and identifying maybe a handful of individuals who are like-minded, especially if they’re from here or if they’re rooted in the St. Louis area. So daunting? Yes. But if I look at it from the place of, “Okay, you have a meeting tomorrow at 10:35. Just focus on that one meeting,” then two or three things come out of that meeting that help me set up for the next opportunity.

SL: My last question for you is that a lot of student-athletes might have heard your name, but they aren’t completely sure of the impact that you’re going to have on their day-to-day lives. So what would your message to them be?

DS: If I can leave any type of impression upon them, it would be that it’s going to take a yeoman’s work to get this done, and one person can’t do it. So this has to be a collective effort. We have the people. We have the resources. We have the facilities. So how do we strategically position athletics to align itself with the university’s core anchors so that we’re going out to the market with one message? If I can impart anything, it’s that it is going to take a communal effort from all of us within this department — not just a singular position’s focus — to make it all work.

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