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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Paying the bills is only part of what Martina Ballen does

As senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer, Martina Ballen has a job that is straightforward and critical. “I make sure the bills are paid,” she said.

Ballen has been paying the bills for athletics for the past 31 years, currently administering a budget of $95.5 million.

But her finance skills aren’t the only reason Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham nominated Ballen for a C. Knox Massey Award. “Her contributions go well beyond her title,” Cunningham wrote in his nomination letter. 

Describing her as “thoughtful, smart and engaging,” he called particular attention to an idea Ballen brought him five years ago to honor diversity by celebrating former student-athletes who have made an impact. 

“It is fitting that Martina led the effort to create the Tar Heel Trailblazers because she is a trailblazer in her own right,” Cunningham wrote of Ballen, the first African-American to become a senior administrator in University athletics. “She has set an incredible example for all of our students, staff and Carolina community.”

Martina Ballen has been paying the bills for athletics for the past 31 years, currently administering a budget of $95.5 million.

‘Money’s money’

In her Southern Pines high school, Ballen was a math wiz, captain of the basketball team and senior class treasurer.  She also was elected homecoming queen, a feat she repeated at Carolina. “I was always pushing myself to be the best I could be,” she said. 

That drive carried her through Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business, then to completion of her master of business administration degree at Wake Forest University. She spent the next two years as Chapel Hill branch manager and commercial loan officer at NCNB (now Bank of America).  

One day, she got a visit from Hayden “Bennie” Renwick, associate dean in the Office for Student Counseling, whom she knew well from Carolina’s minority academic advising program. Renwick encouraged her to apply for the job of director of finance in Carolina’s athletics department.

Ballen jumped at the chance to work at her alma mater, despite being concerned that she didn’t know enough about how an athletics department operates. “But then I said, ‘Money’s money. I understand revenue and expenses. I can learn the industry,’” she recalled. She got the job.

Once at Carolina, Ballen rose steadily in the department, becoming assistant director of athletics for business and finance in 1992, associate director in 1995, senior associate in 2001 and chief financial officer in 2011. In 2017, she added supervision of the department’s human resources staff to her duties. 

In addition to paying the bills, she oversees the annual budgeting process, develops long-range financial projections and manages the hiring process for new athletics staff
members.  She also has to keep meticulous records and work closely with an external auditor to prepare reports as required by the NCAA.

Getting involved

Carolina Athletics encompasses 800 student-athletes playing 28 sports, only a few of which produce revenue. Unlike many other public universities that support only a few sports, Carolina stretches that revenue to allow a much greater number of students to participate in athletics.

“It’s all about opportunity,” Ballen said.

When Cunningham took over the department in 2011, he encouraged Ballen to become directly involved with the coaches and student athletes. Ballen now serves as a primary sport administrator for gymnastics and secondary sport administrator for women’s basketball. Her favorite part of the job is this interaction with the student-athletes, “giving them a high five after a meet,” she said. “I’m a big cheerleader.” 

Her least favorite part? “When I have to say no,” she said. “I never have enough to help everyone.”

Family, fashion and fun

In addition to her work in athletics, Ballen is also active as an advocate for people with autism, who include her elder son, Julian, now 24. She is a past chair of the board of directors of the Autism Society of North Carolina and participated in a fashion show with her son to raise money for a camp for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Advocacy is a family affair. Her husband, sportscaster and media host Dwayne Ballen, wrote Journey with Julian, published in 2012, about the family’s experience. Younger son Jared, who attends Hampton University, co-presented a session on being a sibling to someone with autism at a past National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute held in Chapel Hill .

She likes sports, naturally, but also fashion, interior design, dancing and going to movies and shows. In fact, she met her husband during the intermission of a touring musical in Raleigh, not at a sporting event like most people assume. “I was still a banker when I met my husband,” she says. “He tells everybody he met his dream girl at Dreamgirls.”