Skip to Main Page Content


Getting to Know Mike and Cindy Watts


By Craig Morgan

Mike and Cindy Watts have a long history of engagement and investment in Arizona State University. Both are lifetime members of the ASU President’s Club, whose members provide intellectual and financial resources to President Michael Crow, giving him the ability to engage ASU in emerging partnerships and initiatives. Cindy is a member of Women & Philanthropy, a group of investors who pool their annual investments to fund faculty and student initiatives. She also serves as vice chair of the ASU Trustees, an advisory body for the university and President Crow.

The Watts are co-founders of Sunstate Equipment, an Arizona-based equipment rental company established in 1977 that has expanded to eight other states. They recently gave a gift to ASU to help establish the Watts Center for Academic Excellence and Championship Life, an initiative within Sun Devil Athletics dedicated to the success of the university’s student-athletes.

In February, the ASU Alumni Association honored Mike and Cindy Watts as Philanthropists of the Year at its annual Founders’ Day event, which recognizes alumni, faculty, and university supporters who have contributed to the growth and evolution of ASU. In 2018, ASU announced the historic renaming of its public service college to the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Neither of you is an ASU graduate. What enticed you to become so thoroughly involved with the university?

Mike: “I think it’s easy for that to happen. …We both got exposed to the leadership through one of our neighbors, who held a dinner specifically for the purpose of introducing Dr. Crow and his wife, Sybil, to bring new people in [to the ASU community]. We got a chance to listen to his ideas about the New American University and where he wanted to take it. He’s inspirational and he’s likeable, so that meeting led to other meetings.”

Neither of you describes yourself as an athletics enthusiast. Why did the Center for Academic Excellence and Championship Life resonate with you?

Cindy: “It was a result of the first President’s Weekend on the Tempe campus. [President’s Weekend is an annual event that showcases ASU’s most innovative and promising programs.] The athletics department was one of the areas of the university I chose to tour and learn about. I had the great fun of meeting some of the young athletes and hearing their hopes and dreams. That evening I met [Senior Associate Athletic Director for the Office of Student-Athlete Development] Jean Boyd. I had the honor of moderating a panel discussion with him and Dr. Crow where I heard [Jean’s] personal story and his dreams for making sure each student-athlete gets a good education along with the personal development needed to become a productive citizen.

“Jean’s vision and ideas touched my heart. Jean explained what it takes for these athletes to succeed between being in school, all of their workouts and practices and games, and travel—that’s a real struggle for them.

“For us, this really doesn’t have to do with sports per se. It’s about helping the individuals involved. Many of those athletes are there on scholarship and don’t have families who can help them or have even taught them the skills to deal with life.”

How do you envision this gift impacting student-athletes?

Mike: “One of the principles on which our company was built is about continual improvement, and this is really what we’re talking about here. It’s continual improvement of that process of moving student-athletes through ASU. They get better grades, they have better graduation rates, and they become better people. That’s the way we think, and that is inherent in who we are: not to find fault, but to examine how you get better no matter what arena you are in the world. We really believe that.”

Cindy: “Down the road, I would hope that any athlete who goes through this program becomes a well-rounded individual able to contribute to the university and the community—to the lives of others—and will hopefully learn something about philanthropy and want to give back, want to pay it forward.”

How important was connecting with the staff and student-athletes to embracing the vision?

Mike: “We’ve had the opportunity to meet and listen to a presentation by [football player D. J. Foster]. From his perspective, we heard the benefits of the program, and he’s going to participate in the perpetuation of this program. What a gentlemen he was—what a class act.

“You can’t say the university program necessarily created this young man—his parents get most of the credit for that—but when you have someone like that who signs off and believes this will be great for the university, it further excites you.”

Cindy: “All of them embrace Michael Crow’s motto of building their reputation on who we include, not who we exclude. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Philanthropy is our responsibility, every human being to their ability, and I don’t think it always means dollars. There are other ways to be a humanitarian, but I do think it has to be taught. Not everyone learns that from their families. We have learned it from our association with ASU, and these student-athletes will learn that from this center, so it’s exciting to think about being a part of that.”


More Stories of Generosity

Tell-A-Devil Network helps students help ASU

Ross Brown ’16 engineers his professional path despite medical roadblock

University Librarian Jim O’Donnell envisions a library for the future