Ahead of the Game

January 29, 2015
This time of year, football is on everyone's minds. Making sure it stays that way requires a yearlong promotional campaign.
By Dr. William Broussard

William Broussard, PhD, is Associate Director of Athletics for External Relations and Development and an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. He can be reached at: broussardw@nsula.edu.

For most athletic departments, football is king. It produces the lion's share of revenue and the best opportunities for positive public relations of all programs. It brings alumni back to campus, engages the community, and rallies the student body.

At many BCS conference schools with longtime football traditions, all of this positive fallout seems to happen magically. But, for the rest of us, it takes a creative, organized, and efficient public relations plan to ensure that fans embrace each year's football squad.

At Northwestern State University, we have recently upgraded our football promotions with a yearlong strategy that covers many bases. Our goal was to win people's hearts and minds well before the opening kickoff and set the stage for meaningful fan and donor experiences year-round. Despite a small budget and dreary economic conditions, we found a plan like this is feasible--and can reap many rewards.

We started our public relations campaign for the 2009 football season in December 2008, with the formulation of goals and strategies. Our overall goal was to find and educate potential supporters, focusing equally on donors, community members, and people within the institution (faculty, staff, and students). Our overall strategy was to allocate minimal money for the campaign by collaborating with local and on-campus entities, seeking private and in-kind donations, and using already available resources.

The first event we held was a press conference to introduce our new head coach, Bradley Dale Peveto, former Co-Defensive Coordinator at Louisiana State University, to the community. There had been a good amount of press coverage of our hiring process, and this event served to keep the momentum from that exposure going.

Along with publicizing the press conference to local and regional media, we invited alumni in the region, season ticket holders, and local dignitaries to join us in welcoming Coach Peveto. The event was also telecast on local radio and streamed live on the department's Web site (www.nsudemons.com). This allowed anyone in the fan base interested in seeing, or at least hearing, the new head coach's remarks to do so.

Those who took advantage of the opportunity were not disappointed. More than 300 attendees heard our new coach speak of the great things he believes can be achieved with their continued support. He invited his family on stage and spoke of what a fabulous town Natchitoches is for families. He even invited former NSU Head Football Coach Sam Goodwin, a mentor of his, on stage to sing the school fight song. Coach Peveto then told the crowd he and his staff were headed to the NSU men's basketball game to "cheer the team on to victory."

In one fell swoop, he'd communicated to a lot of constituencies that NSU football had heart, which would create buzz for weeks to come. From a PR standpoint, we noted the following: Our new coach was a passionate speaker with an ability to identify with his audience, and his ties to football in Louisiana were resonating strongly. We knew immediately that we would be wise to capitalize on these strengths in any way we could for the next nine months.

After the strong showing at the introductory press conference, Director of Athletics Greg Burke called a half-day meeting to discuss how each area of the athletic department (sports information, facility management, marketing/promotions, and development) could contribute to a comprehensive PR plan for Demon Football. The primary focus was to introduce our passionate new coach to the campus, community, and corporate interests in a way that would re-brand the department as well as the football team. We came up with the slogan, "It's a Whole New Ballgame" to emphasize that change was here.

To win over the campus, we asked Coach Peveto to appear at several spring events where many different people would have an opportunity to meet him. To keep costs low, we placed a premium on finding happenings already being staged by on-campus organizations. The external relations department scoured Web sites and paid increased attention to mailing lists announcing events, and then decided which activities to participate in. These included pep rallies in the Student Union and opportunities to address student leadership groups and Greek organizations. Coach Peveto also engaged in many impromptu discussions over lunch at the campus dining hall.

We took the same approach with community events. Coach Peveto went to Chamber of Commerce meetings, local fundraisers, speaking engagements with civic groups, as well as meet-and-greets at the homes of supporters, all of which resulted in increased exposure. We also orchestrated opportunities for all our coaches to interact with corporate sponsors, increasing excitement among these important business partners.

Publicity and communication were keys to the above efforts. We regularly updated members of the campus and local communities on Coach Peveto's appearances, ideas, and recruiting efforts. The media picked up on many of these events, giving us additional publicity through news articles and feature stories.

We also prepared promotional materials that were robust and thematically consistent, such as handbills to be distributed to local business owners, schedule cards and posters, billboards, and even Web site promotions such as splash pages. These materials all incorporated the same color schemes, wordmarks, newly re-designed logos, and the "It's a Whole New Ballgame" slogan. We kept costs low by having Associate Sports Information Director Matt Bonnette design the materials in-house.

Another key to these efforts was collaborating with others. We hunted for partnership opportunities that would save us money and generate precious goodwill with other groups. That meant being open to ideas and possibilities that we had not previously attempted, or even envisioned.

For example, we had the football team participate in a LifeSavers Blood Drive. This gave us free coverage in the local news and allowed other blood donors and the Drive's volunteers to get to know the football squad and its coaches firsthand, with no cost to the athletic department. The effort also helped the blood drive meet its goal.

Another opportunity presented itself when a local businessman said he was interested in throwing a party for the coaches, his staff, and a select group of local businesspeople. We volunteered to draft an invite list and send invitations. Working with the Alumni and Development office, we culled from our databases a list of 150 local supporters most likely to respond favorably to such an exclusive invitation.

During the event, Coach Peveto gave an impassioned speech about the future of Demon Football, inspiring attendees to make contributions to the football program. The event bore zero costs for the athletic department, netted over $10,000 in contributions, and left all attendees feeling grateful and inspired. It all happened because we were open to quickly making this event part of our overall plan.

One of the most important decisions reached during our PR planning sessions was to offer fans a deal they couldn't refuse. In February, we announced the Peveto Promise. Anyone who purchased season tickets for the 2009 season was guaranteed to enjoy their fan experience or we would completely refund their money after the first two games.

The potential payoff of this idea was huge, and we believed the risks to be minimal. For one, die-hard supporters of the football program will not usually demand refunds. Second, new fans, even in the event that they are not completely pleased with their experience, will likely wait more than two games before making any final judgments.

We knew the spring would be key in turning interest in the football program into action. To continue the momentum we had developed, we planned two days of events during spring practice that offered unprecedented access to the coaches and players.

The first, our family day scrimmage, welcomed the parents of current players, as well as our extended family of corporate sponsors and donors. Activities included bounce houses, free snow cones, and an opportunity for the kids to run out of the stadium tunnel with the team. There was play-by-play announcing and interviews of players and coaches. The day culminated in a crawfish boil, which was generously donated by supporters.

The next week, the traditional spring football game focused on students, faculty, and staff. We held a pep rally in the Student Union to kick things off and made sure the event felt like game day, with lights, replays on the videoboard, and all other operations functioning at full capacity. We held our annual faculty recognition event at halftime, in which student-athletes select faculty members they would like to honor for their contributions and investment in students' lives. The game coincided with National Student-Athlete Day, so we invited all 325 student-athletes and every faculty member to join us for a steak dinner, which was donated by supporters.

The newly formed Student Alumni Association recruited students to the game with free T-shirts and a barbecue dinner. We gave away Demon apparel and accessories at the event, which bore no costs, as we simply emptied our reserves of 2008-09 merchandise.

By kickoff, the entire south end zone was standing room only and large pockets of spectators covered the reserved section. More than 2,500 fans attended an event that in recent years had drawn only hundreds.

To publicize the spring happenings, beginning in mid-March, we flooded the local media market with previews of Demon Football and the spring game. We advertised on local radio and in local and regional newspapers, as well as on our Web site. We also promoted the events on the Facebook pages of on-campus student organizations and e-lists of local organizations, and through targeted mailouts to donors and season ticket holders. The Student Activities Department and Alumni Association gave us space in their communication tools.

Partly due to the success of the March and April promotions, we were afforded a unique opportunity in the late spring. When the original idea for a cover story in Alumni Columns failed to pan out, the magazine's editor approached us about filling the cover slot with a story on NSU football. This was an incredible chance to market the football team to more than 30,000 alumni, and we made sure to capitalize on it.

Sports Information Director Doug Ireland wrote the article in an engaging style, using the voice of a potential fan sitting on the fence about the 2009 team. He posed and answered questions like "How do I keep up with the Demons?" and "What can I do to support the squad?" This gave us opportunities to promote ticket sales, Web site visits, and even donations to our ticket-based philanthropy for local youth, the Demon Opportunity Fund. We also took great care to produce an impressive photo of Coach Peveto that evoked pride in the readership's alma mater.

We featured the magazine's cover on the splash page for nsudemons.com, which promoted the great coverage our new coach was receiving. It also let those who saw the Alumni Columns article know that their browsers were pointed in the right direction. In addition, we revamped the Web site so that ticket purchasing options were more prominent, and introduced a page specifically for the "Peveto Promise."

Our final promotional push involved a summer coaches caravan. From June 25 to Aug. 22, NSU coaches and athletic staff visited eight Louisiana cities to generate enthusiasm for the athletic department. The emphasis was on football, but other sports were also represented.

Each event featured a state of the department address by the Athletic Director and Associate Athletic Director, a short program from the coaches, and a meal. Posters and schedule cards were provided and NSU gear was available for purchase.

To promote attendance and keep expenses down, our Athletic Association asked members in each area to host the events for free or at reduced cost. These volunteers contacted prospective attendees and provided food and beverages, while also opening up their homes. This was key to keeping costs low and promotional excitement high. We found supporters were more than happy to give their time and resources to host these events, although we are careful not to over ask or turn to the same volunteers too often.

We also focused on staging the tour stops in conjunction with other popular events, which helped to increase attendance. For example, one followed the annual Don Purser Memorial Golf Tournament, which supports a scholarship endowment for Demon football. And the Baton Rouge event was held at the same time and place as the annual Louisiana High School Coaches Association meetings.

As of this writing, the promotional campaign has ended, and Northwestern State football is 0-0 on the field. But we feel we have secured a winning record off the field with our yearlong efforts.

With careful planning and implementation as well as honest evaluation and assessment on the back end, successful football public relations campaigns can energize the fan base and ultimately bring in more ticket sales revenue. And, as we found, it can happen without denting your department budget. At Northwestern State, "It's a Whole New Ballgame," and we're ready to enjoy the season.

If your resources for promoting football allow only one event, then make sure it's a splash. Shorter College has found success with a dinner and auction.

When implementing a promotional campaign, most football squads have some history they can build on. But what if you're starting a program from scratch?

That was the challenge Shorter College faced when it began its football team five years ago. As an NAIA school with only 2,600 students, it also didn't have a lot of resources to draw from. The solution was the Super Hawks auction and dinner, which has become Shorter's main annual promotional event--and a significant fundraiser for the program.

"We've had three straight winning seasons and qualified for the national playoffs in 2008," says Bill Peterson, Athletic Director and Assistant Football Coach at Shorter. "We feel the Super Hawks event has been an important part of helping us build the program."

Key to its success is that Peterson works hard to keep the event from getting stale. The basic format is a sit-down dinner with both live and silent auctions. But special attractions are added each year. At one dinner, former University of Georgia Football Coach and Athletic Director Vince Dooley addressed the crowd. Another year, Tom Buchanan, a popular contestant on two seasons of the television show "Survivor" who played football at East Tennessee State University, spoke and conducted the live auction.

"People get bored if you do the same thing over and over," Peterson says. "We don't want our supporters to get to a point where they say, 'I'm not interested in that. I've done it before.'"

This season's new idea was to change the date from the spring to the middle of preseason camp. That allowed the dinner to cap off a full day of activity, which included the team's first preseason scrimmage and Picture Day, a popular time for friends and families to come to campus.

At the nighttime event, Shorter Head Coach Phil Jones gave attendees a full preview of the season, and the players themselves had a major role. Seniors were seated at tables to act as team representatives and answer any questions people had about the program while younger players served as wait staff.

"We have a lot of confidence in our seniors," Peterson says. "We know who they are and how they conduct themselves. And two or three days before the dinner, Coach Jones gets the team together and tells the players, 'I want you at your best and looking your best. Remember that these folks are helping us build this program.' Our kids respond just like we would expect them to."

Having team members help serve food is also one way the program keeps costs down. The event is held inside the school's gym, which the booster club turns into a banquet hall. Outback Steakhouse is a major sponsor and provides the food, while Aramark, the campus food service company, supplies silverware and kitchen equipment. Tickets go for $40 a seat with $500 and $1,000 sponsor packages available for tables of 10.

Auction items include sports memorabilia, vacation packages, golf accessories, and golf coupons. Most are donations arranged by boosters, football parents, and department staff, although some are purchased through auction consignment shops.

Peterson says it's important to have some items people can't easily get elsewhere. "For example, attendees can get a weekend condominium in Panama City, Fla., for a great price," he says. "Or they can go home with a football autographed by Peyton Manning."

Promotion of the event begins about three months beforehand. A member of the school's development staff does much of the work to get the word out to boosters and alumni. The school also promotes the event to area residents through local newspaper and magazine advertisements as well as press releases to local media outlets. Coaches make it a point to mention the dinner during speaking engagements with community groups like Kiwanis and Rotary.

Peterson estimates that the Super Hawks event has brought in around $200,000 in four years, allowing the school to provide the players with some extra amenities. "For example, with this money we can get better busses for our road trips," Peterson says. "Or instead of just buying players a travel shirt, we can buy them a whole outfit with pants and a matching jacket.

"All those little things add up, and they change the way people think about our program--including recruits," he continues. "While we may not be a big-time program, this extra funding gives us the ability to do things in a first-class way."

And the benefits go far beyond the dollars raised. "We're still a pretty new program so anything we can do to let people know we're here is important," Peterson says. "This event is a way to allow people to come up to the campus, meet the kids, talk with the coaching staff, and become part of our football program."

-- Dennis Read

From New World Of Coaching
The key to coaching teenage athletes is realizing how to recognize these changes and then adapting to them yourself. This doesn’t mean lowering your standards or making things easier for them, but it might mean adjusting your approach and finding new ways to teach your lessons.
Stay at the Top of Your Game!
Receive articles like this by signing up for our newsletters