Upgrading the Experience

January 29, 2015
How do you keep spectators engaged--and eager to return--in an expanding entertainment market? Solutions range from better guest services to more in-game activities.
By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at:
[email protected]

At Kansas State University, the athletic department has five main goals. Similar to other peer programs, they cover student-athlete welfare, community activity, integrity and rules compliance, athletic success, and fan support. In that last area, the goal is lofty: to offer the best spectator experience in the Big 12 Conference.

To accomplish it, Kansas State's Director of Athletics John Currie has taken some big steps. He's renovated facilities to better serve fans' needs and emphasized exceptional customer service at Wildcats' athletic contests. He's spearheaded rules changes to allow more in-stadium video replays during football games and set up a Fan Ambassador program at Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.

But one of the most effective ways he's reached out to fans is small and simple. Kansas State asks all of its game-day employees to approach ticket holders the same way. "We're very intentional in how we welcome our fans at our athletic contests," Currie says. "From the time they arrive, they are greeted by everyone from parking attendants to ushers with the words, 'Welcome to K-State.' Our fans tell us that by the time they get to their seats, someone has said 'Welcome to K-State' to them half a dozen times.

"This effort has caught on far better than I ever imagined," he continues. "I've had supporters relay to me that when they go to other venues and nobody welcomes them, it feels like something is missing."

It's no secret that getting today's fans to come to campus to watch revenue sports teams is harder than it used to be. The competition for people's time and money gets more heated every year, and the proliferation of televised contests makes it easy for folks to watch many games from home. So how can administrators make their events worth their fans' while? As Kansas State's story reveals, the best strategies entail both looking at the big picture and taking care of the smaller details.

The biggest hurdle that keeps supporters from coming to games is the at-home television experience. From the comfort of their own chair, fans can watch their favorite team play, follow multiple games at once, and enjoy constant replays, along with having easy access to their own food and drinks.

Schools can't offer ticket-holders their own recliner or well-stocked refrigerator, but they can make the in-game experience more comparable in other ways. Kansas State has started keeping its fans entertained at football games by showing them footage of other schools' contests during breaks in the action. The school has a full broadcast studio set up inside its stadium and has hired a staff, including an anchorman, that produces mini-highlight shows featuring clips from games being played around the country. These highlights are displayed on the scoreboard and stadium TVs during media time-outs and between quarters.

"When people are watching sports at home they'll flip to another game during a stoppage in play," Currie says. "Rather than having people look at their phones to do that when they're here, we decided to show clips and scores from the other contests on the screens in our stadium. There are some technological challenges in getting the feeds and turning them around for the fans, but we decided it was worth the effort."

Some recent rules changes are also opening up new options for livening up the downtimes during football games. Kansas State was among the schools that successfully pushed to remove limits on the number of times a replay can be shown in the stadium. And in the Southeastern Conference, a new proposed rule would expand the use of prerecorded music between plays, which is currently allowed only during time-outs and quarter breaks, and is especially needed in the closing minutes of the first half when the bands are out of the picture as they prepare to go on the field for their halftime performances.

An idea reaping rewards at indoor events is having a paid emcee. During media time-outs and other breaks, this person entertains the crowd and conducts various giveaways and activities. Fans not close enough to hear or see follow along on the video board.

The University of Wisconsin added an emcee at both ice hockey and basketball games this winter. "Sometimes he was up in the crowd talking with a longtime season-ticket holder, and other times he was on the court hosting a free throw shooting contest," says Justin Doherty, Associate Athletic Director for External Relations at Wisconsin. "If you have the right person, they can develop a relationship with the fans and represent your brand and program in an exciting way. We still have a PA announcer who calls out fouls and substitutions, but having the in-game host adds a new voice and a fun element to the experience."

While the entertainment is being increased, schools are finding that less is more when it comes to in-game commercials. After fielding complaints from its spectators, Mississippi State University is planning to cut back on the number of promotional announcements made over the PA and on the video board during its football games this fall.

"Instead, we're going to provide more information that the fans want to know, like fun facts about the players, statistics from the game, or scores from other events," says Scott Wetherbee, Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs at Mississippi State. "We can put those up on the scoreboard using an unobtrusive graphic with a sponsor's logo and not have everybody roll their eyes at another commercial."

Kansas State is also reducing the number of promotional announcements at its games. "We've replaced them with a lot of university-related recognitions," Currie says. "We've honored our Big 12 championship-winning teams, our All-Americans, and important university people and programs outside athletics."

Along with providing activities that mimic the television experience, some schools are realizing the potential of offering exclusive perks to those who attend the games. In January, Mississippi State introduced its Maroon Memories program, which allows fans to stand on the court or field with a team during the national anthem, get their picture taken with the Bulldogs' mascot at half-court, upgrade their seats, tour locker rooms and other athletic facilities with a head coach, throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, and more.

"I was looking for a new way to engage our fans, and I realized how much I take my all-access pass for granted," Wetherbee says. "I knew our fans would love to be able to go down on the court or see behind the scenes of the team in a way that they typically can't."

Mississippi State contracted with an outside firm to set up an online site where fans sign up in advance for Maroon Memories, which are secured through a points system. For example, having the cheerleaders come to a fan's seat for a picture costs one Maroon Memories point, while standing with the team during the national anthem would set a fan back four points. Spectators can purchase points for five dollars each, and booster club members, as well as student season-ticket holders, all receive 10 credits to spend on experiences.

Wetherbee says the initial response to Maroon Memories has been fantastic. The basketball and baseball seasons served as a soft open for the program, which will make its full debut during the upcoming football season.

"One of the best experiences we provided was letting a fan be the baseball PA announcer for an inning," Wetherbee says. "We scored seven runs in the frame, so the guy got to go through the whole lineup and had a great time. He told us he signed up for Maroon Memories because he had always wanted to do the PA, and he was able to live his dream."

Another key way to engage fans during games is through social media. Northwestern University has hosted a Social Media Night at one men's basketball game the past two seasons. Fans who followed the team's Twitter account (@NUMensBBall) were able to obtain discounts on concessions and, by responding to in-game tweets, had the chance to win give-aways, including admission to the arena's N Club, gift cards for local businesses, and a basketball autographed by the team. In addition, spectators could sign up to get special event T-shirts imprinted with their Twitter handle, and players wore their own Twitter monikers on the back of their pregame shooting shirts. The idea is to add a twist to the game-day environment, attract new fans, and pick up additional followers to the school's social media pages.

Other activities at the Social Media Nights centered on photography. A special kiosk was set up where people could get their picture taken with Northwestern's Willie the Wildcat mascot, with the photos posted on the team's Facebook page. The athletic department also had a photographer take pictures of the crowd throughout the game and encouraged people to visit the team's Facebook page to tag themselves in photos posted online. Fans were asked to include a unique hashtag on their tweets (#B1GCats) and any pictures they posted on Instagram.

"We know that people are going to be on their phones during games, so we tried to find a way to integrate that use with the event," says Heather Obering, Director of Marketing at Northwestern. "We got a really good response from the fans, and we saw a good mix of both students and non-students in the pictures. The chance to have a picture taken with the mascot was especially popular with the kids and families in attendance."

Mississippi State is adding social media to its baseball games. During every home contest, one fan is selected to serve as the official Tweeter of the day. He or she gets a seat in the press box and offers observations as the game progresses.

"We check out their Twitter activity before selecting them, and we monitor their tweets, which go out on their own feed," Wetherbee says. "We ask them to include our Twitter hashtag in their posts, and we re-tweet most of them on our site. But we give them the freedom to write about whatever they want as long as they're not cussing or saying anything inappropriate."

Of course, this level of social media interaction requires online access, which more and more schools are providing at every venue. "To ask people to attend a game and not have online access for three hours just won't fly anymore, especially since they can get it at just about any hotel lobby or coffee shop in the country," Doherty says. "There's no doubt we all need to have it in our sports venues."

While keeping spectators engaged is a top priority for just about every athletic department, how do you know what else is important to your guests? At Kansas State, fans can tell employees directly through vouchers they receive with their tickets. When a ticket holder feels a staff member has provided exceptional service, he or she can hand the employee a voucher that can be redeemed for school apparel or gift certificates at the K-State Super Store, the official provider of Kansas State merchandise and gear.

Other schools are seeking feedback from their fans in bigger ways, through fan advisory councils. Wisconsin formed such a group last fall, which consisted of 25 season-ticket holders in various sports who were chosen as a representative sample of Badgers fans. The panel included 14 men and 11 women, 17 alumni, and two students. There was also balance among those who lived in and around Madison, those residing elsewhere in the state, and those from out of state. The group included eight members who had been season-ticket holders for less than five years and eight who had their tickets for more than 15 years.

"We wanted to have as diverse a group as possible, so we didn't just pick people at random," Doherty says. "Nearly 800 people applied to be part of the advisory council, and we chose members carefully to represent all sectors of our season-ticket holders."

The group met three times--in late November, early February, and mid-April at the spring football game. Meetings were three to four hours long and included some perks such as behind-the-scenes tours of athletic facilities.

"We had an agenda for each meeting that included presentations from our marketing and guest services departments and a lot of time for questions," Doherty says. "There was a commitment from both sides to be open and have civil conversations, and that was more important than any structure we put together."

One topic of discussion was game programs. Doherty was surprised to find out that few of the panel members purchased game programs and only one bought a program at every game. The group did express interest in receiving digital programs through e-mail with an option of buying a one-page flyer at the game that has rosters and lineups.

Eastern Michigan University also began a football fan advisory council this past year. The 40-member group included alumni ticket holders, students, faculty and staff, and community members. The group met three times over three weeks in late winter.

"The first meeting was kind of a therapy session as our loyal fans shared their feelings with us," says Tony Orlando, Assistant Director of Athletics Marketing at Eastern Michigan. "We have a lot of new people in our department, and we were told that there had not been enough outreach to supporters over the years. During the next two meetings, we were able to go more in-depth on some of the changes we're planning.

"Overall, the panelists told us they need to have a reason to go to games," he continues. "They want to be entertained. Only the most loyal fans are going solely to see how the team does, so we need to provide an incentive for the others."

In response, Eastern Michigan will host pregame activities just outside the stadium before its home games this fall. A planned family fun zone will include inflatable bounce houses in school colors, a portable climbing wall, and roving entertainers, such as jugglers, stilt-walkers, face painters, and balloon-animal artists. To attract students, the school will offer an area with a DJ, live local bands, and free pizza.

There will also be a pep rally in the gym adjacent to the football stadium. Team-related items will be given away, and Head Football Coach Chris Creighton will address the crowd as the team heads into the locker room to get ready for the game.

"It's going to be festive, it's going to be loud, and it's going to be fun," Orlando says. "When we create that kind of environment, people will want to be a part of it."

Sidebar: At Your Service
The Walt Disney Company is known for its standout customer service, a factor that keeps people coming back to its theme parks again and again. Recently, several athletic departments have tapped into Disney's wisdom in this area through the Disney Institute, which allows other organizations to learn how the company operates.

What are its secrets? One of the things Disney emphasizes is the importance of everyone within an operation knowing what its ultimate goals are. "At Disney, our common purpose is to create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere," says Jeff James, Vice President and General Manager of the Disney Institute. "We're not so concerned that our cast can recite that word for word. But we do want them to wake up every morning focused on that common purpose, as opposed to just completing their assigned tasks."

To differentiate between meeting the common purpose and completing tasks, James cites the example of a custodial worker in a Disney park who sees a little girl drop her ice cream cone. Someone focused only on their task would clean up the ice cream and be on their way. But an employee focused on the Disney purpose of creating happiness would go into the ice cream shop, get another cone, and deliver it to the little girl before cleaning up the mess.

"A custodial host's job is to keep the park clean, but that's not their purpose," James says. "That's not why we hired them, and that's not what motivates them. What motivates them is their higher-level purpose, and that's what we want them constantly thinking about."

James emphasizes this approach will work only if everyone in the organization is on board. "In the case of an athletic department, administrators want to have a lot of fans come to their games and to leave happy," he says. "The best way to make customers happy is to have happy employees, and the way to do that is by having strong leaders who model the behaviors you want."

A difficult aspect of making such a broad-based effort in athletics is the number of third parties involved in putting on events. From parking to catering to security, many aspects of game-day operations may lie outside the direct control of athletic administrators, yet the customers will not notice or care about the distinction.

"Say your parking is being handled by XYZ Company," James says. "If a fan encounters a surly or unpleasant parking attendant, they're going to hold the school responsible, so even though it's not your fault, it is your problem. You have to tell your vendors that you expect them to work toward your common purpose, or you will have to look for someone else who will."
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