When your job is largely dependent on the success (or lack thereof) of student-athletes aged 18-22, things can often get very stressful. College football, aside from the well-known dynasties at the top, sees teams and programs fluctuate through good and bad times on nearly a yearly basis.
For those that work on the business and marketing sides of college football and other college sports, finding the right message to keep the fans coming back can be a difficult challenge.
The University of Memphis, a school known nationally for its basketball tradition, is a perfect example of a school right on the cusp of the power conferences that has had a difficult time gaining traction with its football fan base. The Tigers are on pace for their first winning record in a number of years and their first bowl appearance since 2008.
With that success on the field, a natural turn-around in fan interest will happen, but it is key for collegiate marketing departments to capitalize on that success to lay the groundwork for future sales and revenue growth.
“When I started here (at Memphis), I was hired by Wren Baker (Detupy Athletics Director), and his strategy was to be progressive and aggressive,” Bradley said. “The way the fan base has responded has been great. Everyone knows the passion for basketball. Our theory was always that if we could be similar resources behind football and have a little bit of success, the community would rally behind the program. We’ve been able to truly test that theory this year, and the results have been phenomenal.”
What Bradley and his team have done can be molded into a case study of sorts for other colleges around the country seeking to boost attendance on Saturdays and make the game a real entertainment destination rather than just a game. Bradley and his team recognized the need for improvement to the Memphis gameday football experience and implemented progressive tactics to address the issues.
“We worked with Learfield to overhaul gameday presentation,” Bradley said. “That has helped us to change the experience once fans are in the stadium with appropriate in-game promotion and other fun events. But, Tiger Lane has been our biggest area of success.”
The Memphis athletic department has turned Tiger Lane, a grass-covered tailgating spot built about five years ago, into the place to be on Saturdays in Memphis. By offering up a free gameday concert before each home game, Memphis has been able to attract casual fans to attend the game — something that is crucial for colleges and sports teams as a whole. The Tigers also now hold free pep rallies with a “Tiger Walk” prior to the games each week.
“Simple things like the Tiger Walk and getting the pep band and cheerleaders involved make the biggest of differences,” Bradley said. “We’re really proud of the experience we’ve created through some simple, measurable changes. And, of course, the success on the field certainly helps.”
The University of Memphis football program turnaround both on the field and off the field is something that, while iunique, can also be replicated by other schools. Marketing departments can take a more holistic approach to the gameday experience and see why fans are or are not showing up for games.
What can be done off the field to draw fans week in and week out? What traditions can be created to have people take pride in their school, university and team?
While it is certainly not easy, Bradley and his team know that if they stay progressive and aggressive, good things will happen. That difference can be seen tonight when the Tigers take the field at home against Tulsa in front of tens of thousands of passionate Tigers fans packed into Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Preston McClellan is a marketing coordinator at Navigate Research in Chicago and a contributor for Sporting News, writing about sports business. Connect with him on Twitter at @p_mcclellan and join the dialogue.