When elite college athletic departments such as the University of Florida, the Oklahoma Sooners and other BCS programs are forced to cut their budgets, you can only imagine the cost-cutting measures taken at the thousands of other universities.
For state universities and the Top-25 football programs, athletic department budgets are usually in healthy shape by the time September arrives. Then there's the vast majority of insitutions who are rarely featured on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated. They're forced to explore every possible avenue to generate fan interest and sell tickets.
Smaller athletic departments, such as my alma mater, Samford University, are comparable to small business trying to compete with the giant corporations.
Smaller, private universities are forced to tap every creative outlet in order to pitch their respective teams to the surrounding community.
Samford is in the suburbs of Birmingham, with three major state schools within a short drive. The "Big Two", Auburn and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, are within a two hour drive, and the University of Alabama-Birmingham is just down Route 31.
As a result, college football fans have two SEC games to choose from each Saturday, or a Southern Conference (Furman, Appalachian State, Citadel, West Carolina) just down the road.
Imagine yourself as the director of athletic marketing at a small university located in a metropolitan area. How would you lure the surrounding fan base?
I posed these questions to Grant Lyons, the Assistant Athletics Director for Marketing and Home Event Management and Hollie Huey, Samford's director of athletic marketing.
Huey has worked in both sides of college sports marketing. Prior to joining Samford's staff, Huey was a marketing and promotions assistant for the Alabama Crimson Tide, home of a football team with 12 national championships and a fanbase that's arguably the most passionate in the nation.
When Huey became the director of athletic marketing at Samford, she realized her new position required more creativity and new angles to pitch Samford's teams.One positive move was when the Bulldogs ditched the obscure Ohio Valley Conference and joined the Southern Conference, which is widely regarded as the premier conference for mid-major NCAA competition.
Lyons,Huey and the rest of the athletic department emphasize the budget-friendly ticket costs and family-friendly atmosphere on gameday.Huey said:
It's very family friendly and in times of such economic turmoil, some families can't afford to pay $70 plus a ticket plus gas, food and lodging for some. It's also easier for those in-town to stop by instead of traveling to watch sports.
If you feed them they will come! That's the principle behind promotions such as the Qdoba burrito eating contest at a soccer game. Bachelorette's stormed a softball field and ripped off the bases during a diamond dig promotion. A local jeweler, Steed's Jewelers, provided a diamond buried in the infield. (I could make a sterotypical joke about Samford girls and MRS. Degrees, but I'll refrain.)
A similar promo involved a money drop, where a helicopter dropped a load of dollar bills over the field.
In addition to the unique promotions, value per-ticket is another selling point, as Lyons explained, a season ticket for Samford is about the same price for just a single-game ticket to an Auburn or Alabama game.A football season ticket was $60 last year, at $12 adult and $5 child per individual game.
Another angle Samford used was their connection to Auburn fans. Pat Sullivan, a heisman trophy-winning quarterback at Auburn, is the head coach for Samford. Many of the football ticket sales are purchased on gameday, which is why Lyons,Huey and the rest of the staff, go the extra mile to create an exciting yet comfortable atmosphere throughout the campus. Creating a memorable experience is the top priority.
At the end of the day, we CAN'T compete with AU and UA. Nor do we want to. We are Samford, and there are plenty of things that set us apart. I've always said if we can get a family here to a game, and they have a good experience, they'll come back again. If we can provide fun promotions, the FunZone for kids, a huge tailgating area pre-game, and some other surprises here and there then we can almost always leave a positive impression on the fans.One that they will leave saying 'Man, I can't wait to come back to another game!'