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The Gameday Experience’s Effect on the Bottom Line

16 Aug

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Rose Bowl is within sight.

A full, rowdy TCF Bank Stadium (photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune)

Any of my regular readers are aware that I’m a die-hard Minnesota Golden Gopher sports fan, due to my having gone there and having been so involved in the band and other things.  So what I’m about to say hurts me to the core: Gopher football is broken and needs serious help.

Why do I say this?  It goes way beyond that the team hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since the early 1960s.  Despite preseason on-the-field optimism, a new athletic director and a second-year coach who is clearly making a positive impact, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported today that only 2,000 student season football tickets ($84 for 7 games) have been sold to date, with the first home game just three weeks away.  That’s a sharp drop from just under 6,000 last year.  And overall attendance in the U’s new, 50,805-capacity TCF Bank Stadium is down almost 10 percent since it opened in fall 2009.

It’s an appalling reality, even though there should be a bump when incoming freshmen arrive.  It’s even more startling when you consider that Wisconsin sold out its allotment of 13,000 student tickets in 30 minutes…and Indiana, a team with fewer wins than the Gophers in recent years, less tradition, a much smaller market base and less hope/prospects for success in the short-term future, has even sold 12,000 student season tickets.

A primary reason for this undoubtedly is the fact the team hasn’t been very good recently, or very fun to watch.  But I think these numbers speak to an underlying and bigger concern – people, young and old, alumni and not, simply aren’t invested in Gopher athletics and/or having a good time at/around the games like they used to.  THIS is where I think progress can be made quickly…and where PR and marketing can have a real impact.

Tons of marketing literature/research suggests that people buy into products/organizations when they have a positive experience with it.  For people like me, re-upping my (full-priced) season tickets is a relatively easy decision because of my involvement with the program.  But what is the University and the athletic department doing to ensure that new/casual Gopher fans enjoy their experiences with the team?  While wins and losses matter, so too (or even more) does the band, the pre-game tailgate, the community, the atmosphere and everything else that the gameday experience can feature.  Giving away tickets might get people there once…and having football players exhort their fellow students to come out looks and sounds good.  But none of that ensures that students will have a good time or a positive experience.  This is where investments need to be made, before the trends hold and numbers add up and there isn’t a next generation of Gopher football fans to support the program.

Of course, there are also the residual effects of non-attendance.  Parking spaces aren’t being filled.  Local businesses aren’t being patronized.  Merchandise and in-stadium concession revenue could be much higher.  The noise level and overall atmosphere suffers…and the 12th-man effect is minimized.  And – ultimately – the players notice and underperform.  Recruits love the stadium…but notice all the empty seats and choose instead to play somewhere else where they feel their efforts are valued more and they have a better chance to win.  It’s all happening at the U of M.  Today.

This story – and these facts – should be the last straw.  The red alert.  The defining moment that shifts Gopher football, Men’s Athletics and Gopher football die-hards everywhere into quick, bold and absolute action.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Tyrann Mathieu.

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So, for Penn State Football…Now What?

12 Jul

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the ESPYs were cancelled years ago.

Beaver Stadium on gameday (photo credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP)

The big sports-related story today, of course, is the announcement of the report detailing the results of Louis Freeh’s (and team’s) investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  I’ve blogged on this before, so I’ll suffice it to say for now that once again today I’m absolutely sick at what happened.  I hope that proper respect and restitution is paid to the victims, and I hope that those who are guilty pay the appropriate price for their dastardly deeds.  I think Christine Brennan of USA Today makes a pretty good statement here too…

Today, I’d like to focus on one (and perhaps under-reported, if that’s possible) angle of all this: sanctions on the football team itself.  The question has come up whether or not the NCAA or another governing body will impose any sanctions on the football program for the misdeeds of administrators and Paterno.  I’ve heard it argued both ways…but most of the talking heads right now don’t seem to want current program members to pay for the mistakes of those before them.    An interesting take, considering all that’s at stake here.

Personally, and with my PR hat on, I don’t think the NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and anyone else with a pulse has a choice: they have to punish Penn State, and come down hard.  The University, AND the football program.  Think of it from a public perception; unless you’re an alum, or a former PSU player, or someone with direct ties to the program, you identify most with the organization responsible for this scandal through its appearance on the field on fall Saturdays.  To the average Joe (no pun intended), to recruits and to the broader community, that IS Penn State football.  So, if no punishment is imposed that affected the program on the field, the average participant might not think anything happened at all.  Which, of course, isn’t even on the same planet of relevance…considering this is the most significant sports scandal of our time, and maybe any time.

So, what type of punishment is appropriate?  Obviously, punishment should be commensurate with the crime…and programs have been given the death penalty for less.  I’ll leave it to others to make this decision, but I think it would be well within the means of the NCAA and the Big Ten to shut down PSU football for a year or more until things get sorted out, the program and culture change, etc.  It would be an incredibly drastic step, one I’m not sure they have the cajones to take given the significance (and revenue-ability) of PSU football.

It’s unfortunate that innocent players, coaches, gameday staff and the like would have to pay for the mistakes of others, sure.  But let’s keep this in perspective, people…innocent people already have paid for mistakes.  Kids were raped.  By people who they trusted to keep them safe.  The abuse was covered up.  More kids were molested after the cover-up occurred, according to today’s report…which means that at least one if not several rapes should have been prevented.  This is as low as it gets, and it just so happens that it’s tied into Penn State and its football program.  The real victims here are the kids and their families, and to suggest anything else just seems to me to be out of whack.

That’s all for now.   I’m out like the American League.

Thoughts on Norwood Teague

15 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where all NBA basketball games are played with the intensity and passion that the Finals are.

Norwood Teague (photo credit: AJ Mansour, KFAN.com)

Next Monday, Norwood Teague starts as the new Athletics Director at my beloved University of Minnesota.  He replaces Joel Maturi, who ran the department for more than 10 years to mixed reviews.  Many people have asked for my thoughts on the hire, both personal and with my PR hat on, so I thought I’d capture them here.

First, I think the hire tells you some things about the new University president Eric Kaler and his administration.  For one, he’s not afraid to delegate important items to others.  Also, he believes the course the University is already on is the right one, and needs to be properly shaped as opposed to completely overhauled.  Nowhere is this more evident than in context of the football program, which had flashes of competence in the 2000s but not much else to speak of since a run of national titles in the early 1960s.  Jerry Kill will be starting his second year as head coach this fall, and Kaler clearly feels Kill is the right guy long-term for the program.  Why?  It’s not just that he gave him a 7-year extension after his first conference win last year.  It’s also that Teague, the new AD, has no experience running a top-tier football program.  At VCU, Teague had no football team, and at North Carolina Teague wasn’t responsible for football.  Bottom line – it’s Kill’s program, for better or worse, and Teague’s hire was meant to bolster other areas of the program that needed it.

Second, Teague is known as a fundraiser – which will be a GREAT fit for the Gophers.  The U of M has several needs…a new basketball practice facility, upgrades/renovations to Williams Arena and other facilities and more booster donations to offset wildly unpopular ticket price hikes, to name a few.  Teague’s track record in this area will enable him to notch both quick and long-term wins, which should make a big difference on the program.

Third, Teague’s crowning achievement at VCU was the rise of the basketball program, which went to the 2011 Final Four and the 2012 Sweet 16 as the ultimate Cinderella.  Teague gets the credit for finding and hiring Shaka Smart, and for facilitating the success of the squad.  It is with men’s basketball that the University of Minnesota has the greatest chance for near-term success in a revenue sport; the Gophers are projected to be a top-25 team and a top-four finisher in the ultra-tough Big Ten in the 2012-2013 season, so the cupboard is far from bare.  If anyone can make a tweak here and there, and help the program return to sustained national prominence quickly, it’s Teague.  Then, with basketball rolling along, he can invest in other areas of the department…one team’s success will breed other’s, just like it has at Ohio State, Texas and other major schools.  It’s akin to building a house one brick at a time – with a solid foundation to go on, the house could stay strong and last a long time.

All in all, I like the hire.  Time will tell, of course, but even despite the lack of direct experience with football it seems like the U hired the kind of guy that can help fix the department’s greatest weaknesses…and that’s encouraging.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Houston Astros on Wednesday night.

BCS or Playoff, or Both?

13 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Stanley Cup forever reigns as the greatest prize in sports.  Seeing it always gives us chills.

Quick update: a little while ago I wrote about the University of North Dakota and its nickname controversy.  Just yesterday ND voters elected to drop the nickname, in the latest sign that reason is winning out over passion.  This quote from Tim O’Keefe, EVP and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, says it all: “The price of keeping the name is simply too high.”  Exactly.  I know it’s painful, North Dakotans, but you’ve done the right thing.

What a 2011 playoff might have looked like (photo credit: ufrsports.com)

Meanwhile, as we speak, big shots from the major college sports conferences are in meetings in Chicago to debate the future of the BCS and whether or not to initiate a playoff for college football.  My thoughts?

This blog has long been a proponent of a playoff, and that hasn’t changed.  I think it’s ludicrous that the national championship isn’t decided on the field, like it is at just about every other level of every kind of sport.  Done right, such a set-up leaves an undisputed champion – and a ton of revenue and buzz, a la the NCAA basketball tournament.  Personally, I’d support a four, six or eight-team seeded tournament, with all games at neutral sites.  Select the teams with a selection committee, like in basketball, and let the chips fall where they may.  This is what is needed for the game…a pure process where biases, conflicts of interest and the like are as far removed as possible.

That said, as a former band member/letterwinner at the Big Ten’s University of Minnesota, I’m admittedly a bit of a purist.  The Rose Bowl is part of our DNA in this part of the world, and ever since birth I’ve been looking forward to the day that I could follow my team to Pasadena for a Rose Bowl.  I didn’t have the honor during my years wearing the maroon and gold, although we got close.  And in many ways, I’d rather see the Gophers play once in the Rose Bowl than two or three times in a college football playoff – it’s about the experience of it all.  Yet I understand that if/when changes are made, said experience will fundamentally and forever change.  I get it, and I think it’s necessary for the greater good, but I’ll still hold out hope that the Gophers are playing a title game someday…for the Roses.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Boston Celtics.

Anatomy of a Nickname – and a Fan Base

9 Feb

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where it’s always Rivalry Week.

Credit: Sports Flags and Pennants

Can anyone guess the most intense battle over a sports team nickname in recent memory?  Syracuse University?  Nope.  University of Illinois?  Think again.  Take a trip to Grand Forks instead, the epicenter of the debate over whether or not the University of North Dakota (UND) and its athletic teams can keep calling themselves the Fighting Sioux.

The arguments on both sides are no different than we’ve seen in other name-questioning cases around the nation.  In the “pro-change” camp, the name is offensive, disrespectful and even derogatory; in the “anti-change” category are those who value the logo, the tradition, etc.

What makes the UND situation so different from all the others, however, is the passion the resistance has fought with.  This battle has raged – no lie – since 2009, and it got new life yesterday with UND’s decision to go ahead and just keep the name and logo.  This, despite the NCAA’s standing ban on UND hosting any sanctioned regional/national events, UND’s conference threatening expulsion and more.  Yes, that’s all true.

It’s no shock that supporters of great brands are intensely loyal.  Look at Coca-Cola, or Skittles, or any major Detroit automaker…whether in business or sports, brands create experiences, feelings and identities that encapsulate us.  Over a very long time, the UND logo and nickname has become an identity for Grand Forks residents and ardent UND fans – in many ways, it IS who they are.  Syracuse?  It’s a city of 145,000, with 3-4x that amount in its immediate area, a dynamic economy and Buffalo, Rochester and even NYC within a few hours.  Champaign-Urbana, Illinois?  A smaller city and total college town, but still 200,000 people give or take in the area and definite ties to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.  Grand Forks?  A population of roughly 67,000, and definitely the most isolated of the three.  Quite simply, there’s less in Grand Forks, and accordingly there are fewer things that residents naturally have to identify with, support, get behind and endorse.  This means their affinity for the local institutions/brands they do have – aka UND – is often stronger.  Conversely, this means it’s harder for them to disassociate from those entities, or make a simple switch to new ones.

I’m not here to say whether the school should keep their name or not.  I’m not ripping Grand Forks for being a smaller, more isolated city either…far from it.  All I’m saying is that the long history of the Fighting Sioux nickname and the unique geography of North Dakota have contributed to a particularly strong and passionate UND brand and identity.  While other institutions have found ways to adjust and move on, UND supporters have resisted hard, proving they can’t live without the nickname – or won’t it give up without one helluva fight.  It just reinforces how strong a brand can be, and how valuable significant/shared experiences can be to an institution.

But they can’t have their cake and eat it too – if they keep their name, and the rest of the college sports world moves on without them, they’ll have to adapt and assimilate or risk fading out of the picture.  That of course would be far more damaging to UND and the region than a name change, especially now when athletic programs as a whole are generally on the rise.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Carmelo Anthony.