I was lucky enough to attend two games in three days in mid-February 2018: First, a University of San Diego Toreros game at Jenny Craig Pavilion and, 36 hours later, a game at San Diego State University in their home venue – Viejas Arena.
Two Division I teams of different scale, with different resources, and different fan bases. Take a quick trip to each game with me, checking out the sports business and fan engagement elements.
A few quick takeaways
- The atmospheres are night and day. USD felt like a great outing for a young family, where kids could have a good time, get a picture with the mascot and cheerleaders, watch their friends play at halftime, and maybe get a caricature done with mom and dad. Whereas the SDSU game was more like a party atmosphere, with loud music and flashing lights and screaming fans.
- This difference is not a bad thing, just a reflection in different institutions in different places. SDSU, despite a tough season this year, has now established a culture of winning, which brings in the students and allows/necessitates a more raucous atmosphere. A bigger budget doesn’t hurt, too. USD has struggled on the court, which inevitably affects student attendance, and their marketing and presentation is more amenable to driving those looking for an affordable outing – families – and capturing them en masse, hence the engagement with youth teams, too. USD’s budget is also more tied to wealthy donors, and this atmosphere is more amenable to those attendees, too. (At risk of generalizing)
- SDSU had much more sponsor-driven content and replays on their video board, while USD’s in-game engagement was more of the ‘cams’ we see so often. Stuff like surf cams and dab cams can appeal to students and families alike (everyone wants to be on the video board) and any school with an arena cam can create these fun opportunities. Get on the video board, and it doesn’t matter who wins or loses.
- This is not to say USD doesn’t want more sponsor involvement in their games (see the Domino’s Delivery of the Game), they’re looking for ways to drive fan engagement during the game that doesn’t require manpower to create graphics, videos, and animations. Their plan is to grow in this space, but I personally love the idea of the surf cam, and getting a sponsor for it will only allow it to have a little more juice and aesthetic.
- The disparity in sponsor impressions between the two schools was certainly stark, and this represents an opportunity for USD. Their halftime stats and highlights, their cams, their dearth of digital signage — all this means there is great potential for the Toreros to drive more sponsor revenue, and they’re getting assets in place to do so. It’s easier said than done, however, when they don’t boast the crowds that SDSU gets for their games. It’s why some deals will start as bonuses or throw-ins, before becoming assets that command some more serious coin.
- Whether the attendance is in the thousands (as for SDSU) or the hundreds (as it is for USD most games), sponsorships can be more than just presented by or than static signage. It was notable how many activations the Aztecs partners had included a text CTA or enter to win or an active element in their app. It doesn’t matter as much if 5,000 fans see something, but there are no results to show for it, if 1,000 fans see something and 100 take some measurable action.
- It was pretty darn cool when the lights were out, the video board was flashing, and a bunch of fans and students were shouting in unison “I believe that we will win!” while some stomped their feet to rumble the arena (Yeah, I know it’s the USMNT chant, too). It was hard not to get chills. Traditions are a powerful thing and make the game day experience something special that can’t be missed by students, alums, or loyal fans.
- USD Athletics recently got new leadership and is working on reestablishing their traditions. It’ll be fun to see it happen and come together.
There is so much at play for college athletics — driving student attendance, driving non-student attendance, getting donations, fulfilling sponsor deals, producing content for in-game and web and social and traditional platforms, and doing it all when you have a dozen or two dozen or more other sports to worry about, too, some of which are also revenue sports. It’s a fun challenge that so many of us have. And we’re all doing our best to figure it out and to create fan experiences that are special, that will strengthen ties to the school, and do it all while minding the bottom line.