It used to be so easy. Before the days of every game on TV, of highlights available moments after the plays occur, of Netflix and Twitch – before all that and more, the stadium or arena was the place to be on game day. Those were salad days with a butt in every seat and attending games seen as traditional and darn near obligatory as attending church on Sunday (yeah, I know, a weird reference for this Jewish author to make).
But those days are gone. Simply announcing the schedule and opening the gates are not nearly enough to attract fans to games in the midst of all the other options and amenities one can get at home with their recliner, their fridge, and all of the screens and games within easy reach. The battle to boost attendance, particularly in college football (though applicable to almost all sports), was dissected with great insight by The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, informed by conversations with prominent professionals working in college athletics. (NOTE: Read the full article and subscribe to The Athletic because it is freaking awesome and well worth the price of subscription). There are plenty of ideas you may have heard before, some areas that haven’t gotten the consideration they merit, and other new opportunities to explore that were discussed in the piece.
Here are 12 topics broached in the article as leaders in sports and college athletics look to recapture those glory days of packed stadiums every game, every week, every season.
Seating – For years, we just kind of accepted bleachers at college football games and many other sports. Pro sports may have upgraded to some individual seats that one could tolerate if they brought a seat cushion. But when you have a recliner, a comfy couch, or a massage chair with your name (and crease) on it back home, sports pros are realizing making the time one is at their seat and, well, sitting something to enjoy and relax, rather than simply tolerate.
[Cool real-world example not from the article are the mesh seats at the home stadium of the Las Vegas Aviators, in an attempt to keep fans comfy (and prevent hot + sweaty butts) during the hot Vegas summers.]
FOMO – Fans at home can rest assured with their plentiful WiFi and all the outlets and screens they could want. Stadiums have gradually been filling this need over the years – WiFi is becoming more the norm (even if it’s not the panacea for attendance woes many hoped), charging stations are located throughout the venue (though I need one at my seat!), and – after years of archaically avoiding it – replays are completely shown in the stadium, so there’s no FOMO that you’re missing out on looks and angles and highlights fans back home are getting.
Quality > Quantity – In the past, it was all about getting the most fans and seats in the building as possible (fire codes permitting!). Now, leaders are thinking less about cramming in every last fan than they are about providing the best fan experience – so that may mean more open concourses, standing areas, and even roomier seats and suites. Better to have 75,000 happy fans than 80,000 fans just tolerating the experience. They’re also paying more attention to boosting per capita revenue rather than living and dying with the announced attendance (especially when one takes into account no-shows).
Transportation + Parking – A common complaint, according to the article, revolved around getting to the stadium and finding / dealing with parking. As someone who attended a school that required a student bus ride to get to the stadium, I can understand the pain of students whose stadium is not a couple steps from campus. Parking, of course, is an endless hassle at just about any sports events, but that’s why schools and teams are working with a) ride-share companies to make their use and flow easier, and b) partnering with parking apps (ParkWhiz is cited in the piece) to allay this concern for fans. Ingress is also an area noted in the comments section of the article (solutions weren’t discussed, but ideas like pre-check and companies like Clear with their biometric identification are things to watch).
Open concession areas – Not only is the selection of food getting better (and fans don’t have to decide quite as much between going out to get a good meal and going out to the game), but stadiums in college athletics are putting more thought into the concessions experience – with larger, open areas to combat congestion, mobile ordering (not mentioned in the article), and concessions areas that may look more like a mall food court, with seating and socializing, than just some stands selling typical cheap fare.
Video everywhere – Fans can go and enjoy those social areas and that food without having to worry about missing the game or, in some cases, other big games going on simultaneously. There are screens everywhere – showing the game on the field and games from all over. Particularly in college football, where there seem to be always be multiple ‘big games,’ leaders are making sure fans don’t have to feel like they’re missing out, including pregame opportunities to watch other games.
Entertainment > Advertising for game presentation – There are a lot of media timeouts (that’s what ultimately represents the biggest slice of revenue pie) in addition to halftime, and while old favorites like the dance cam have been around for years, there were previously a lot more straight ad reads or commercials on the video board. Those are gradually being replaced by sponsored features, contests, on-field presentations, videos, and fun that are far more welcomed and valuable for fans. The fans at home are probably flipping through the commercials, and if you want fans in the venue to have a positive experience from driveway to driveway, stealing their attention for traditional ads is not an ingredient to keep them coming back.
Every game is an event – These were cool to read about and certainly continues a trend seen in other sports. It’s not enough to just say you’re going to the game or went to the game last night, there’s a lot more and to the experience now. There are pregame parties, concerts and DJ’s, and other activities so that the game is just one part of the overall experience for fans.
Alcohol – Alcohol sales were not practiced and mostly prohibited at college football games for years. Now, many schools and conferences are beginning to crack open the door, or swing it wide open, for sales of beer, wine, and even hard liquor in some cases. Proponents argue, often armed with data, that selling booze in the games cuts down on pregame binge-ing before stadium entry and reduces security issues. Of course, it’s a nice boon for revenue via sales and sponsorship, too (though not a massive windfall). Getting a beer at the game is such a traditional part of the sports attendance experience for fans in pro sports and certainly a part of the experience for fans tailgating or watching at home or at a sports bar – and now it is one less thing missing from the live game experience.
Rewards programs and/or Priority – Rewards programs (whether for students or for all fans) are making a mega comeback (they’re a lot more advanced and data-savvy than those of the ’90s, that’s for sure), and they’re another weapon in the arsenal to get fans to attend games. But it’s more than that – they’re also incentivizing fans to arrive on time to games and stay til the end, offering extra credit for being there late in the 4th quarter. While most rewards programs offer prizes like merchandise and tchotchkes, something even more valuable on the table is ticket priority, especially for students for whom priority was heretofore largely based on seniority. If fans want to be able to see those big games, they have to attend all the other games and not leave at halftime. It’s also an incentive for season ticket holders to actually show up to every game.
Smarter, more aggressive, targeted marketing – The type of sophisticated marketing and sales strategies that are now the norm in pro sports arrived kind of late to college athletics. There wasn’t as much a need, especially in places like SEC country where the school’s games were the only show in town and the best form of entertainment and outing one could possibly find. Schools spent far more time worrying about driving donations and external relations than ticket sales. But strong sales and marketing is now a must in the college athletics game and programs are utilizing CRM, data warehouses, and many are bringing in external partners to take over or train their sales programs. This point about more savvy sales was brought up and articulated well in the article by longtime sports sales leader Steve DeLay.
Flexible ticketing – While you’ve likely read about a MLB or NBA team offering ‘passes’ or the chance to ‘subscribe’ with a monthly ticket, this notion really seemed to get its initial steam in college athletics and now more and more schools are creating such flexible ticketing passes. Further, in an interesting observation from DeLay, schools are learning from their counterparts in the pros and offering more options for their potential fans and buyers. Along with season tickets, there are the aforementioned passes, mini plans, and pick ’em plans. These, in turn, can be marketed in a targeted fashion to fans for whom each membership/ticket plan is best suited. It’s a new day for college athletics and the bar and burden is higher and tougher to fill their stadiums on Saturdays. But the strategies and tactics are more thoughtful, proactive, and innovative as they’ve ever been.
First, I urge you again to subscribe to The Athletic and to read the story from Nicole Aueberbach that inspired this piece and the takeaways. I’ll end this post with an excellent quote/anecdote from the article, offered from Kenny Mossman, senior associate athletic director of external operations at Oklahoma:
“I went to a Disney seminar one time and they said, ‘What do you think is the goal that we aspire for Disney?’” Mossman said. “You sit there and scratch your head and you think, ‘To make people happy?’ They told us no — it was to get you to come back to your next visit. That’s really what we have to be motivated by as well. What can we do when they’re here that makes it so much fun that they have to come back? That’s really what’s driving a lot of us.”