Group of Five Schools Would Do Well to Reinvest in the Gameday Experience

I saw a commercial during this past NBA Playoffs advertising nbatickets.com, but that doesn’t really matter as much as the gist of the ad.

You should buy yourself some tickets to an NBA game because there are things about attending an NBA game in person you just can’t experience any other way.

They weren’t saying that there’s anything unique to a live basketball game versus any other sport, but what they were saying is that attending an NBA game in person provides a certain ambiance and environment that enhances your game experience, and which you can’t get through the radio or your TV screen.

I would definitely agree that when it is a marquee matchup – like Golden State and Houston this past season – this is absolutely true. The actual matchup on the court is so good, so exciting and intense that it doesn’t matter what else is going on, the arena doesn’t need to do other stuff to hook the crowd because they’re all there to watch good basketball and root for it and react to it.

That’s the ideal, but most of the time that ambiance has to be manufactured by the venue – hence regular season NBA games being a cacophony of piped-in music during game action and t-shirt cannons and failed half-court wedding proposals.

Forgive us for choosing to sit home and watch on our 75-inch 4K HDTVs instead.

I think that college football has really lost track of this need for a true experience, and it’s part of the reason why things like the Cure Bowl and Frisco Bowl moving to soccer stadiums could serve as part of a blueprint for change going forward.

Bowl Transitions

The Cure Bowl has been played four times, and only a “home game” for UCF produced a crowd above 20,000.

Moving the bowl game from a stadium with 65,000 seats to one with 25,500 seats does a few things. First, it looks better. You can draw the same crowd and have a venue that is 80% full instead of 30% full.

Just as importantly, having your venue that full means that the crowd is actually able to contribute to the gameday environment. I can speak from experience, having attended plenty of UAB football games since #TheReturn.

Last season UAB averaged essentially the same home attendance as North Texas or Marshall, but those schools were averaging 70% capacity while UAB was at 33%. It matters to your game day experience when you have some of the best-attended home games in the entire Group of Five but your stadium is so large that only the home side fills in.

This looks bad on TV, and I imagine it can sound bad as a player. Rather than a Surround Sound Crowd, you’ve only got one side covered and it’s more like performing on a theater stage.

That more immersive experience is more enjoyable for everyone in the stadium, arena, or wherever the event is occurring.

Another reason the Cure Bowl is said to be moving is that Orlando City Stadium is surrounded by an area that is more conducive to things like tailgating and pregame Fan Experience events, which is another thing that every school should be considering for every game.

The Cure Bowl will now be played in a stadium that is in the heart of Downtown and within walking distance of the Church Street entertainment district, which gives organizers a location for a pregame party, an opportunity for the trek from the pregame to the game to become its own event, and possibly more.

You might disagree with this concept when you consider that OC Stadium is about 3,200 feet from the entertainment district, and Camping World Stadium (the old home) is only another 0.7 miles west.

I can assure you that cutting the distance in half will make a huge difference in using the Church Street area to pregame, but even if it didn’t the change in stadiums is a logical opportunity to begin incorporating it into the gameday experience more.

Regular Season Ramifications

While there aren’t any other bowl games that could really make such a transition to a soccer stadium more suited to their crowd size, that doesn’t mean that this discussion starts and ends with these two bowl games.

Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir talked a lot about the game-day experience when discussing the school’s North End Zone project which was aimed at improving exactly that:

“Long lasting legacies of families of generations to come to have their loge boxes, to have their seats, to have their suites, to have their club seats. We don’t need to have the biggest stadium in America. What we need is the best experience in America and we are creating that.”

Terry is right. Back when I worked summers at PNC Park, I’d gripe with other employees about all of the lame gameday activities and promotional gifts and so on. Then someone made a very salient point.

A healthy majority of the fans at any game are casual fans. They either wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for a specific promotion or two, or they’re not yet bought into the product on the field enough for that to be what brings them.

As such, you have to work to get those casual butts off their couches and through the stadium turnstiles.

One way to not do that is to operate like Larry Teis, the athletic director at Texas State.

Teis said in his June 12 Q&A that other schools’ fans tailgate all over town and campus before home games, and the “athletic department should not have to create a tailgate atmosphere for people to show up.”

“As I said before, fans create their own excitement. Other schools’ students and fans show up to their games, set up all over town and all over campus and tailgate. Unfortunately for us, I hear we need to play Texas Tech each week and we want to tailgate 100 paces from the gate or we aren’t coming.”

“Our fans need to learn how to come to San Marcos, park anywhere within walking distance of the stadium, bring their own food and beverages, create a tailgate on their own and then come into the stadium.”

Larry doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that the successful game day environments he sees at other schools have been created, nurtured and tweaked for multiple decades in a row.

When you’ve got a South Alabama football program that only has a decade of history in a state where Alabama and Auburn have been around far longer, you can’t be surprised when the game is in the middle of being played and hundreds of people are in the parking lot tailgating and watching SEC football.

That said, even they are getting on board as they work on their new stadium for next year:

“Stadiums today have to provide areas of social interaction,” Erdmann explained. “The day where people sit in a seat or stand in one spot and cheer for a team in a game – and there are customers that prefer to do that – there is a growing number of people who want to mingle.

“In our design of the student section, we have a lounge area that is 60 yards long that will provide bistro tables and picnic tables. A certain style of concessions that will have sight of the field. They’ll be able to mix and mingle and be in and out of the stadium.”

You also can’t expect them to magically begin changing that pattern and coming through the turnstiles without any effort on your part.

Where should that effort be focused?

There are a handful of options in this department. When it comes to your diehard fans, they’re in attendance to watch a particular team or player and are disinterested in anything else other than not paying through the nose for their ticket and concessions.

The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns have gotten on board with this concept, as they announced a new lineup of fan-friendly concessions prices for the upcoming football season.

It’s very stark when you make a comparison against another stadium nearby like, oh I don’t know, LSU’s Tiger Stadium. A family of four at an LSU home game would spend $80 plus tax to the very cheapest game (upper deck nosebleed seats against Georgia Southern).

Add in four drinks, two hot dogs, a burger, chicken strips and four orders of fries (food for four) as well as ice cream for the kids and now you’ve suddenly spent another $64 on concessions for a total of $144, without even considering parking or souvenirs.

Let’s make that same trek to a Cajuns game. Cheap seats for four will run you about $40, and then you’ll be off to the concessions stand. A similar haul of two hot dogs, two burgers, four drinks, fries and a couple ICEEs for dessert will only cost you about $30.

Heck let’s get crazy and hit up the premium menu. Two fancier burgers, two craft beers, two fancier hot dogs, fried mac and cheese only pushes your total to $54, and you’re still under $100 spent from ticket window to butts in the seats.

Value matters, and finding ways to offer it to your fans will get them coming back.

As far as that much larger bunch of casual fans, price is still a factor, but for those who care less about what is going on between the lines, the atmosphere outside the lines matters even more.

What type of experiences are they able to have at the stadium that they can’t get at home? Louisiana is bringing back student tailgating and making tweaks to the pregame experience that make this more of a focus. Arkansas State has added a water feature as part of their new North End Zone redesign.

Schools are learning to spend less money on the number of seats in the building and more on giving people space to move about and a variety of things to do when moving about that space. They need to get better at it faster, but they’re learning.

There are options, but it all boils down to a simple three-step process. Understand that your fans don’t want to feel fleeced, know that they all want different things out of their gameday experience, and show them that you are listening to them in order to give them more (if not all) of what they want.

You’re not going to have a great team every year. But there are a lot of things that you can do to make the fans have a great day every visit.

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