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NAIA Breakout Session
Strategies and Technologies for Attracting Fans Back to Small College Athletics
(Monday, June 15, 9:30 - 10:30 a.m. )


Matt Symonds:

Today, we're going to talk about some ideas and share some ideas that we can use to attract some fans to our athletics events and, at the same time, raise a little money too, or at least cover some costs that are associated with trying to get fans to our campuses. I'd like to talk briefly about Northwest Missouri State. We have about 5,500 students and we're located in Maryville, Missouri. It's approximately 100 miles north of Kansas City and about 100 miles southeast of Omaha. We have a good central location. Our community is 10,000 people and some of our students say we're out in the boon docks. We don't have a large population in our area to draw from, so we have to capitalize on what exists in our community. We are a member of the NCAA Division II and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

Later on, I'll give you a handout. I've got a handout of all of these slides. If I don't have enough, I have some business cards up here, let me know and I'll mail them to you. There are three steps in developing a plan to get people to come to our events. One is that we have to identify who we're trying to attract. Sometimes for us, this changes or evolves on a game-by-game or sport-by-sport basis. We may have great student support for one of our events, but we're not getting any community turnout. We may have excellent community support, but we're not getting any of our students to come out. The first thing to do is decide who we're trying to get to come to our events.

Secondly, we need to decide what about our program is attractive or could be attractive to the group we're trying to attract. There are some things that are attractive to all of those groups, others are more specific to one particular group. Once we decide who we're going to attract and what is attractive, the next step, as I see it, is to get information to those people. How are we going to tell them what is going on and why they should come and why they'll have a good time when they attend our events.

Basically, we try in each situation, whether it is for football, volleyball, whatever, to go through a short plan and determine how we're going to get people to our games. The first group I want to talk about is students. It seems like at Northwest, our students are fickle. You never know when they're going to come to a game. They get in free to everything we have. We have a lot of home events. They might pack the house for a basketball game that has no rival implications, is on a crazy night of the week when you'd think they would be in the library. Other times, we might have our biggest rival in town and there are no students there.

With students, we're trying to have a more even attendance for every event. The biggest thing we hear from our students about why they don't come to our games is that they don't know when they are. That is sometimes hard for us to believe. We're doing more and more all of the time just getting information to our students about when the games are.

We have done several things getting information to our students. We do a schedule card for our sports. Football, basketball and volleyball each have their own schedule card. We also do a composite spring schedule for all of our spring sports. We sell a sponsorship for these cards. A bank in our area sponsors all of these. Our goal with their sponsorship is only to cover the cost of printing. We've spent a little more money on them recently, trying to upgrade their image. Covering the costs is all we want to do there and they've been very helpful to us and supporting everything we do. We try to get these schedule cards into the hands of the students. We put them in different locations where students have contact, the student center where they go to pick up their pay checks, concert tickets, etc.

We did magnetic schedules and the students like them. They stick them on their refrigerator and it gives them a good idea of when the games are and why we want them to come. We also do a flyer to each resident's hall room at the beginning of each season with the sport schedule on there. We do a poster, again sponsored, with sports schedules on them.

The next thing that is important to attract students today is web page postings. Later on in the presentation, I'll have some captures of what our web page at Northwest looks like. We have a unique campus in the fact that every residence hall room has a personal computer in it and they are all networked all over campus. My notebook computer in my office is networked with every residence hall room on campus. Therefore, the big emphasis on our campus is using technology, computers. Our students are on the computers a lot. By taking advantage of the web page postings, we can get information out to them on a regular basis. Our web page is a default. When they turn their computer on, the Northwest web page is the first thing they see.

We also have on our campus a pop-up for notices of the day. When the students and faculty turn on their computers, a screen comes up and tells them what is happening on campus that day.

There were a lot of these things we didn't know about until we asked. Our computer people on campus have been very helpful. For me, I know how to use software, but I don't know much about computers other than that. Our computer people have been very helpful in letting us know what we can do and what we can't do. I've had discussions recently about sending E-mail messages to every person on campus the day of home games. Since we're all networked and they all have to get on the same server, that's a possibility. I'm hoping we can try this in the fall. I'm very excited about that. E-mail is huge on our campus and I'm sure it is everywhere else, too.

We have a campus television and radio station. Our campus television is good enough to cover our sports very well. They have a weekly sports program that runs Monday through Thursday and interviews our student-athletes and coaches. We have another station on campus that is a television station, but our campus radio is piped through. We'll put a crawl across the bottom of that station telling them the game and time. The campus stations, both television and radio, do a good job of putting out information that we give them in the form of news releases or stats.

Students love contests. They have the "if it's free, it's for me" attitude so they're always looking for some way to win something. We had a fun contest in the basketball season this year. We put fliers in every residence hall room. We put table-tents on every campus dining location. They registered in advance for this contest and we had lots of them register. We took all of our conference home basketball games and made it a contest tournament. The winner of each contest advanced to the semifinals with the chance to win a free semester of tuition. We had a local bank underwrite the contest. They paid for weekly prizes, which we had for every game. Small prizes such as pizzas, T-shirts, a meal at a steak house in town were paid for by the bank. They underwrote the tuition. This was good. They didn't even buy insurance for this. We talked about what we were going to give away and they could have paid $300 for an insurance policy, but they were kind enough to underwrite that for us. That was a fun contest.

We had tricycle races, a knockout contest and musical chairs. We tried to have contests that weren't just basketball related because we wanted people who weren't athletic and not good shooters to be able to win the contest, as well. That tricycle race was good. We had two tiny tricycles that we experimented with before the game. We had a girl on our soccer club who won that contest. We took some uniforms from our basketball team and put a pair of shorts and a jersey at the free throw line. We put a pair of swim fins and a mask at half-court. We put a basketball at the other free throw line. They started at one end and we said, "Go." They would put on the shorts, the jersey and ran to half-court, put on the swim fins and mask, and then they flopped over to the basketball, made a lay-up and then ran all the way back to the other end of the gym. That was another fun contest. We simply tried to come up with some crazy things that students would like.

One of the reasons this contest was successful is because the students signed up in advance. We drew them and called them the day of the contest. We've done some things where they signed up at the game. We would then draw names out of the hat. Some of them had already left the game. Doing it this way, we knew the kids would be there that night. That was good for us to know that the contest was going to run smoothly.

I have two student employees who are marketing majors and that is a big help to me. We sit down, outline what we want to do and they just run it. They take care of it. When we have these contests, I don't even want to watch them. I put them in charge and I want them to run it. They did an excellent job running them.

Our booster club has been good enough to give some cash prizes for attendance at games. A couple times a year, the organization or group that has the largest attendance at our basketball games will get $100 or a pizza party. Our booster club has been very good about sponsoring that. We've also sponsored a couple of those in-house, in our athletics department. They are fun things, but they are a little work. We've had registration. Their organization had to register at the door so we had to provide some staff people. We have some excellent cooperation all over our campus. When we do these organization contests, lots of times, our student affairs area that oversees the campus organizations, will handle the registrations for us at the games. That's helpful. As we all know, I can't do one more thing than I'm already doing at a basketball game.

T-shirt give-a-ways have been really successful. We've done those the last two years at football, basketball and volleyball games at home. Everybody loves a T-shirt. Our mascot wads them up and throws them out into the crowd. In volleyball, they write a number on the program and draw a number for the winner.

For football games, we do tailgate parties. Initially, they started out as things for our boosters, community members and alumni. We got our food service vendor involved in our tailgates. We convinced them to set up a station at the tailgate, so that kids could use their ID to eat. It's a little extra work for them, but it gets our attendance up and they don't have to worry about collecting as much money. Kids just scan their card and it comes off their meal allowance. That's been very helpful. The students like that because the campus dining locations are limited on the weekends. This gives them another option on where to eat. We just do standard tailgate fare, burgers, brats, baked beans, etc. A couple of times, we've done pancakes to make it something different.

Students really like special events. They are fun and everybody loves them. I'm talking about things like the Bud Lite Daredevils at a basketball game or the amazing Frisbee catching dog. We really got some good attendance and we did a good job promoting it and everybody loved that.

Our students are wrestling crazy. We have a local Central States Wrestling Association not far from us. We put on a little wrestling match in our arena. Three of the guys who wrestle for the Central States Wrestling Association are either attending Northwest or are past Northwest students. A lot of the students know them. We had this crazy wrestling match in our gym. We actually made a little money on it. We sold tickets for it. The students loved it and want it back again. It was just good public relations for our students. Sometimes I think our students think we make it hard for them and we're really trying to make it as easy for them as possible. I don't think they realize that.

Several times a year, we try to assist with travel plans for away games. Again, I'm not just targeting students here. If we're playing Truman State at Kirksville, the only way to get from Maryville to Kirksville is by helicopter. We'll get a bus and we'll charge them just enough to cover the gas and the driver. We put out some publicity on this. We'll usually get a combination of students that want to go and don't want to drive themselves and our elderly fans that don't want to drive either. The buses and things like that have been greatly accepted. We don't do this all of the time because it's too much work to schedule a bus trip. But, a couple of times a year, we will do it.

Next, I want to talk about attracting the community. One of the things we're working hard on is trying to create a family fun atmosphere. One of the best ways to get community members that don't normally come to your games interested is to get their kids interested. Get them to bring their kids. That's what we've tried to do. We did a couple of things this year that were hugely successful.

The other thing is to get the booster club involved. With our booster club, we tried to get them out and recruit some members. We have a board of directors that govern the club. We try to have each one of those members go out and recruit one new member or bring them to a social function. We try to get them involved as much as possible. Our booster club actually sponsors the tailgate parties that we have prior to football games and they sponsor several socials after basketball games. Our booster club has grown each of the last few years. We want it to continue to grow.

One of the things that are unique about our booster club is when we sell season tickets, they go on sale the month of July for booster club members only. By joining the booster club, in effect, you buy rights to buy season tickets before everybody else. I've got brochures that you can have. You'll find that our booster club rates are not super expensive, but they really don't include much, just a couple of socials. We just want them to get involved. We don't want to feel like we're tied to our boosters where they can tell us what to do. By doing this, they join the club, they realize the club is going to spend their money for things that help our athletics program. It does give them the advantage to buy tickets early and that is attractive to a lot of our boosters

The Bobby Bearcat Fan Club is our big one. Bobby is our mascot and the kids love him. We've been fortunate the last several years to have a student who is actually our mascot and he's a ham. He loves to ham it up with the kids and the adults. Athletics went together with our communication and marketing departments this year. We started this Bobby Bearcat Fan Club and it's free. The kids sign up for it at several locations across town. When they sign up, they get some free stuff in the mail. Communications and marketing paid for all of the printing of those items. It was about $2,500. The athletics department provided the student labor to send everything out and we paid for all of the postage. We figure it was about a $3,500 venture, but the kids were crazy about it. I think it was worth every penny we spent. We're going to do it again this year with a couple of different twists. We didn't seek out a sponsor for this venture and I think this is something we can definitely do as well.

Along the same lines, at football and basketball games, we'll have autograph and photo sessions for kids with some of the team members after the games. They usually want Bobby Bearcat's autograph. The photo sessions are typically with Bobby Bearcat. We provide Bobby and some players and let them know that if you want your picture taken, it will happen at this time. They need to bring their own camera. If they don't, we'll take a Polaroid for them and that costs $1. This covers the cost of the film. Again, kids love to have their pictures taken.

Following a basketball game this year, we turned loose with basketballs on our court. Anybody that wanted to shoot could remain for 45 minutes to one hour after the game. We were fortunate enough that night, our men's team won. They came back to the court from the locker rooms in their uniforms and played with them. That was great and the kids just loved it. That is something you can try and it won't cost you any money.

Next, are game sponsorships. This past year was the first year we did game sponsorships. We had a game sponsor the night the kids got to shoot baskets with the players and they provided small basketballs with logos on them. We were going to throw them out to the crowd until we decided to do the shoot-around. We saved them all at the end of the game and gave them to the kids who were shooting baskets. That was another nice benefit.

My goal for these game sponsors was let's get some fans in the stands that don't normally come to our games and sit in seats that might otherwise be empty. For a football game sponsor, we charged $500. We had a business in our community buy that sponsorship. For that $500, they got four public address announcements, one each quarter, signage at the gate, which they provided, and they could hand out any gifts, fliers, coupons, free samples or anything they wanted to. They provided the material and the labor to hand it out. For football, they got 50 reserved football tickets. If it was a basketball sponsor, they got 25 reserved basketball tickets. We also put the company's logo on the cover of our program. It didn't cost us much to do these, we just sold tickets in a package form. We don't do that much group sales.

Some people who got tickets from their employer came to games early in the season came back to games later on. That was also the case in basketball. There were a couple of people during the football season that told me they'd never been to a football game at Northwest before and after the first or second game that they attended, they bought the rest of the season seats. It was very helpful

We charged the basketball sponsors a little less money because there are more of them. Our basketball games just don't have the same profile that our football games do. We wanted to encourage people to get involved in a new program. We charged $300 for all of them except for three games, Missouri Western, Central Missouri and Washburn where we charged $400. We sold all but one basketball game. We sold every football game on the first day I called these game sponsors. For the basketball games, it took us a little bit longer, but we sold all but one of those.

I got some feedback from our customers that actually purchased these tickets. They said they would pay more if they got a little bit more. We may raise the cost of football game sponsors and give them 50 tailgate passes, as well. If they want to entertain customers or have an appreciation day for their employees, there's a meal included. Most of our game sponsors don't realize is that they are buying seats that we normally wouldn't sell. This works out good for everyone.

The last group is alumni. Attracting the alumni is sometimes difficult because of the geography involved. We want to keep them connected more so than attracting them to games. With alumni, as with anybody else, it's just getting information out about what you're doing. Homecoming is a big event on our campus. We had six home football games, two of them we didn't sell game sponsorships, Homecoming and Family Day.

When you talk about attracting fans, there are three or four events a year where we have to scare people away because our facilities will not hold the crowds we'll get. Homecoming is one and Family Day is one. We couldn't afford to sell game sponsorships on those games. We needed those 50 tickets for that football game. Alumni come back in droves for homecoming. It's really impressive

The M Club is our Lettermen's Club on campus. We have an alumni group, which we call the Alumni M Club. Each Homecoming, we induct members into our M Club Hall of Fame. It's tied into the Homecoming football game and some ceremonies we have the night prior. We send out a flier to every letterwinner in the history of Northwest Missouri State. It tells them about their organization. There's a ballot for them to vote on. There's a little biography about our teams. This is huge for keeping alumni connected. One of the places we've recognized this is that historically with this group, you had to be an older team or individual to get inducted. Recently, we've inducted some younger members and those people have really reconnected with our institution. They come to a lot of games, they're involved, they write us letters, they make phone calls to us. This is a big part of our Homecoming activities. Our alumni newsletter follows up with all of the news from the Homecoming.

Our campus is very cooperative and we work together with different groups on campus. That's what allows us to do so many things. This doesn't cost us anything and we get a ton of great publicity with it.

Once a year, we do a little newsletter called Bearcat Illustrated. We talk about some of the highlights of the last school year's performances. We do some fall sports preview in it. We send it out to all of our booster club members, all of the parents of student-athletes and that alumni list that I talked about, the previous letterwinners at Northwest. A lot of it is a compilation of stories that ran in other publications throughout the year. It doesn't cost a lot of money to do and it's nice. That is a good way to get out booster club information. We're getting ready to start our booster club drive. We'll run an ad in the summer Alumni News about joining the booster club.

In cooperation with the institutional advancement, we've done several regional alumni gatherings in the past. We've done that this year to celebrate our football championship. Our head football coach, our athletics director and several people from our campus have traveled to different cities, Phoenix, Omaha, St. Joseph. The alumni association has captains out in those cities and they get involved in getting alumni to attend. It costs them $10 to go and it doesn't cost us anything other than to get our people there. It's been a good way to regionally promote our institution. We have a lot of students in those areas.

Alumni are welcome to our tailgate parties. They have a special tailgate party at our Homecoming game and at some select road games. Those events have been very helpful. We couldn't do them without the help of our Alumni Association.

This fall and winter, we'll broadcast on the Internet all of our football and basketball games. Our alumni will be able to log on to the Internet from wherever they're at and listen to our games. I think this is so exciting for us. In the past, we've used that Teamline where you can dial in on your phone and pick up the broadcast of your game, but it cost people to do that. With the Internet, the possibilities are unlimited of what you can do. Our alumni will be excited about this.

Our biggest asset on our campus is the way we can communicate and cooperate with other areas. We try to do as many cooperative things as we can. Every year for football, we have a big Family Day event we do in cooperation with our admissions department. For every ticket a parent buys, we give them a ticket for their student to sit by them. All it costs us for Family Day is a few comp tickets. That's a huge football game.

We do a couple of basketball events. We're experimenting more with that and our admissions department is working on expanding what we do there. We need to work on how we can do that.

We couldn't do all of this without our publications department. We have a good working relationship with them. They have a ton of talent we can take advantage of. For the most part, they have designed most of what you see. Our new director of communication and marketing has been really outgoing to help us. With the Bobby Bearcat, he forked out that initial $2,500 for those printing supplies.

Cooperate with student affairs. They help us do some contests, promote events to campus groups, the fraternities, sororities and residence halls, etc. We try to cooperate as much as we can with academic areas. Two years ago, we had our home opening football game and called it Agriculture Day. We went together with the agriculture department on our campus and put together a brochure, mailed it out to graduates of that area and to local businesses. The academic area set up a morning session before the football game where people could come in and look at the department and projects they've been doing and learn about some of the new things that are going on in their department. At the football game, we honored three former football players who were agriculture majors or worked in agriculture. We tried to tie it all in together. It was a neat event. It got an academic area involved in what we're doing and that has since helped us.

I wanted to save a couple of minutes for questions and if not, I'd like you to take all of these brochures with you.

From the Floor:

Do you depend on your program sales with sponsors?

Matt Symonds:

We sell advertisements in our programs and then sell them at our games for $1. The goal of our program set-up is to cover the costs of all of our printing in our department for media guides, programs and other special printing. Since I've been at Northwest, printing is something we spend more and more money on each year. It's not that we're printing more things, it's that everybody wants better things. They want color photos on their media guides. They want more photos in their guides. They want different designs and sizes that cost more to print. Advertising is something that we need to look at seriously in order to keep up with the costs of our printing.

Thank you very much. Our next session will begin in five minutes.