Experts’ Roundtable: Marketing Strategies For Unbeaten Teams

With five ‘Group of 5’ football programs still unbeaten, athletic marketing departments at each institution have a prime opportunity to leverage their side’s success to date. AthleticDirectorU connected with external leaders at four of the unbeatens to dig in on the tactics and strategies they’re employing to maximize exposure and revenue. Ride the lightning. Crash the party.


Generally speaking, how are you planning to capitalize on the excitement around your football program?


Scott Carr (Deputy AD – Brand Activation – UCF): For us, it’s really just been a combination of continuing the excitement from last year with our undefeated, National Championship season and generating even more excitement around this year’s team.


We have been very intentional in building our brand the last few years through storytelling, using video, social media and traditional media.


We amplified our unique stories last year, including Shaquem Griffin, Rory Coleman as a Purple Heart recipient and McKenzie Milton finishing 8th in the Heisman.


For the current year, we planned for success ahead of time. Since January, we’ve been preparing for what was likely going to be one of the most anticipated football seasons in our history. This applies to promoting our new head football coach Josh Heupel, launching a Heisman (or should I say #HIsman?) campaign for McKenzie Milton and having a very aggressive ticket sales campaign. It also applies to our entire plan for football, including: game-day experience, student ticketing, dynamic pricing, adding premium areas and adding activation for fans of all ages.


We sold 10,250 new season tickets this year and have been working on the 2019 season ticket renewal plan for the past several months. We plan to launch renewals in October or November to take advantage of the success and excitement surrounding our football team. We’re also currently working with architects on designs to increase premium seating options for 2019, which would mark the fourth straight season we have added premium options.


Andrew Goodrich (Senior Assoc. AD – External Relations – USF): We want to leverage this success by expanding our base horizontally to increase new fans, by increasing our base vertically, by getting current customers to increase their investment into the program, and by collecting and analyzing new data to better understand our fanbase. Details into how we execute these initiatives are listed below:


1. Grow new target audiences to expand our fan base. (Horizontal Growth)


a. We did this by creating the USF Football Ambassador’s Program. We found a corporate partner, Valley National Bank, in this instance, to cover the cost of placing two additional game tickets into every single season ticket holder account. We sent personalized messages to each STM asking them to help us grow our fan base by forwarding the two digital tickets to someone who they believe is a great candidate to join the Bulls Family of football season ticket members.


When STM’s forward the tickets, it provides our sales team with robust data to create a significant sales lead lists of potential new Voucher Plan purchasers. We review the usage rate of the tickets, do follow up phone calls to each person who used the Ambassador tickets and in many cases, sold mini-plan packages for the remaining games. These accounts will evolve to become STM leads for the following year.


b. We reach out directly to former season ticket holder accounts who may be inspired by the great play to re-join our family in some capacity.


c. We invite corporate sponsors to purchase tickets for their employees, clients, or local charities who are more interested in coming to games now that we have proven to be a Top 25 caliber team.


2. Increase current fan investment into the football program. (Vertical Growth)


a. We do this by offering current customers the opportunity to increase the number of season tickets, purchase additional single game tickets, make additional donations to the annual fund, and purchase officially licensed USF gear from one of our retail partners.


b. One of the most effective up-sale programs so far has been identifying which accounts have already used tickets as of a part of ten-ticket digital voucher mini-plan we call Boundless Bulls. We’ve called each of these account holders with the primary purpose to verify that we are providing them with a fantastic game day experience, then our sales team representatives use this opportunity to encourage fans to order additional tickets for future games.


3. Collect and Review Data


a. Through our Text-A-Bull platform, we encourage fans to opt into a text messaging system that we use to effectively communicate important and entertaining information regarding the team.


b. Through both organic and paid campaigns on social media we track comments and engage fans to enhance our relationship with them.


c. Via post-game e-mail surveys to help us measure sentiment, satisfaction, and game day experience.


d. Review student ticketing usage rates to help us understand their behavior. For example, we will review student attendance by class, (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, or graduate students) as well as review unique student attendance figures to see if we are getting the same students each week or expanding our student fan base and measure the number of student guest tickets purchased each week.


Eric Gross (Deputy AD – External Operations – Buffalo): Right now we are focused heavily on selling tickets.  We have been very aggressive with our ticket sales, group sales and mobile ticket packages in an effort to capitalize on our success. Certainly, with the excitement growing around our program we have a great opportunity to attract new people to UB Stadium, showcase our game-day atmosphere and ultimately generate more revenue.


Winning also provides us with a very compelling case for support on the philanthropic side, so we’re working feverishly to push our Football Excellence Fund as well as other giving initiatives. Lastly, with all eyes on us right now, we have an incredible opportunity to engage our fan base and the Buffalo community, on a grassroots level.  From recently launching an aggressive social media campaign driven by our coaches and administrators to flooding the local area with Bulls flags, we are working hard to endear ourselves to our community and wrap our arms around an ever-growing fan base.


Ryan Peck (Executive Senior Assoc. AD – External Operations – North Texas): From a broad perspective, we have been strategic about trying to maximize the level of excitement around the program with various initiatives that will keep people talking about the Mean Green.  Earlier in the year when we hosted the first professional wrestling match at a collegiate football game, we were taking a page out of the “marketing outrageously” playbook to try something different for our fans.  We played into the wrestling history and tradition within UNT and the North Texas region, but we wanted to be bold and try something new. It was a calculated risk that we knew exactly what we needed to break-even on the promotion.


Simultaneously, we are working more diligently to extend the narrative each week via our communication channels to reach alumni and fans who we can bring back into the mix. The athletic success story speaks for itself, but we are being more deliberate with when and how we share that message to fans so that we can create a new ticket buyer or donor.


With each victory and the prospect of a continued undefeated season, how are you allocating (or, reallocating) your advertising budget each week?


Carr (UCF): We made the strategic decision back in February of 2018 to create a position we call Director of Discovery and Advertising. We hired Michelle Stenger for this role back in May and she oversees our advertising. We spend very little on traditional advertising. Instead, we focus on digital advertising and do a lot of our spending in real time. We launch digital campaigns and add dollars to successful campaigns. With less successful campaigns, we will pivot and tweak the campaign until we see more success. Our paid searches are currently seeing an ROI of more than $5 generated for every dollar spent, while our social media campaigns come in around $7:1.


We also strategically set up each home football game for success and planned for a sellout for our game vs. Pittsburgh on September 29. We wanted to have a sellout early in the season to create demand for the remaining games. We made Pitt Family Weekend, which traditionally results in strong single-game sales. We booked Phil Vassar for our Tailgate Concert Series. As a result of all that preparation, this game will be a sellout and may be one of the most-attended games in the history of Spectrum Stadium.


Goodrich (USF): We are very proactive in our advertising strategies. We constantly review the effectiveness of our advertising regarding of our team’s performance. That being said, the team’s performance does affect our marketing mix, the messaging, and the content we choose to share.


Regarding our marketing mix, winning has perks in the form of earned media. Media coverage of our program on television, radio, print, and digital mediums has increased significantly over the course of the last four weeks. We use Meltwater to track our traditional media coverage and our digital strategist Joey Johns tracks all the social media coverage. For example, if we know that we are getting more printed stories in our local paper, we may elect to remove a printed ad for that week and replace it with a digital billboard on the highway to help ensure we are getting our messaging seen as widely as possible.


The underlying messaging we used leading up to the season, which focused more on our past success has evolved to reflect our undefeated record, five consecutive victories over “Power” conference opponents, and a promise for a championship caliber season.


I’d debate with our staff that we are evolving from a more logical, fact based, content strategy to a more emotional based strategy. (FYI, we encourage a lot of healthy debate.) At the beginning of the season we created content that used facts and figures to encourage fans to take actions to support our program. For example, we shared that our football team had been ranked for 21 consecutive weeks and we had scored more than 30 or more points in 25 consecutive games. But, now that we are undefeated in this season and getting major contributions from student-athletes who we couldn’t predict would be so impactful, we are telling their emotional stories of redemption and defying expectations. These positive emotions are contagious, and we make to share these stories to inspire others to join the Bulls family.


Gross (Buffalo): With each passing week we are assessing and reassessing how we are allocating our financial resources so we can capitalize on our on-field success and momentum.  Understanding that we are not yet half-way through the season, we want to be judicious with our resources, yet aggressive enough to maximize the opportunities that come with each subsequent win.  For now, we will continue to operate within our advertising budget and work with our media partners to strategically deploy our ad buys, perhaps sooner rather than later.


To be sure, we have realized a significant uptick in added-value from our local media partners through social media and an unprecedented number of media requests for appearances from our coaches and student-athletes, thereby maintaining our exposure at no cost.  As our success continues, we will look to infuse our budget with additional dollars as necessary.


Peck (North Texas): At the very beginning of the season, our Executive Team met to discuss the marketing and advertising plan and how additional resources could be needed or shifted as the year progressed.  This did not necessarily change our processes and planning that was implemented over the summer; however, we wanted to be ready to make strategic adjustments and feel that we have been thus far to capitalize on the success.  I am grateful to have an AD in Wren Baker who has a supreme understanding of external affairs and is extremely savvy on social media. To have his support and willingness on trying new things, and implement BIG ideas, has really been the driver for the success of our external team.


Which attendance or ticket sales metrics are most important to your organization given your current winning streak? And, are you adjusting per-game or full-season goals given your momentum?


Carr (UCF): Our first goal is to sell out. As mentioned in the previous question, we strategically attempt to sell out a game as early in the season as possible to create demand for other games.


A close second goal is revenue. As it relates to revenue, we focus more on our premium seating and how we can add additional premium experiences that are desired by our fanbase and the Orlando market. We have family and young alum pricing for season tickets starting as low as $99. We also have suites, field cabanas, loge cabanas, etc. that are priced for $2,000 or more per seat for the season.


We will also implement dynamic pricing, based on inventory, to maximize revenue. But we’ll be a bit conservative with that dynamic pricing to ensure we get the sellout.


Goodrich (USF): We will not adjust our per-game or full-season attendance and revenue goals as they are developed based on years of data and are tied to our university budgets. But, it does not stop us from working to do everything to maximize our revenue and attendance on a per game basis. Our advertising budget is the same in 2018 as it was in 2017 and the four major metrics we track on a per game basis are listed below. When we compare the first three games of 2017 to the first three games of 2018 we see pretty significant growth.



Gross (Buffalo): Ticket sales and the resulting revenue are significant metrics to us.  Through these metrics we can identify which of our ticket offerings our fans are purchasing, evaluate the appeal of those offerings and sometimes gauge the effectiveness of our efforts to sell.  To be sure, we are always, always looking to move the needle on the revenue side so the dollars and cents are critically important. Of course it is central to our external mission to provide our coaches and student-athletes with a great game-day atmosphere and that starts with robust attendance, so we do appraise the strength of our actual attendance.  At this time we are not adjusting any goals, but we will expect that with every win we continue to see our ticket sales increase game-over-game.


Peck (North Texas): Since we’re coming off a successful 2017 football season, we started the year with aggressive goals for our ticketing staff and even all external units.  These goals were a direct reflection of the Strategic Plan unveiled a year and a half ago. While we are not necessarily adjusting the per-game or full-season goals at this time, I am tracking the daily sales, student tickets uploaded, and total distributed number to determine the level of excitement and how we may need to slightly adjust strategy leading up to any particular game.


As a true believer in the process, I am confident in our staff and the plans developed many months ago before the season started to maximize results and drive success. At this point, I really just try to make minor adjustments and shift priorities slightly if we collectively feel that we can move the needle in a particular area. Naturally, I want to see increased percentages across the board in all of our metrics, and those desired increases reaffirm that we have the proper processes in place.


How much time are you spending on marketing plans for 30 or even 60 days from now?


Carr (UCF): We’re definitely focused on the current/upcoming home games, to sell tickets and build the brand. But we’re also spending quite a bit of time on 60 days out. As mentioned previously, we’re also gearing up for our 2019 renewal launch, so we’re spending quite a bit of time on that (decisions regarding pricing, additional premium seating, parking, etc.)


Goodrich (USF): This is a daily task for me. While I may not spend more than thirty minutes a day, I do review our short term and long term advertising plans, advertising statistics, ticket sales metrics, secondary market prices, post-game fan surveys, and social media sentiment to help determine if we need to make any adjustments in our advertising and strategic communications plans to ensure we provide our student-athletes with a home-field advantage.


Gross (Buffalo): We are certainly beginning to plan and prepare for eventualities.  Last week we brought all of our external units together for what became a two-hour dialogue about the next 90 days.  In addition to evaluating our current marketing action plan for the months ahead, we embarked on an ideation session to address all of our external objectives with each consecutive win, and to generate new ideas to capitalize on that success moving forward.  Our goal is to be proactive rather reactive, so we can create and control our surroundings as much as possible over the course of what we hope to be an undefeated season.


Peck (North Texas): In our external meetings, we have discussed the future initiatives that we need to be preparing for over the next 60 days so that we are fully prepared and ready to capitalize on the hot start.  Speaking like a coach, we are still naturally focusing on the next game and taking it one game at a time so our attendance, game experience, and in-game atmosphere continue to improve. At the same time, I am urging our staff to continue to cross-promote other programs and their success, especially as we are leading up to basketball season.  With the hype and excitement of football at an all-time high, it creates an increased level of interest from a wide variety of fans that we want into the mix on a regular basis.


Who else on your campus is involved in the marketing discussion and decisions at this point in time? Will that change in another month if your football program is still undefeated?


Carr (UCF): We have a very strong relationship with our colleagues across campus. In fact, I have a dual report to our Athletics Director and our Vice President for Communications and Marketing on campus. This has really helped with communication and collaboration between our departments. We also have a very supportive President and university as a whole. They trust us to handle our business in Athletics. But we couldn’t be as successful without their support and collaboration.


Goodrich (USF): We, in USF Athletics, are responsible for the marketing, advertising, branding, and promotions of our programs, but we have a strong group of university communications and marketing administrators who offer fantastic counsel and we often present ideas to them in advance to get candid feedback, as well as to ensure that our messaging is consistent with the overall university messaging. We follow a popular Jon Gordon axiom, “Whenever there is a void in communication, it is filled with negativity.” Therefore, we consistently share our marketing plans and nothing would change if we continued to win.


Gross (Bufflao): We are currently running point on everything.  Although, in the coming months, assuming our success continues, we will begin to engage our on-campus counterparts to coordinate a comprehensive campus wide marketing and communications effort, likely centered on not just athletics but also institutional branding.  This becomes ever more important as we approach the conference championship and bowl games.


Peck (North Texas): The great thing about success is that it brings together others on campus who are willing and want to help within their areas.  We are grateful at UNT to have support from units all across campus throughout the year. Personally, I try to over communicate the various new initiatives we are implementing to other campus units so they can do their part in spreading the message and reaching new/different constituent groups.  By keeping the decision makers informed for those particular units (Advancement, Alumni, Marketing/Communications, Student Affairs, etc.) informed, they have been great partners in extending the message being created in Athletics.