Commentary

Urban planning: Existing alongside NFL

Originally Published: June 18, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is the first in a weeklong series examining the unique circumstances faced by FBS programs that reside in metropolitan markets alongside an NFL franchise.

Bill McGillis didn't know what he wanted to happen when he brainstormed the Big City Marketing Summit to life this winter. But he knew what he didn't want.

[+] EnlargeRaymond James Stadium
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesRaymond James Stadium in Tampa is the home of the Buccaneers of the NFL and University of South Florida. The Bulls have long searched for ways to make the stadium a destination on Saturdays as well as Sundays.

McGillis is the executive associate athletic director at South Florida, which shares a stadium and a market with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McGillis had the idea this past January to bring together all the FBS schools that share a metropolitan area with an NFL team.

"As I thought about South Florida and how to think about our strategic plan, our fan base and filling Raymond James Stadium," McGillis said, "I didn't feel like I needed to compare notes with the guy in Baton Rouge [LSU]."

In the best of times, athletic departments across the nation need to fill their football stadiums so as to pay the light bill for the rest of their sports. In case you haven't noticed, these aren't the best of times, which makes the need all the more acute.

On top of that, these schools have an extra burden. McGillis wanted to bring together people who understood what it's like to try to survive on Saturday when the media and the sponsorship dollars and the disposable income are attuned to Sunday.

What McGillis didn't want was a bunch of climbers who showed up with their résumés stamped on their foreheads: No networking, no "professional development," no PowerPoint jockeys trying to double-click their way to a new job.

"Instead of calling it the Big City Marketing Summit," McGillis said, "we considered calling it the First No BS Conference in College Sports. … Everybody wanted the same thing. We just wanted to get in a room and go from early to late on this one subject."

Most athletic meetings are clustered by conference or by job, and they are scheduled months or years in advance. McGillis found so much enthusiasm for the meeting that it came together in only three weeks. Marketers from 15 athletic departments across the country made their way to Clearwater, Fla., for the two-day meeting.

"Everybody wanted to do it early enough in the spring that it could affect our thinking for 2011-12 and beyond," McGillis said. "So we did it right after the Super Bowl, the next week."

The meeting included representatives from private schools and state universities and from seven conferences. The participants began at 8 a.m. and powered straight through the day into the evening. There's nothing like finding someone who understands you.

"It actually makes you feel better to hear all these other schools dealing with the exact same thing you are," said Darren Dunn, the senior associate athletic director at Houston.

As I thought about South Florida and how to think about our strategic plan, our fan base and filling Raymond James Stadium. I didn't feel like I needed to compare notes with the guy in Baton Rouge [LSU].

-- USF associate AD Bill McGillis

You can compare college football with the NFL by focusing on what it is not. The product on the field on Saturday is not as fast, not as skilled and not as powerful.

"There's a higher level of expectation when you come to the pro market," Dunn said. "They are used to coming to a very high-level entertainment value. So we need to provide a better entertainment value."

But the marketers point out what the NFL is not. When compared with college football, the NFL is not as affordable, not as family-friendly and not as emotional.

"The score matters a lot more here than the pro teams," Dunn said. "I think college fans are more passionate about wins and losses than pro fans are."

What they sell might differentiate college football from the NFL. How they sell it, however, is beginning to look the same. More and more urban universities have begun to adapt the sales techniques of professional teams. The idea that drew the most discussion at the Big City Marketing Summit was "outbound sales."

The traditional method of selling tickets by athletic departments has been "inbound," that is, customers come to the school. In other words, market outreach consisted of unlocking the door to the ticket office at 9 a.m. every weekday and waiting for the market to come to them. In a metropolitan area with many entertainment options, that added up to standing still in a sprint.

"College athletics is always slow to move in certain phases," Georgia Tech associate athletic director Wayne Hogan said. "We have a herd mentality. We do things because we've all always done them that way."

Professional teams have been hiring salespeople and paying them on commission for years. South Florida, in a market with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well as Major League Baseball and the NHL, has had its own sales force for about a decade, McGillis said.

In 2009, Hogan said, Georgia Tech had run out of ideas about how to fill 55,000 seats at Grant Field.

"We had tried just about everything we could think of," said Hogan, who did not attend the conference but came to outbound marketing another way.

Hogan read a story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how a former executive with the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers, Bernie Mullin, had started a company, Aspire, to telemarket ticket sales and had done wonders for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hogan called Mullin, and Georgia Tech soon hired Aspire.

The company installed 14 sales agents in the athletic department. They call -- and call and call -- from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. In two years, Aspire has generated $2.5 million in new season-ticket revenue. Aspire's commission is 34 percent. That's a healthy cut, but Hogan said Georgia Tech couldn't be happier.

"The training, extensive training, on how to engage the customer and close the deal -- we just don't have that kind of long-term expertise," Hogan said. "If you try to hire a long-term employee and they're not producing, you can't get rid of that person in a state system. If Aspire hires them and they're not producing, they're gone."

Since the success at Georgia Tech, Aspire has been hired by Rutgers and Maryland, two programs in NFL markets. Houston took the idea of an outbound sales force as practiced not by the NFL but by your local PTA. Anyone who has ever purchased gift wrap or kindling or candy from a middle school student would recognize how the Cougars do it.

"In big cities, you can't reach everybody," Dunn said. "Even though we have increased our sales force by two times to become more of an outbound company, we can't even scratch the surface. There are some pro teams that have 20 or 30 people selling. We have 10.

"We have engaged our loyal fans to help get out into the market and reach the company they are dealing with," Dunn said. "We incentivize to sell for us."

The volunteers are divided into teams, and the more the team sells, the better the prize: lunch with coach Kevin Sumlin; dinner at the home of athletic director Mack Rhoades; a sideline pass; travel to an away game as a member of the official team party.

[+] EnlargeThe Houston Cougars
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesHouston adopted its own approach to reach fans and, in the past year, has increased its season-ticket base by 72 percent.

In the past year, Houston has increased its season-ticket base by 72 percent to more than 11,000. The volunteer sales force sold approximately 2,000 of those new season tickets. Dunn said he doesn't know how many of the other urban schools have adapted the program.

"When I talked about that program we put together, a lot of people were writing down what we did and how we did it," Dunn said.

McGillis doesn't have a way to quantify how the meeting helped the attendees. There have been no follow-up surveys to pin down who took which idea and applied it where.

"Everybody in the room had been in the industry long enough to understand bits and pieces about different cities and different programs and different markets," McGillis said. "There were definitely going to be differences, but similarities as well."

What's important is that the meeting took place at all. McGillis, sans BS, tried to explain.

"I wanted to compare notes with someone who is facing similar challenges and the same great opportunities that I have here," he said. "And that's going to be people at institutions that share a market with NFL teams."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com