Virginia Tech AD focused on 'fan engagement' this football season

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Virginia Tech sold out 93 consecutive home football games from 1998-2012, a streak that reflected not only the Hokies' national emergence but also college football's burgeoning appeal. Last year, fans filled Lane Stadium once in six dates, again mirroring micro and macro issues.

Yes, some faithful spectators were disenchanted with Tech's 7-6 finish in 2012, the program's worst record since 1992. And no, the 2013 home schedule was not littered with marquee opponents.

But the Hokies have plenty of company from their major-conference brethren as schools nationwide wrestle with declining crowds, especially among students. Alabama coach Nick Saban, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione are among the heavyweights who have voiced concern.

Approaching his first football season as Virginia Tech's athletic director, Whit Babcock considers the attendance challenge paramount and is likely to create a new position dedicated solely to, using his phrase here, "fan engagement."

"I don't know that people (nationally) took the fans for granted, but maybe they did," Babcock said. "But now the realization is, you'd better be out in front … because if you wait to react, it's too late. We may very well make a hire that is dedicated to these type of things."

Babcock is neither brave nor foolish enough to go nuclear on Tech's game-day operation without having observed the process for himself. But he's not so blithe or naïve as to advocate status quo.

So spectators can expect some changes when the Hokies open at home Aug. 30 versus William and Mary.

Kickoff time is one tweak. While former athletic director Jim Weaver often chose 1:30 p.m., for the Hokies' annual game against a Championship Subdivision opponent — television dictates times for all other dates — Babcock elected 3:30. That was clearly a nod to the tailgate mavens who detest early kickoffs.

Bigger picture, Babcock anticipates a less-commercialized approach throughout the season on Lane's $4 million video board, which debuted last season.

Relentless in-stadium sales pitches were among the primary fan complaints cited in a June essay by John U. Bacon, author of "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football." Bacon's online post focused on the University of Michigan, where he teaches, but was read widely by administrators elsewhere such as Babcock.

Bacon wrote that oft-cited reasons for lagging attendance — spotty cell/internet signals in stadiums and high-definition televisions at home — are not the overarching problem. Passionately and convincingly, he made the case that college football's complete abdication to the networks, starting with game times often determined a mere 12 days in advance, makes ticket-buyers "feel like suckers" for tolerating increasing prices, countless TV timeouts and meandering lines for concessions and restrooms.

Sure, the billions that networks such as ESPN, CBS and Fox pay in rights fees are indispensable to athletic departments. But empty seats make for lousy TV, and neglecting your most loyal and avid supporters is perilous.

Babcock said Tech will survey fans, students and otherwise, this season about their priorities. A similar effort at Michigan recently revealed a simple request from among students, and it wasn't a stronger cell signal: They want to sit with their friends, which, it seems, the school had made more difficult.

Riffing off a blog Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban posted in February after attending a Southern Methodist University basketball game, Babcock said, "If (students) are having a good time at the game, they're not looking at their phone. If they're bored, or it's not what they want, then they'll look at their phone."

Babcock this fall will also continue a practice he started during basketball season: employing a secret-shopper service to observe and evaluate the fan experience. Most important, he will mingle.

"I actually move around a lot on game days," Babcock said. "I don't stay in the suites. I don't travel with a bodyguard, so to speak. I guess if our fans start booing me and throwing things at me, I may change. I will be seen on game day, in the parking lots, on the concourses, in the suites … in the restrooms."

Wisely measured expansion increased Lane Stadium's capacity to 65,632, a modest number that only North Carolina attracted to Blacksburg last year. A Thursday night game against Miami and the regular-season finale versus Virginia figure to fill the seats this season, but Babcock assumes nothing.

"Maybe we outpriced the market," he said of the sport in general. "(We thought), if you drop your seats, we've got some people (in line) behind you that will take those. I better not hear that mentality around here. I think those days are gone."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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