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Jim Collins’ 2001 landmark book Good to Great was a significant influence upon me as a businessperson, providing lessons that continue to resonate even today. In the aftermath of the past few months—following the MLS soccer stadium debate, the 2017 football season, and other, less prominent events--I’ve come to realize it offers lessons that can also be applied as a framework for Vanderbilt athletics, too. I’m not a coach or a former athlete and won’t pretend to generate meaningful solutions that will make Vandy more competitive on the field of play. I’m a consultant who has significant career experience as a marketer and strategic planner, so I’m comfortable making recommendations that will make Vandy more competitive in the consumer marketplace.
One of Collins’ basic tenets is that organizations must confront the brutal facts of their reality before they can make the jump from good (or worse) to great. What follows are the brutal facts that I believe Vanderbilt athletics must confront about the reality of sporting event attendance and the economics of the 21st century. Again, these are not intended to be the brutal facts regarding what the university must do to win more games. After all, Nick Saban could probably win a national championship on talent and coaching alone while playing games inside an oversized television studio with fan noise piped in. But confronting the following realities won’t hurt Vandy’s competitiveness on the field, either.
Live event attendance will be a challenge, regardless of the on-field product. Vandy’s 2008 Tennessee home football game was the first leading indicator of this that I can recall. If there were ever a time for Vandy fans to pack their own stadium, it was this contest. Despite the slide from a thrilling 5-0 start, Vandy had already secured a bowl bid for the first time since 1982 and could clinch a winning season by beating its archrival. UT had fired Phil Fulmer and was assured of a losing season, and many Vol fans stayed home. And even with students on Thanksgiving break, there was ample reason for the stadium to be brimming with Commodore fans that day. Yet the game didn’t sell out and the stadium wasn’t filled. (Announced attendance: 38,725.) Sure, there had been many games with lackluster attendance prior to 2008. But that day was a vivid demonstration of how limited the local market potential can be.
That was a decade ago. Already at a historical disadvantage due to its size and academic restrictions, Vandy is now operating in an era when many schools struggle to fill their stadiums and arenas, where streaming video and beautiful big screen televisions offer a compelling alternative to the live game experience, and where fans are increasingly sophisticated about the investment in time and money required to attend events. Plus, VU competes in a local market where the Titans and the Predators (and soon MLS) play, too.
There’s also the increasingly inescapable conclusion that Millennials (and Gen Z) are never going to embrace live sports attendance like Baby Boomers. They’ll still occasionally attend games, but it’s not nearly as important to them. And when they do attend, it will be for reasons other than just seeing their favorite team play live. In fact, many fans may hardly watch the game at all. For them, it’s a social event.
Vanderbilt will continue to be a popular destination for opposing fans. Nashville is a large, centrally-located, popular tourist-oriented city that’s easy to reach. The city’s size and economic growth also means there are many fans of opposing teams residing in Middle Tennessee. Opposing fans expect an easy win in Nashville as much as any other Power Five destination. Vandy has the same challenge as other national, academically-elite private schools, but it’s on steroids because of its location in the heart of SEC nation.
Sadly, I think many of the more casual fans of Vanderbilt sports—already low on self-esteem--are easily intimidated even in their home stadium by environments where thousands of opposing fans show up. And it only gets worse with time. When VU fans stay home to watch the Dores playing on television in the confines of Dudley Field, many have to be thinking, "That doesn’t look like much fun...I think I’ll stay home again next week."
Speaking of television…the on-screen presentation of Vanderbilt games is as important as the in-person experience. In early 2011, right after James Franklin was named coach, I responded to a VUAD survey seeking input on ways to improve the football fan experience. In my response, I focused solely upon the on-screen experience of watching Vanderbilt football—the engagement with the Vanderbilt brand that substantially eclipses the in-person experience in terms of breadth of audience exposure (albeit not in depth). There are many more thousands of people watching Vanderbilt on television than in person. Subsequently, some changes were made to enhance the VU brand as viewed by a global audience, most notably better on-field graphics and improved stadium lighting.
But television viewers who watch a Vanderbilt game are often presented with the sight of opposing fans’ team colors filling the east stands (and, sometimes, empty student seats--more on that later.) And it’s subsequently mocked on social media.
It raises a legitimate if unpleasant question: would empty seats be a better look on television than stands filled with opposing fans?
Students are usually just a microcosm of the larger fanbase. Vandy students are a convenient scapegoat for attendance issues, due in part to the visibility of their seats from the press box. They deserve some blame, of course--they have few excuses for missing games. But that logic is flawed for two reasons. We non-students first need to look in the mirror and realize undergraduates are often exhibiting the same behavior we’re guilty of, i.e. staying home and doing something else with their Saturday afternoon or evening. (Hey, at least they’re not selling their tickets to opposing fans.) It’s not like the remainder of the stadium is filled with Commodore fans for those games. And student attendance at sporting events is a national challenge not limited to Nashville. It’s just more noticeable at Vanderbilt due to the relatively modest size of the undergraduate population and the on-camera visibility of their seats in a small stadium.
Traditional advertising alone won’t do it. One of the most common refrains I hear from my fan brethren is that Vanderbilt’s marketing is ineffective or non-existent, in part because they say they don’t see any traditional advertising from the athletic department. No outdoor advertising, no television commercials, no radio ads. I don’t know Vandy’s marketing plan, but the absence of traditional advertising doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t any marketing occurring. I do know this, however: in an increasingly expensive and cluttered market environment, traditional advertising by itself won’t motivate Millennials (and increasingly, other generations) to attend games, let alone reach them in the first place.
A new or renovated stadium alone won’t do it. See Duke University, circa 2017.
Nashville has a high level of exposure in the world of college sports media right now. It’s the home of ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, Fox Sports’ and Twitter titan Clay Travis, ESPN Radio’s Jason Fitz, and several SiriusXM ESPNU Radio hosts (Chris Childers, Braden Gall, Rachel Baribeau). There are also quite a few individuals in the national sports media with Vanderbilt and Nashville ties. Like it or not, Vanderbilt sports is going to get more than its share of national criticism because of it, but the university can also turn that into a promotional opportunity by innovating and doing things that leverage that exposure to generate positive publicity.
There will likely be a massive shift in the college sports media landscape, perhaps as soon as 2023 when the current Power Five conference deals begin to expire. Although ESPN’s deal with the SEC doesn’t expire until 2034, there are signs on the horizon that point to a sea change in how television rights are awarded. There’s widespread consensus that future rights deals won’t be as lucrative given the current trends in ratings and cord cutting. There’s also the likelihood that the next players for the rights to "tent pole" events like the college football playoff may include digital-only platforms such as Netflix. And what happens if Amazon says, "We’re going to facilitate the creation of a football superconference consisting of Alabama, Ohio State, USC, etc., but here’s the catch. We’ll give you hundreds of millions of dollars, but you can only play each other. No games against Mercer, Georgia State, or even Vanderbilt." VU and much of the rest of the FBS may be left to fight for scraps.
Once Vanderbilt has confronted the brutal facts of its reality, what’s next? The athletic department needs to identify its Hedgehog Concept—as Collins writes, "A simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine." To that end, here are four strategies Vanderbilt must pursue if it wants to be successful in the 21st century marketplace. It’s not enough to scream "Build a new stadium!" And as noted, these are not intended to address directly Vandy’s on-field competitiveness. I don’t know enough to claim with authority what facility or equipment athletes and coaches need. But I want them to have whatever it takes.
I. Adopt an experience economy business model. For diehards like me, it’s difficult to admit that many fans no longer go to the game simply to watch what’s happening on the field. Some don't watch at all. Vanderbilt must do far more to leverage that reality.
While I don’t have access to the numbers, I’ve surmised that VU must offer fewer premium revenue experiences than any other SEC school, even on a per-seat basis. For passionate Commodore fans that have the money, there are relatively few ways of spending those dollars on premium experiences. And while many fans and members of the media have argued Vandy should decrease seating capacity in Vanderbilt Stadium from 40,000 to 35,000 or even 30,000 seats, the university must then address how to recoup that lost revenue (even if much of it is admittedly generated by opposing fans). Vandy’s success metrics must include not just butts in seats, but also revenue per capita.
Even Florida is headed in this same direction. Athletic director Scott Stricklin says the years of the Gators putting as many people as possible into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium are over. "That’s not as important as quality and making sure you’re creating an environment that people want to come and participate in. The days of fans being OK sitting three hours on a piece of aluminum, I think, are gone. So we’ve got to find ways to upgrade the overall quality."
It’s not just football, either. The fan experience in Memorial Gym is also due for an upgrade, and yes, that venue also needs to be downsized. For starters, replace many of the seats in sections 2A through 2K (the ones that are obstructed by the third level balcony and where fans can’t see the center court video screen) with premium box seating that includes video displays.
There are plenty of aspirational models from which Vanderbilt can learn. The Predators are just down the street, of course, and MLS provides some excellent gameday experiences as well. There are numerous examples from outside the sports world, too. Theme parks and other large-scale attractions offer a wealth of lessons on how to treat customers and provide memorable, revenue-generating guest experiences (including my former employer). They need not always be big investments, either—sometimes it’s the little things that create the biggest moments.
Vanderbilt needs a senior staff member with the title or responsibility of gameday czar to oversee the entire fan experience for major sporting events. (Had one existed, the completely dysfunctional scoreboard in the south end zone of Vanderbilt Stadium would have been torn down and sold for scrap years ago.) The gameday experience is too important as one of the pillars of Brand Vanderbilt to not have someone whose sole responsibility is to identify opportunities for experience enhancement and troubleshoot problems. This includes tailgating, which is an essential part of the gameday experience and where memories are made regardless of the outcome of the game.
The current football stadium is indeed serviceable for watching a game. The problem is, it’s no longer good enough for the FBS football experience to be just serviceable. It can’t be treated as a commodity. Even minor league baseball recognizes that the experience is everything. "New venues are completely different from old venues," the mayor of Huntsville suburb Madison, Alabama said after his city recently approved the construction of a new minor ballpark. "Go to Busch Stadium in St. Louis and go to the new Busch Stadium now - it's a completely different look and feel. Birmingham, Nashville - you've seen them with party areas where people can go and groups can come for all the food and beverage of their choice. Sometimes they don't even know the score at the end of the game."
TCU’s athletic leadership gets it. When the university (another private school which plays in a highly competitive market) announced the first phase of its stadium renovation in 2010, the plan included upgraded seating, club seats, and a number of lounge areas conducive to socializing. They also downsized the stadium. Now, TCU is again further recognizing where its future lies by announcing the addition of even more premium seating in a renovation to be completed in 2019: "The expansion will include 48 loge boxes with two private clubs, over 1,000 club seats and 20 luxury suites. There will also be a 100-foot outdoor balcony overlooking Frog Alley, the TCU campus and downtown Fort Worth as well as vast additional premium space that can be used for outside events on game days."
Both TCU stadium renovations have been funded through donations and sponsorships. No university dollars. No long-term debt. TCU has access to oil money and many of its supporters have fared well in recent years. But it worked because of leadership like former AD Chris del Conte (now the AD at the University of Texas) and because the university pursued the next strategy.
II. Have a vision, develop a plan, and make an ask. Another common refrain from Commodore fans is that the school doesn’t commit sufficient dollars or even endowment funds to the upgrade of athletic facilities. Vanderbilt can’t take dollars from its endowment and shouldn’t divert significant funds from its operating budget to athletics. Simply put, the university doesn’t have to mix academic and athletic dollars. The school can raise both quite successfully if it wants to do so.
There has never been a better time to generate funds for a major capital initiative. (Vanderbilt must think so, given its announcement of a $600 million residential building project.) With the Dow around 25,000 (give or take a few thousand points), the coming generational transfer of Baby Boomer wealth, still-relatively low interest rates, a thriving local economy, bountiful television rights dollars, and the lucrative opportunity for corporate naming rights, the fundraising window for Vanderbilt athletic facilities is wide open. The only real barrier is that construction costs in Nashville are out of sight…but again, that hasn’t stopped the university from taking on a bevy of other building projects.
And if asked, I believe Vanderbilt supporters will respond if there is indeed a strong vision and carefully considered plan for new athletic facilities. As just one example of fundraising potential, the ten classes represented at my last VU Reunion for which I chaired my class's fundraising committee (in fall 2016) surpassed their overall goal by $1.5 million, and nine of the ten Reunion classes surpassed their individual goals. No, asking for money for support of the university’s academic programs or scholarships is not the same as asking for money for a stadium renovation or other athletic facility. But that’s why there has to be a genuine vision, a specific plan, and a reasoned ask. No one is mailing a check to VUAD in the absence of such. It’s hard work, but it can be done with intelligent planning and committed leadership.
III. Embrace lifetime value of the customer. I don’t believe this is a strength of many college athletic programs, most of which are oriented towards their current major donors and sponsors. That’s understandable, because they represent cash-in-hand. But that doesn’t mean Vanderbilt athletics can’t and shouldn’t do more to consider the long-term revenue potential of their customers, whether it’s a current student, recent graduate, long-time sidewalk alumna, or a newcomer to the Nashville area. Vanderbilt athletics must get more sophisticated about understanding the revenue potential that all of its fans represent, and that the care and feeding of those supporters is tied to its future financial health.
Let’s look at just four very modest examples of how Vandy can promote customer retention:
Do more to welcome former Vanderbilt student athletes. This loyal, high value customer segment should be provided with two things upon their return to campus: free tickets to any VU sporting event they request (when available), and a warm reception. One of the last things any program wants is an ex-student athlete trashing them on social media or another communications platform. Many of them have large followings on social media, and often achieve very successful careers after their playing days are done.
Improve the relationship between ticketing and fans. Vanderbilt is probably no different from many athletic departments in that the relationship between the ticket office and its fans is sometimes antagonistic and fraught with frustration. But for many fans, their deepest (or only) personal engagement with the school is through the ticket office. The ticketing staff are gate keepers to the university and the managers of a vital personal relationship between the school and supporters. It’s the first date with the athletic department. That’s a relationship that is worth literally millions of dollars.
Speaking of first dates…leverage the few available high value opportunities that exist for saying "thank you." As an example, let’s start with the National Commodore Club tailgate before every home football game in 2017. I hate to sound harsh, but it fails miserably to live up to its promise. I don’t mind paying extra to attend an event like this, but for $17 it ought to consist of something other than lukewarm hamburgers, hot dogs, and mediocre beer. (As my non-beer drinking wife reminded me, there’s also no wine. And my teenager has to pay the adult fee even though she can’t drink the beer.) This ought to be an affair that makes other fans envious and wanting to know how to sign up for the next one. Here, too, is an opportunity to have an NCC rep go to each table and personally thank each member for their support. If you live out of town like I do, that would mean a lot. (Indeed, VUAD outreach to all non-Nashville resident alums could be improved.)
Respond in a timely manner to all fan communication. On the evening of Perry Wallace’s passing on December 1, 2017, I tweeted that a fitting tribute to Wallace would be renaming the stretch of 25th Avenue running through campus. I followed up with a written letter early the next week to both Athletic Director David Williams II and Chancellor Nick Zeppos. No one ever followed up with a response. I don’t expect a personal phone call or a gushing response saying how wonderful I am for proposing this. I’d just like an acknowledgement that the university has received my letter and is considering how to best honor Wallace’s legacy.
(As an update to this, in spring 2019 I called the National Commodore Club to inquire when I had last renewed my membership. The person answering the phone was not able to access my record and said someone would call me back. Three business days later, I was still awaiting a return call. It shouldn't be that hard to give NCC my money!)
IV. Continuously manage the visual brand. I’m probably more obsessed about this than most people because of my marketing background and my pet peeve of seeing subtle-but-meaningful things ignored for years. For instance, it drives me crazy whenever I see the bright yellow trashcan at Hawkins Field with the old Gerry DiNardo-era logo show up on television. It’s the same logo that graced the exterior of the press box at Vanderbilt Stadium for years after VU had finally transitioned to the Star V as its primary brand identity, and the same one that was stitched into Spirit of Gold uniforms long past their prime.
As noted earlier, there are many more thousands of eyeballs watching Vanderbilt sports on television and online than in person. The university must commit to a better on-screen presentation of its brand, something that has to be cultivated at every possible opportunity. This strategy encompasses tactics such as actively managing camera shots (VU can’t find a few fans who are always guaranteed to fill these seats with black and gold?), recognizing how to better stage social media photo opportunities to protect and enhance brand equity, fixing disconnects like this (the branding of which is just a poor knockoff anyway), and finding ways of keeping opposing fans and their colors from dominating the camera’s view of the stadium. It matters to fans both at the game and at home.
I know what you’re thinking. The success of all four of these strategies is still contingent on 1) winning, 2) a plan for upgraded facilities, and 3) a commitment from the university. All true. But the first two alone won’t be sufficient, and just simply throwing money at the problem doesn’t guarantee long-term success, either. The college sports landscape is changing once again, and Vandy must respond in a way that is intelligent and reflective of reality. Anything less is doomed to failure and likely puts VU even further behind the curve of change and does a disservice to its loyal fans.
I care a great deal for Vanderbilt and will forever be a fan of the young women and men who represent the black and gold, but even I see that doing nothing in this environment--or doing the wrong things—will have serious consequences.