By Jay Hodgkins
Newswise — In its very first week, the Executive MBA Class of 2021 at the Darden School of Business got a crash course in Wahoo spirit with a tour of Scott Stadium — home field of the University of Virginia Cavaliers football team — and an inside look at football operations from leaders with the University athletics department.
Those events weren’t just fun and games, though. They provided the context for the capstone project of the 139-member cohort’s first weeklong residency on Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Students were tasked with presenting their best thinking for a case competition based on the case “Butts in Seat: Helping the UVA Athletic Department Fill Scott Stadium” authored by Darden Professors Jim Detert and Sean Martin. The competition finalists pitched ideas to increase attendance at UVA’s home football games to a panel of expert judges who live and breathe marketing UVA sports every day — Executive Associate Athletics Director Brittney Whiteside, Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Todd Goodale, Associate Athletics Director of Ticket Sales and Operations Corbin Hunt, Executive Associate Athletics Director and CFO Steve Pritzker, and Assistant Athletics Director for Strategic Marketing and Fan Engagement Greg Driscoll.
“The students presented their recommendations based on a case written by Darden professors specifically for this event,” said Detert, associate dean for executive degree programs and leadership initiatives. ”One thing that is special about Darden is there are very few other places that go to this length to serve students.”
Defining the Problem at the Turnstile
The popularity of college football is growing by many metrics, but not in a critical area for university revenue streams: at the turnstile. According to the NCAA, total college football attendance dipped for the seventh time in eight years in 2018, reaching the lowest mark in 22 years.
UVA faces not only the national trend but a decade of struggles on the field, until a recent resurgence to winning ways under Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall.
According to the Exec MBA student teams, average attendance fell 26 percent over the last 10 years, with attendance at 65 percent of Scott Stadium capacity in 2018. Only 32 percent of UVA students attended a game.
While conventional wisdom might suggest that winning football will increase attendance, each of the four finalist teams presenting to the judges sought to dispel that myth. They cited data showing that win-loss record had a surprisingly low correlation with attendance changes.
They argued that engaging the community, engaging students, a first-rate digital marketing and sales experience, and an enhanced game day experience beyond the product on the field were the real keys to get fans through the turnstiles.
From Esports to Rewards Programs to Leveraging UVA Basketball, Teams Make Their Pitch
Four finalist teams of five students each presented their plans to the judges.
Their ideas ranged from audacious plans for renovating Scott Stadium with premium seating areas to an esports arena to draw in a new generation of potential Wahoo fans. One group proposed a credit card-like rewards program, through which points-based incentives would encourage young alumni to attend games and thereby bridge the gap that often occurs between attending games as students and later as established professionals with disposable income.
To engage the local community, one proposal included recruiting more local businesses into the tailgating and in-stadium experience to enhance the quality of vending. Ideas to engage students included a lottery offering students the chance to attend a home game and win a full year of tuition. Almost every team proposed creative ways to package highly demanded tickets to see the reigning national champion UVA men’s basketball team as a way to drive up football sales.
The judges commended all of the teams for coming up with innovative, creative approaches to increase ticket sales in a short amount of time, and they ultimately chose a team that offered a clear short-term path to growing attendance.
The team comprised of Dillon Behr, Joe Hamilton, Leslie Hutchings, Amanda Michetti, Jon Olien and Chris Tucker and coached by Martin was named the winner by none other than Cavman, UVA’s mascot, who helped them lead their Executive MBA cohort in a rendition of the Good Old Song, sung by UVA fans in Scott Stadium after every home team score.
The students with the winning pitch proposed a three-pronged strategy:
- Leverage the success of the UVA men’s basketball team by offering special opportunities for football season ticket holders to secure men’s basketball season tickets.
- Engage students by doubling the points they receive by attending a football game to score limited student basketball tickets.
- First and foremost, enhance the UVA athletics department’s digital strategy through an improved customer journey on the website toward seamless ticket purchases, better search engine optimization and enhanced search engine marketing.
“If we continue to focus on digital strategy and make sure that buying tickets is really, really easy, the impact of being in front of people on a consistent basis will really improve our results,” Goodale said, explaining the judges’ selection.
And if the Executive MBA Class of 2021 can deliver a strategy for UVA to grow its football fan base in its first week at Darden, there’s no telling what other accomplishments their time at Darden will include.