By Donna A. Lopiano
At many institutions there are sports in which little effort has been made to develop a fan base or generate significant revenue. Coaches may have been asked to raise revenues. However, left to their own limited experience and time constraints, the result may not be much more than an annual alumni solicitation, alumni game or golf tournament. Administrators should consider a more methodical approach to revenue development and one which will result in sustained growth over the long term. Coaches can and should still be given a primary role but administrators must also be involved in ensuring fans and donors that the entire athletics department is committed to supporting the sport. Sports initially selected for such development, should those having a controlled access playing facility where tickets can be sold for admission and those which also have access to a pre- and post-competition meeting place for fans and donors.
- Identification of Core Supporters as a Year One Priority. Among the coaching staff, a sufficient number of personal friends, parents of summer campers and athletes, and whatever small existing fan base as currently exists should be identified. This list should be personally solicited by the coaches with a goal of generating 50-100 new prospective season ticket buyers and members of that sport’s booster club, which should be a subunit within the larger athletic department umbrella annual donor organization. The season ticket price should be reasonable and should include the buyer being a charter member of the sport’s booster club. The bulk of these friends will most likely not be alumni. This is a group whose members have an existing affinity for the sport and probably close friendships with the coaching staff. All good fundraising starts with friend-raising. The goals in Year One are: (1) to build around a solid core of supporters, no matter how small the number, (2) to establish the existence of a season ticket and (3) to establish the existence of a “booster club” experience.
- The Booster Club. Beginning in Year One, the booster club should meet prior to every home game to receive a scouting report from an assistant coach and to introduce one “key concept” lesson about the sport that booster club members would be asked to look for during the game. If possible, this pre-game meeting should allow for the purchase of a pre-game snack and drinks in a social setting. The club should also gather immediately after every game to meet the coach for a post-game report and to meet selected players who will be asked to comment on the game. The head coach and players would also participate in an audience Q&A session. These activities are designed to establish strong affiliation relationships, keys to increasing donor support and spectator commitment. It doesn’t matter how big this first year group is. You have to start somewhere and in many respects, a smaller group allows for a more intimate experience. This “premium” gathering is key to developing a season ticket base.
- Introduce-A-Friend Ticket Books. Also beginning in Year One, each season ticket holder should receive an “Introduce A Friend” ticket book in addition to his or her season tickets. This book should containing 20 tickets that could be used at any home game during the season and is a gift to the season ticket buyer - no extra charge. Each ticket holder would be asked to use the tickets to introduce new friends to the sport program. The season ticket holder would also be asked to bring their guests to the pre- and post-game booster club events. These guests would form the core for the following year’s season ticket solicitation.
- Guest Coach Program. Faculty and key donors should be invited to be “guest coaches” at each home game, receiving an informal scouting report from the head coach during pre-game warm-ups, meeting the team in the locker room and listening to the pre-game talk, sitting behind or on the bench during the game and attending at the post-game booster club meeting. A development staff member or athletic department administrator should be assigned to chaperone this group and participate in the post-game booster club meeting as cultivation opportunities.
- Year Two Season Ticket Drive. Two months prior to the start of the season, an annual season ticket drive should be established using the most committed sport supporters. The primary targets for the drive are all those people who came to games in the previous year on “Introduce A Friend” tickets. A local hotel sponsor would be asked to sponsor the season ticket drive by hosting six weekly wine and cheese receptions for the team draft (Week One), sales materials and rules session (Week Two) and four subsequent weekly ticket sales reporting receptions. Five to six “teams” would be assembled via a fun “draft” reception in Week One. Captains would be pre-identified and would engage in a formal draft for team members, with each team selecting five to 10 members. The teams would convene at the second reception in Week 2 to be introduced, receive team t-shirts and receive season ticket brochures and sales report materials. At this meeting, rules would be reviewed regarding the team and individual sales competitions. At each of the next four receptions, teams would convene to deliver their checks and season ticket applications. Weekly individual sales winners and team winners would be announced and receive prizes (i.e., licensed merchandise, donated gifts such as dinner for two at local restaurants, etc.). At the last reception, overall individual sales and team sales winners would receive awards (i.e., plane tickets for two to anywhere in the USA donated by a travel agency, etc.). The highlight at each reception would be a returning player introducing a new freshman recruit and the coach commenting on his or her expectations for both players during the coming season, followed by an informal Q&A session. Once again, as in Year One year, each season ticket holder would receive a “Introduce A Friend” ticket book. Committed execution of such a plan, to be repeated for the first 4-5 years of the fan/ticket buyer/donor initiative should result in exponential growth of season ticket holders each year.
While the sport coaching staff needs to take major responsibility for the execution of this plan, general athletics department support is required as follows:
- Athletic director and development staff attendance at home games and booster club events. This is where new prospective donors and ticket buyers develop their affinity to the program and are cultivated.
- Sports communication staff or other athletics department staff serving as MC for pre-game and post-game events and participate in cultivation activities. The Sports Information Director or member of his or her staff if the perfect person to deliver a pre-game scouting report if an assistant coach is not available to do it.
- Event management staff arranging for pre- and post-game events, sale of food, refreshments, etc. These arrangements do not have to be elaborate; they can be as simple as hot dogs and chips and soft drinks or coffee or donuts and hot chocolate for outdoor sports. What is important is establishing a social event and area where people are treated as special guests and an area protected from the elements.
- The athletic director or sponsorship staff getting a hotel sponsor, prizes for the season ticket drive and book store donations of licensed merchandise for team t-shirts and prizes. The hotel sponsorship is not that difficult because wine and cheese or vegetable trays are not an expensive outlay and the hotel is introduced to donors as a friend of the program. A hotel representative should be asked to attend and speak at a ticket drive event so that the athletic director thanks the representative of the property in person
- Ticket office production of “Bring a Friend” ticket books. Printing tickets is important and an essential expense that indicates an elevation in the status of the program. If the event is important enough to print and sell tickets for, it is important enough for people to want to attend.
It takes a commitment of time and staff to develop a new sport as a revenue producer. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s important to realize that the heart of developing a fan base is having people in the community who can talk about being at the game last night, talking to the coach and players after the game and, in effect, telling their friends about a personal connection with “the coach” and “the players”. The athletic department is really selling this affinity or connection as the most valued asset. The fan is purchasing this “special status”.
--by Donna A. Lopiano, President, Sports Management Resources