Today's spectators want to do more than just watch the field of play. Improving the sights and sounds in your arena, along with offering fun diversions, are all a part of enhancing the fan experience.
By Abigail Funk
Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at: afunk@MomentumMedia.com.
Attending a college athletic event today includes so much more than just watching the contest un-fold on the field, court, or ice. It's also about singing the school fight song, following the video board for updated statistics, trying to win a prize, and sharing the whole experience with fellow fans.
And today's ticket buyers often expect their purchase to include all those extras. "It's not feasible anymore to just put some players out there and serve up some food," says Fran Kowalski, President of Sound & Video Creations in Nashville, Tenn., the producer of ClickEffects programs. "Today's fan wants much more of an experience."
"With the price of tickets going up, athletic directors are under more pressure to provide an entertainment experience," agrees Brad Burrow, President and CEO of Real Media in Lenexa, Kan., which specializes in producing game-day content for video boards. "You have the hardcore fans who care deeply about the game, but they're usually in the minority. A lot more people go for the experience."
Luckily, there is plenty of new technology available to help you enhance your spectators' experience. From promotions to fan interaction, the ideas are creating a newfound "wow" factor in many arenas.
IN THE STANDS
One tried-and-true fan enhancement tool that shows no signs of waning in popularity is the T-shirt toss. Air Cannons in Denver, Colo., however, has taken launching T-shirts (and other merchandise) into the stands to a new level, offering many different models of cannons to propel the freebies.
"Obviously you want your team to perform well, but even if the team is having a horrible game, pulling out an Air Cannon will completely change the atmosphere," says Jake Wilson, President of Air Cannons. "Promotional cannons have been around a long time--we've been in business for 12 years--but they are still an outside-the-box, non-traditional way to energize the crowd.
"The college arena is a natural fit for Air Cannons," Wilson continues. "As soon as you bring one out, everybody gets up on their feet to try and catch a free T-shirt, especially college students. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, put it best when he said you can spend thousands of dollars on other team marketing ventures, or you can pull out a T-shirt cannon and have instant excitement."
The cannons can also be used with more than team T-shirts. Some schools are now offering their corporate sponsors the option of launching items like rally towels, stuffed animals, or stress balls with their logo. This provides more free merchandise for fans and more sponsorship dollars for the department.
A newer fan enhancement idea, from Baseline SportsMedia in Athens, Ga., appeals to a fan's emotional side. Its Gameday Shots offers fan photographs as a way to remember attending the event. "Gameday Shots has been a huge success in terms of fan enhancement," says Trent Allen, President of Baseline SportsMedia. "What's so cool about the fan photography is that it combines fan enhancement and brand recognition for your school."
Depending on the size of the event, anywhere from six to 20 Gameday Shots photographers roam the stands before the game, asking fans if they'd like to have their picture on the school's Web site. When the answer is invariably "yes," the fan is handed a card that directs them to the school athletic site, which links to Baseline SportsMedia, where their photograph is displayed in a gallery. The fan then has the option to purchase a print in a school frame, or can even have the image printed on a coffee mug, magnet, or greeting card.
"Done as a cross-promotion with the school's athletic Web site, Gameday Shots drives up a school's Web site traffic," Allen says. "And if the customer agrees, their personal information is compiled so the school can get demographic stats on their audience.
"You're making your fans happy because they get a timeless souvenir," he continues. "And your athletic department is happy because of the increase in Web site traffic and the additional information gathered for future marketing endeavors."
"The focal point at any stadium is the scoreboard," says Jason Bishop, Regional Sales Representative for Spectrum Scoreboards in Houston, Texas, which produces and installs an array of scoreboards and video boards. "And that's becoming even more true now with the inclusion of video screens. Everybody in the stands wants to see the instant replay, read the player bios, and basically stay informed."
Spectrum, Nevco in Greenville, Ill., Fair-Play Scoreboards in Des Moines, Iowa, and Daktronics in Brookings, S.D., are all working on more video screen scoreboard projects now than ever before. "We were installing hardly any two years ago, and just a handful last year, but right now we're working on a dozen projects," Bishop says. "Schools are really feeling the need to keep up with the Joneses in this area."
Higher resolution video screens are also seeping into college football arenas--Daktronics installed one of the world's largest high definition screens at the University of Texas's Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in 2006. There are also LED ribbon boards making debuts at baseball stadiums and basketball court sidelines at various colleges.
While large-screen video can be pricey, the good news is that it's becoming more affordable. "Technology keeps changing and getting better," says Mark Steinkamp, Large Sports Venues Marketing Manager at Daktronics. "We offer many screen size and image resolution options for LED video. There are only a handful of colleges that have true high definition screens as part of their scoreboards, but more and more want to be able to show very high quality video, and we've developed new technologies to help them get there in a more affordable way."
A video screen scoreboard is certainly an investment, but Bishop points out there are ways to offset the cost. "Colleges can charge advertisers and sponsors a lot of money for putting their ad or logo on the big screen," Bishop says. "The bulk, if not the entire cost of a video screen and equipment, including the camera crews, can be covered from inbound sponsorship and advertising dollars.
"After buying a video screen, an athletic director can say, 'Okay, now that we have this vehicle for our sponsors, let's come up with some creative ways to get their name and logo out there,'" Bishop continues. "The fact that purchasing a video screen is a moneymaker in the long run is the biggest reason we've had so many customers purchase them."
ON THE BIG SCREEN
What kinds of creative ideas can colleges implement with a video screen scoreboard? "A lot of the things we do here at Real Media help to create an atmosphere and experience that is memorable for fans," Burrow says. "Things like exciting openings and fan prompts add to the experience schools provide to spectators. Customized video content is invaluable for that reason."
Real Media produced Kansas State University's football opening, featuring Willie the Wildcat driving the cat train into Manhattan, Kan., and eventually Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium. The company also created the University of Kansas's football opening, which features jets flying through the city of Lawrence. "I hear comments all the time about how people look forward to that moment right before kickoff when the jets come in," Burrow says. "It has become a very memorable part of the experience."
For St. Louis University basketball games, Real Media created a virtual auto race called the St. Louis Billikens Speedway Challenge. Three cars representing the arena's sections race on the big screen, and fans are encouraged to root for their section's car. The cheering fans see sponsors' company logos on the cars as they watch the race. "St. Louis University is getting sponsorship dollars out of something that's actually an entertainment element during the game," Burrow says.
The Speedway Challenge is a great example of how video screens can be used by your sponsors as well. "The old way of thinking about game entertainment sponsorships was that you sold time on your video board to a company that would air its television spot a couple of times a game," Burrow says. "The new way of thinking is to still sell a company that time, but with a creative element attached to it that's fun for the fans."
Getting your fans to pull out their cell phones to text in a vote is another example of fan interaction. "We've had a lot of success asking spectators to text an answer to a question related to what's going on down on the field, with a company sponsoring the question," says Bill Hodge, Vice President of Sales for Action Sports Media, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based collegiate sports marketing company specializing in game-day multimedia. "It gives people a chance to participate in something, which improves their fan experience and also gives the sponsoring brand a chance to interact with them.
"Something a little different is asking real-time questions," Hodge continues. "For instance, you can ask, 'Which play should be the play of the game?' If it's late in the fourth quarter and the game is pretty well decided, you could put together video highlights of three plays and do a text-to-vote for the fans. Then you post the audience's choice on the screen. Fans can't help but want to put in their vote."
Sound & Video Creations offers an affordable way for a host team to put on a dynamic show with its Crossfire system, which allows the user to easily create player bios, display statistics, and integrate sponsor advertisements all with one program. "If a school has a smaller budget, the Crossfire system could be a team's entire show," Kowalski says. "In essence, a school would be able to put up graphics and information almost as sophisticated as an ESPN broadcast--all in-house, and with simple steps."
Whether or not you have a video scoreboard, enhancing the audio presentation of your contests is also important to think about. "We've had just as much excitement over the audio aspect as the video in some of our installations," Bishop says.
Daktronics specializes in helping athletic departments keep up with not only visual demands, but audio as well. "For larger venues, our Sportsound division can design integrated sound systems to better match the seating configuration," Steinkamp says. "We'll come to your facility and do a site survey in which we record sound pressure readings all over the stadium. From there, we develop a custom sound system that equals the visual presentation."
If you're not looking to upgrade your venue's entire sound system, new software can help you use what you have to its fullest capabilities. Action Sports Media produces a software program called Sound Director (formerly Game Ops Commander) that organizes all your music, fan prompts, and announcements so they are accessible at the click of a mouse. About 350 colleges currently use the program.
"What I hear so often from athletic directors and coaches is that they know they want an exciting event, they just don't know how to get there," says John Jackson, Sales Manager at Action Sports Media. "They've been to other venues and said, 'The crowd was really into it--they just had it.' Well, there are a number of things going on to get the crowd engaged, and audio has a lot to do with it.
"Historically, you'd see game DJs come in and use the old cart machines for mini discs, cassettes, or CDs, and they'd have to cue everything up and then re-cue them again as quickly as they could," Jackson continues. "Rather than reacting to what was happening in the game by playing a corresponding clip, they had to wait for the right moment and play the cue they had prepared."
Clips can be organized in whatever categories you want. "When a team is on offense, I could click on a button I labeled 'offense' and then have a series of buttons to play--for instance, a slam dunk or three-point clip in basketball, or a batter's introduction music for baseball," Jackson explains. "It's much easier to have all those clips organized and ready to be clicked on, rather than worrying if a clip is cued up."
Not as tech-savvy as you wish you were? Don't let the technology of high definition video scoreboards and sound systems scare you. More and more companies offer services to help you keep up with the changing technology.
For example, Daktronics provides ongoing service options to its clients. "Auburn University was one school that hired us to run their equipment during all their major sporting events this year," Steinkamp says. "That way they don't have to worry about hiring staff, training them, and keeping them. We have a person to direct game-day presentation who hires local help--usually students from television and broadcast classes who need experience. Ongoing service is another big piece of fan enhancement that some bigger schools are seeing the value of."
Total Sports Entertainment is a consulting company that specializes in game-day management. "We teach teams and athletic departments how to enhance their promotions and the entertainment aspect of their games," says General Manager Jeanette Ehnerd. "In essence, we teach you how to turn your athletic facility into an entertainment facility. We believe in turning games into events, so we talk about things like how and when to hold a theme night, and even how to make concessions more fun."
And if you don't want to hire extra staff or an outside company to help out with game-day management, there are some options for taking care of it yourself. Total Sports Entertainment just released TSE GameTime, a software program to help colleges organize their game-day operations so that everything runs smoothly.
"Athletic departments have to schedule so many things--what their mascot is doing, what music to play, what videos are up," Ehnerd says. "They also have to schedule and organize any sponsorships and promotions. It can get really complex, so this Web-based game management program allows teams to organize every element."
TSE GameTime has an instant messenger feature that allows any user to keep in touch with all others who are logged in, and users can update a game-day program in real time throughout the event. It also keeps track of promotions during contests and creates performance reports for sponsoring companies.
"There's never been a better time to jump into the fan enhancement game," Kowalski says. "With the products and services out there today, you're going to be able to provide a level of entertainment that previously was only seen at the professional sports level, and for a fraction of the cost. The time is now."