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VOL. 39 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 17, 2015

Vols, Titans fight to fill empty stadium seats

Pro, college athletic programs search for solutions

By Tom Wood

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When it comes to giving the consumer what it wants, few sports programs can match University of Tennessee football.

Neyland Stadium, which 40 years ago could accommodate only 70,000 fans, has swelled to a capacity of 102,455, fifth largest in college football. It has a $4 million, 4,580-square-foot Jumbotron, W-Fi connections for fans and enough flashing lights around the stadium’s interior to shame the Las Vegas Strip.

But it wasn’t enough.

The last time UT averaged more than 100,000 in home attendance was 2008 when it attracted an average of 101,448 fans to seven home games at Neyland Stadium.

The low point came in 2012, the final year of the Derek Dooley era, with an average of 89,965 – a drop of 11,483 from 2008. That’s eight years after drawing a record 109,000 against Florida in 2004.

Confidence that coach Butch Jones can reignite the Big Orange brand has helped. The Vols have rebounded to averages of 95,584 in 2013 to 99,754 last season, a one-year increase of 4.36 percent. That’s 9,789 fans that have come back to UT since Jones was hired.

But the Vols aren’t alone in this struggle. Major college football home attendance dipped in 2014 to its lowest average in 14 years, according to a CBSSports.com analysis. Attendance also is down for the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

Higher ticket prices, the additional costs associated with actually going to the games (parking, food, drinks), uncertain weather, lack of connectivity at stadiums and the comfort of watching the game at home on a giant HD TV – with its dazzling high-tech extras – has fans, including students and millennials, shunning the game-day experience.

Sports marketers and professionals fear the next generation might be more interested in playing games via technology than attending them.

Teams, schools and leagues have a variety of strategies to reignite fan bases, particularly the younger generation, with innovations designed to make them feel more at home in the stands.

The Titans’ newly rebranded Nissan Stadium, for example, will be able to connect 30,000 Internet devices simultaneously, leaving many fans to wonder what took them so long to get in the high-tech game.

Will innovation bring fans back? It’s perhaps the biggest question in the business of sports.

It’s also a question that concerns Knoxville-area businesses, which depends heavily on UT fans and the money they spend.

“Butch Jones has done a remarkable job of bringing back the enthusiasm for what the future holds,” says Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. “While we were undergoing through our period of humility, Jones has rekindled the belief that UT is heading toward the right direction.

“Winning and losing is always going to be a factor to the fan base of any football program as it relates to rebuilding. It’s an indicator of just how ingrained UT football is with fans across the state.

“It is a key part of their social fabric. It is a key part of their emotional fabric.”

Swoosh! Marketing magic

On July 1, UT launched a slick multimedia rebranding campaign. The multi-million dollar partnership with footwear and apparel giant Nike runs through 2023, but everyone’s focus was on launch day.

Fans got so caught up in UT’s Nike announcement that they spent $200,000 on Vols gear on the first day of availability.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

The fast-paced launch show debuted the new uniforms for all Big Orange athletics teams and featured commentary from athletes, coaches, school and Nike officials. “Amazing” was only slightly ahead of “exciting” when it came to reactions from the athletes.

But the same adjectives could be applied to the reaction of Vol Nation. Fans bought the hype, both figuratively and literally.

They logged on to UTSports.com at a record pace that Wednesday with 330,896 page views including 106,686 unique users, and easily surpassed the 98,000 visits the site received for National Signing Day coverage in February.

The Vols’ Twitter page reached 14 million that day, and the hashtag Vols had a 46 million reach with some 3 million Facebook views, according to Jimmy Delaney, UT’s assistant athletics director for sales and marketing.

“We did have an incredible day with the launch of our new partnership with Nike,” Delaney says. “The amount of folks who tuned in to the launch show absolutely exceeded our expectations. The social activities and conversation blew us out of the water. All of Vol Nation was excited, but the social numbers that were posted were really impressive. Then the residuals of people going back and watching video again over the weekend exceeded our expectations.”

$200K in 1-day sales

And the level of amazement was only heightened when merchandise went on sale at the Vol Shop inside Neyland Stadium shortly after noon.

In 7.5 hours, fans spent some $50,000 at the store on newly branded paraphernalia, far exceeding the $6,700 spent on the flagship store’s opening day in 2010.

And a story posted at UTSports.com about the website’s online sales revealed numbers that were even more staggering. It states some 1,500 purchases were made that day for an average of $100 a pop, or about a $150,000 total.

“I find this absolutely fascinating,” Edwards says. “On the very first day, they sold a half-million dollars of product

“That’s amazing, considering that first day the sales were restricted to a couple of locations and online. I’m sure it’s continued to be very robust since then,” he adds.

“That market stretched across the state and throughout the South. The (UT) fan base is very wide and a lot of people who live too far away to come to games still want Tennessee paraphernalia.”

Indeed, it was an orange-letter day for the Vols and Nike, an overwhelming success by any measure.

And it demonstrates one of the many ways athletics programs across the state – both collegiate and pros – are seemingly successfully coping with threat of declining attendance.

Titans: New QB, stadium name

Like the Vols, the Tennessee Titans are rebranding, with a new stadium names and new face of the franchise, rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.

But it remains to be seen if they’ll enjoy the same kind of success as UT.

Ben Carter, 13, of Jonesborough ponders the purchase of a Marcus Mariota jersey at Nissan Stadium. The No. 8 jersey was the NFL’s No. 1 seller in May and No. 2 in June.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

The NFL team has signed a 20-year stadium naming rights deal with Nissan. That long-term deal was announced during the midst of the team’s investigation into home game ticket-tax irregularities, which resulted in the team paying Metro Nashville $120,000 in back payments.

The team has also had to deal with several other issues regarding visibly declining attendance at home games despite announced sellouts.

At a late June press conference with state and Nissan officials there to announce the renaming of LP Field to Nissan Stadium, Titans interim president Steve Underwood promised not only a new look for the stadium but a new attitude from the team to lure fans back in the stands.

“What we’re attempting to do is trying to become much more fan-friendly than we’ve been the last few years,” Underwood says.

“So we’re going to be better with fan service, better with food service, better with beverage service. Everything that we do here is going to change.

“We want to engage with our fans. We’ve got lots and lots of changes forthcoming.

“This place will look completely different. Not just outside, but inside we’ll be making lots of upgrades.”

Face of the franchise

The stadium’s deep red hues, which were matched on this day with the automaker’s color scheme for the new Nissan Titan truck that will roll out this fall, may help lure fans back.

But it was the NFL Draft selection of Heisman Trophy-winning Mariota with the No. 2 overall pick that has fans really excited. The rookie from Oregon had the NFL’s top-selling jersey in May and was ranked No. 2 for June behind Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University, says the struggling Titans have done well with both moves.

“(Rebranding) is a little different for NFL teams than on the college level,” explains Favorito, who previously worked as a strategic communications specialist for the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers as well as the U.S. Tennis Association, the U.S. Open and other pro groups.

“You’re looking for a kind of refresh of the organization. You have to change the culture both internally and externally. Oregon did a tremendous job of marketing Mariota, focusing more on the person who did all the right things and said all the right things and had a tremendous year.”

Orange and smoke

When the Tennessee Vols unveiled their new Nike uniforms, former Hendersonville Beech star running back Jalen Hurd opened the show wearing the white home uniforms.

Hurd could be wearing that same No. 1 jersey on Sept. 5 at Nissan Stadium when the Vols open the 2015 season against Bowling Green.

Or he could be in the smoky gray “alternate” uniform that will be worn only for special-occasion games. Quarterback Josh Dobbs wore that one for the launch party.

Newly released Nike products fill the racks at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Knoxville.

-- Chase Malone | The Ledger

But Hurd says he is most looking forward to wearing the new orange unis in the Sept. 12 home opener in Knoxville against Oklahoma.

“It’s going to be insane, just seeing all the Vols fans in their Nike gear and just all the hype around this year, it’s going to be special,” Hurd bellows on the launch show video.

Dobbs pitched the new Nike apparel the way he would smoothly pitch the ball to Hurd.

“Can’t wait to represent the ‘T’ wearing the uniform. I know our fans will definitely be excited to see it. All the players can’t wait. It’s awesome,” Dobbs says.

Coach Jones was on the launch show saying the Nike partnership is good for all UT athletics.

“It speaks volumes that a company or organization such as Nike would come to the University of Tennessee and want to be a provider in a partnership. … When Nike speaks, everybody listens,” Jones explains. “It is a very exciting time. And you talk about the global brand of Nike partnering with the global brand of the Tennessee Vols. And it’s a perfect fit.

“I know all our players like Jalen are excited. Our prospective recruits are excited, and our fans as well.”

Warnings and concerns have been sounded, though. The Portland Business Journal last year compared details of the new UT/Nike deal to the contract the Vols had with Adidas, finding the school likely left millions on the table when it jumped from Adidas.

The article states the school received annual cash payments of $1.95 million annually from Adidas and $1.8 million worth of equipment and apparel for teams. Nike paid UT a $2 million signing bonus, the article states, and will pay $1 million annually.

The first-year equipment allowance is $3.4 million. It drops to $2.6 million the second year and increases $100,000 each year to $3.2 million in 2023.

Details weren’t addressed in the launch show, of course, but Hart was gushing about Nike.

“It takes us to another level, in my opinion, because we are now partnered with the best there is in the branding industry,” Hart says. “In terms of branding and marketing, no one does it better in any facet of the business world than Nike does.”

Favorito says a couple of things are at work in UT’s rebranding push.

“People like to see new. Whether they like it or hate it, they like new,” he says. “Before taking something like this in this day and age, you have to make sure you understand what it is that boosters want, what coaches and universities feel is their identity.

“Nike and Tennessee worked to find that balance and establish a new identity that’s not drastically different from what they previously had. It has resonated with fans; at least it looks like (new Nike merchandise) is flying off the shelves and out of stores.”

And as much as slick promotional campaigns mean to successful rebranding, a key component is how the program is faring athletically.

“It’s nice to have a new identity, but it kind of goes hand in hand with what is happening on the field,” he says.

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