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

Colleges, pro franchises seek strategies to keep millennials interested

By Tom Wood

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UT and Vanderbilt are accustomed to tough competition from Tuscaloosa, Athens and Gainesville. Likewise, the Titans must deal with the Colts, Steelers and Ravens.

On games days, they and many others now have to go against Sony, Microsoft, Apple and EA Sports.

Sports organizations – be they professional or collegiate, big or small market, major or small college – are playing their own high-stakes version of catch-up when it comes to marketing to the millennial generation.

And the playing field is much wider than it once was.

Pro, college and even high school programs are competing against movies, concerts, network and cable TV, computers, video games, books, phones, music downloads and more, each seeking a larger slice of the entertainment dollar.

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

Those in charge of Nashville sporting events say they get it and are working hard to implement business strategies that will keep/put fans in the stands.

Wi-Fi connections are now readily available everywhere as stadiums and arena operators jump on the digital bandwagon to become more fan-friendly and interactive.

Lipscomb University athletics director Philip Hutcheson, who was an NAIA All-American basketball player for the Bisons, says smaller schools face the same issues as the larger ones when it comes to attracting the millennial generation to its games.

“It’s definitely a challenge that every school in the country is facing. It’s not unique to any part of the country or any level,” says Hutcheson. “Fifteen years ago, I would watch one game a night on TV. Now I have access to dozens of games each night on my iPad, my iPhone, computer or television.

“There’s just so much more selection, not to mention other ways to use discretionary time. It used to be just a battle for discretionary dollars. Now it runs a lot deeper,” he adds.

“We’ve done a lot to improve connectivity (at Lipscomb’s Allen Arena) because fans want to comment during the game, Instagram a picture of themselves at the game, follow live stats. Or they might be playing video games, watching a movie or chatting with friends.”

Titans interim president Steve Underwood, who recently announced a 20-year naming rights deal with automaker giant Nissan, says the new deep red paint color scheme is just one of the many changes fans will see this fall at Nissan Stadium.

“Everything that we do here is going to change,” Underwood explains. “We want to engage with our fans.

“We’ve just installed millions of dollars of new Wi-Fi equipment, so all of their hand-helds and pads and computer devices will be very user-friendly here at Nissan Stadium,” Underwood adds.

“They’ll be able connect from anyplace inside the building, outside the stadium. Our Wi-Fi signal is going to be incredibly strong. And we’ll be able to connect 30,000 devices simultaneously for Internet connections here in the building. It’s very, very impressive.”

Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams also embraces new technologies, but is old-school enough that he wants to mix it in with what has worked for prior generations of fans, things like bands and performers for halftime entertainment.

“Everyone wants to be able to access more information, so you need to make sure your stadiums and arenas are fitted with that,” he says. “To the degree that I can’t get more stuff in there, I’m going to be more inclined to stay away.

“We need to be more aware of constantly giving that information to you; there it is on the scoreboard. We’re also going to look at how can we get fans more interactive. Can we put something up there, knowing that you have this cellphone or whatever, that gets you to be part of something that makes you feel like ‘I’m part of this.’

“You can’t do that at home. It has to with the apparatus and your propensity to use it. You can get in the mindset of ‘everyone wants to do it,’ but it’s obviously the younger people who are using it.

“If I want to learn something about all these gadgets, I go ask my two youngest kids.”

The transition is much easier for Nashville Sounds General Manager Garry Arthur. His team moved into First Tennessee Park, a $75 million, state-of-the-art stadium, earlier this year that combines technology and the quaintness fans expect at a minor-league ballpark.

“We’re very fan-friendly,” Arthur says. “We wanted to make sure there’s enough Wi-Fi connections. We had long discussions about that, so people could make their cellphone connections.”

Scott Ramsey, president of the Nashville Sports Council, faces a little different challenge when it comes to hosting events like the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium or the SEC men’s basketball tournament at Bridgestone Arena.

Those public facilities are already Wi-Fi connected, so his focus is more on filling the stands. And that means marketing to millennials.

“Our staff is a bright, young staff that lives in that social media world,” Ramsey says. “We get all the information we can and try to figure out the best way to communicate. We’re very cognizant of the young professionals’ network.

“I think the engagement of young professionals as a group helps you get into that area of marketing. I feel really good about us attacking that from a positive standpoint. It’s ever-changing. It’s a difficult world to market ticket sales, how to engage them, what they expect.

“It’s a constant evolution.”

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