Florida football looks to connect with fanbase
Published: Sunday, June 8, 2014 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
It might seem like a strange place to take a group of people to find out how to make a football game-day experience better in The Swamp, but there they were at a soccer game.
Seven members of the University Athletic Association staff journeyed to Kansas City in the middle of May, not to watch Sporting KC play as much as to watch how the franchise served its fanbase.
Chip Howard, the UAA's associate athletic director for internal affairs, was the point man and brought along people from marketing and social media and operations and others to see the franchise that is considered the model for interaction with its fans.
“I was tentative at first,” Howard said, “but I was blown away.”
The mission was part of Florida's efforts to better service its football fans as a new generation of season-ticket holders emerges. It's not just at Florida where this is happening.
All around the country, attendance at football games is on the decline, especially with the student bodies. Those fans are going to eventually be the season-ticket base. At places like Arizona, Penn State and Tennessee, 20 to 40 percent of the student tickets are not being used, according to an ESPN.com report.
“Our model was working,” Howard said. “But the times are changing. In the last 24 months, everything has changed.”
In Kansas City, the soccer games are sold out and there is a waiting list for season tickets. One of the reasons is that Sporting KC has a spinoff company called Sporting Innovations that both tracks what the fans want and delivers what they need.
For example, if a player scores a goal, the fans in the stands receive a discount for that player's jersey on their cell phones. If someone tweets that they just bought a beer and a hot dog, the tech people huddled up in a room at the stadium see it and offer a discount for the next one.
“They showed us how they collect the data and what they do with it,” Howard said. “You can have WiFi, but how do you service your fans? The fans there feel really well-connected.”
And that's what the UAA is trying to figure out. How do you make the game-day experience better when Joe Gator has a flat-screen HD television at home and a cooler filled with inexpensive beverages at home?
One thing that has discouraged Generation LOL, as I call it, is poor cell reception in the stadium. Last year, Florida added Verizon service to the existing AT&T service at the stadium for the last three home games and cell service improved dramatically.
And the UAA is installing new antennas around the stadium for this season.
“You can see the flagpoles out there with oval Gator heads and behind each head is an antenna,” Howard said. “We'll have 400 antennas for cell phone use this season.”
Florida has also formed a fan advisory council that received more than 300 applications and sent out surveys to season-ticket holders to try to find out what the fans want.
Of course, what they want most of all is to win and a 4-8 season isn't going to draw big crowds no matter how good your cell reception is. But that issue is left to Will Muschamp and his staff and players.
Everything else is being looked at by the UAA.
“The on-the-field recognitions, is that too boring?” Howard said. “Do we need to streamline that? Do we need more music and video presentations? We used some live cut-ins to games (at the O'Connell Center) during basketball games and we think the SEC Network is going to help drive that (during football games).
“We want to make sure we're delivering what the fans want.”
This is the point where you look up from your breakfast and say, “I'll tell you what I don't want and that's Idaho and Eastern Michigan.”
That's easier said than done, no matter what school you root for.
“We do hear that from our fans,” Howard said. “It's a delicate balance. We need seven home games. It's not like everyone is lined up saying we want to come to Florida. All the other schools are out there throwing guaranteed money at the same schools.
“We just worked out a deal to bring East Carolina here in 2015 and it was hard. Sometimes, there is a negative stigma attached to guaranteed games.”
One area where UF made progress for this season was in the starting times for early games when the heat is oppressive. Florida pushed for later games and the first three will be at 7 p.m., 4 and 7:30.
Howard went as far last year as to send a picture to the SEC office of hundreds of fans sitting underneath the stands during last year's opener that began at 12:21 p.m.
This is not your father's game-day experience anymore. Expectations are different and technology has advanced to the point where it's not enough to sell a ticket and be done with it.
Florida is working on it. Every school is. There are more and more discussions about selling beer at college games, although I wouldn't count on that happening here.
“Never say never,” Howard said. “But I don't see that enhancing the fan experience.”
In the end, nothing drives fans to games more than having a winning and entertaining team. But we know that's not enough. Not anymore.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.