In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level (part eight)

Posted by rtmsf on November 9th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

To read the entire In Their Words series, click here.

Part Eight: MARKETING

Over the summer, we’ve spent time hearing about some of the next big-name recruits on their way to college basketball: Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. We’ve heard the big-time schools announce their high profile games on their upcoming schedules: Kentucky going to the Maui Invitational and visiting North Carolina, Michigan State hosting Texas and going to Duke. But for the vast majority of Division I programs, they’ve been flying under the radar. There are at present 73 teams that participate in basketball in the six BCS conferences, but there are 347 total programs in Division I. Of those other 274 programs, there are certainly quite a few big-name programs: last year’s national runner-up Butler comes to mind immediately, as does Gonzaga, Memphis and a handful of other schools in conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. But, we were also interested in how the other half (or really, how the other three-quarters) lives, so we spent some time talking to coaches, athletic directors and other people around the country affiliated with some of those other schools — those non-BCS schools, those “mid-majors” — and we asked them about how they recruit, how they create a schedule, how they market their programs, and quite a few other things. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll let them tell you their story, in their own words.

To begin, let me introduce and thank this week’s cast of characters:

  • Andrew Roberts, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information, Arkansas-Pine BluffRoberts runs a tight ship at UAPB as the sole full-time member of the Sports Information Department.
  • Eric Brown, Assistant Athletic Communications Directory, Liberty – Brown is a graduate of Liberty University and former sports editor at the student newspaper, the Liberty Champion.
  • Chris Lang, Writer, Lynchburg News & Advance: Lang has been the beat writer for Liberty University since 2005 after having spent eight years as the Sports Editor at the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, Arizona.
  • Jessica Dickson, Assistant Athletic Director for External Relations, UMKC – Dickson has been in her current position, where she oversees marketing and promotions for UMKC, for just over three years.
  • Larry Williams, Athletic Director, Portland: Williams has been the AD at Portland for six years now following a five year stint as the head of licensing and product marketing at his alma mater Notre Dame. Williams was a two-time All-American offensive lineman with the Irish before starting 44 games in the NFL.
  • Kevin Keys, Associate Athletic Director for External Operations, Liberty – Keys is a ’77 Liberty graduate who enters his sixth year back on campus in charge of Liberty’s licensing, promotions and marketing.
  • Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason – Caputo is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Patriots after spending the previous three seasons as an administrative assistant and video coordinator under head coach Jim Larranaga.
  • Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland – Reveno heads into his fifth season at Portland having turned around a program from a team that was 18-45 in his first two seasons to a team on the rise with a 40-24 record over the last two seasons. Reveno spent his previous nine seasons as an assistant at Stanford, his alma mater where he was a Pac-10 Conference All-Academic Team selection as a senior.

So far, in regards to marketing, we’ve touched on the differences in the size of athletic budgets and the size of the media markets between some rather disparate programs classified as mid-majors. But regardless of the size of the program or the size of the market, a big key for mid-major programs is to get consistent media coverage. Coverage from their local media not only can keep the program in the minds of their fans and keep them up to date, but it can also introduce the team to new fans. Not surprisingly, schools in smaller markets generally have an easier time of getting local media coverage.

Media Coverage, Especially at the Local Level, is Important

Andrew Roberts, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information, Arkansas-Pine Bluff : Arkansas Pine Bluff is in a unique situation, because we have a local newspaper, the Pine Bluff Commercial, that does an outstanding job of covering the UAPB athletic department top-to-bottom, all sports, they all receive excellent coverage in our local paper. And then, there is a paper in Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and they cover football and men’s basketball extensively throughout the year. They’ll assign us a beat writer and he’ll cover us. The coverage was great.

Eric Brown, Assistant Athletic Communications Directory, Liberty: Our main media affiliates would be our local TV station here in Lynchburg, WSET. They do a good job of covering us since they’re right here in our area, and then our local newspaper Lynchburg News & Advance, they’re real good also. They’ve got a beat writer that covers us all the time.

Chris Lang, Writer, Lynchburg News & Advance: With basketball, we’re trying to cover all the Big South road games this year, where in the past we had covered mostly just home games. We don’t do a ton with the out-of-conference road games, because honestly Liberty is very unlikely to win many of those. I mean, if they go out to Florida, what’s the point of us traveling down there to watch them lose by 35 points or something. We do try to treat it like it’s a big time program, it’s the one program that’s right in our city and our backyard. We cover Virginia, Virginia Tech as well, but they are both an hour, an hour and a half away. Liberty is a growing program, it’s grown a lot in the five years I’ve been here for sure, it’s grown big-time, so we try to treat it as such.

Brown: Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot that will cover us regularly. The thing is, Charlottesville’s not too far away, but they’re gonna be focused on UVA. Roanoke is close, but they’ll be focused on Virginia Tech. So we’re kind of always competing with them, or in their shadow a little bit, because we may not get looked at as much in those areas because the focus is on Virginia and Virginia Tech. We’ll have a few other outlets cover us from time-to-time based on what we’re doing, but mostly it is the TV station and the newspaper.

In larger markets, getting consistent media coverage can be much harder, but it does happen.

Jessica Dickson, Assistant Athletic Director for External Relations, UMKC: Surprisingly enough, we are extremely lucky with the media coverage we have. Blair Kerkhoff (Kansas City Star) is who covers us the most and he really does seem to see the importance and the value of promoting UMKC, because we are the only Division I basketball program in Kansas City. He does a great job covering us. Now, where maybe Kansas or Kansas State or Missouri, the three Big 12 schools closest to us, don’t need to pitch stories to the local newspaper or to the radio stations or TV stations, that’s the difference with us, we do need to give Blair a call and say “hey we’ve got this student-athlete with this great story, can we get you in touch with the coach to talk about it”. And we work around his schedule and absolutely understand that where we thought something would run this week, it might get bumped because of something else and run the following week. But beyond the print, our media partner as far as broadcasting is Sports Radio 810, a fabulous all-sports radio station here in Kansas City. They cover us wonderfully, not only is that the home of our men’s basketball games, but our color commentator is Steven St. John, who hosts the morning show for the station and he’s a UMKC grad and covers us really well. They include us in their SportsCenter update, when they’re talking about what’s going on in the city. If we’ve got a game coming up that night, they’ll make sure to plug us. Anytime that we’ve got a game coming up where we want to get one of our coaches on the air, they’re more than happy to get them on for an interview. And then we’re extremely lucky in Kansas City to have a 24-hour local sports TV station called Metro Sports, they’re owned by Time-Warner cable and that’s been our television home since we went Division I and they’ll televise 15-17 of our men’s and women’s basketball games, and we get our coaches out to the studio on a weekly basis to do shows from their studio. So, we, for a mid-major school, get fabulous media coverage, especially when compared with some other schools.

While local media coverage is very important, getting on national television on a semi-regular basis is a goal as well for many of these programs, not only as a way to get the university’s name and brand out there, but as a way to build awareness for potential recruits.

Larry Williams, Athletic Director, Portland: Yes. No question about it. I think you talk to any mid-major basketball program, getting exposure through national television is one of the highest priorities. ESPN is such a good source for that, they are the maker of kings in many respects, just because of their reach and the three channels they can put you on – it’s a great opportunity. The interesting thing about this electronic age that we live in now, it isn’t so much the number of households that get the channel and it isn’t even so much the number of people watching it live, it’s the fact that in this digital age the footage can be shrunk to bite-sized pieces that can be consumed at any point, so you’ve got all these highlights that are sort of built into it and you can call up those games, so you become a part of a highlight show. And, if T.J. Campbell gets a dunk on a breakaway and it gets shown on SportsCenter, you don’t need the whole game, but the kids that are watching that, may recognize and say “hey, Portland is on ESPN” and that’s a legitimizer for the program. I just have to see that little clip and I know it. And likewise, when they do the cross-promotions across the different channels of ESPN, to be able to mention, hey watch on ESPN360, the Pilots take on whoever, that’s worth a lot as well. It just legitimizes our program and any other mid-major that is aspiring to do the same thing.

Kevin Keys, Associate Athletic Director for External Operations, Liberty: I think it is very important for the program with regard to recruiting to get on national TV. We have our own television network and we broadcast all of our games. Some of them are picked up by national networks like ESPN, some of them are regional, so we have a lot of TV. So the fact that it is on national TV, in our situation, isn’t so big in terms of drawing a crowd, but from a recruiting standpoint it is critically important. We have a fairly national footprint in how we recruit; we’ll go to Texas or California to get players if they fit the type of player that we’re looking for. And to have national TV games let’s mom and dad watch at home, and that’s very big. It helps other recruits see us and believe that there’s something special about us and it draws attention.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: At some point the well is going to dry up in your area in terms of recruiting, just because there may be guys that you can’t get involved with or a guy that maybe is a little bit below your level. So, anytime people are seeing on television maybe clips from somewhere, I think it is a positive thing for recruiting. And it is just important to get recognition.

For Portland, for instance, playing in a conference with Gonzaga, not to mention St. Mary’s and in the future BYU, affords them more potential opportunities to garner national attention and perhaps nationally televised games, but at the same time, it puts pressure on them to keep up.

Williams: I hope we are rising with the tide of Gonzaga, but you’ve gotta be careful though, because you know, that rising tide could also drown you. If you’re not watching out for what you do, Gonzaga’s success could just swallow us up, and in many respects it had. When Gonzaga started out with their dedicated television package, in many respects that really hurt our marketing, so we had to be really aggressive in going out and trying to get our brand on the air in the local market at least. So it has really been a challenge. If Gonzaga’s success rises all boats, boy those other boats better be working their tails off or they’re gonna be drowned. And I love that situation, its competitive, that’s what athletics is all about and I think all of us in the WCC are really trying to do that. You can see St. Mary’s has been at it a little bit longer than we have in their dedication to it and that resulted in their Sweet 16 appearance this year, so they’re really starting to reap the benefits of their commitment to making themselves better.

While trying to be aggressive and expanding the reach of a program is the goal up and down Division I, at mid-majors, the elephant in the room is always the budget. While none of these teams have the resources that programs like North Carolina, Duke and Kansas have, there are still wide discrepancies in the budgets between even mid-major programs.

Lang: I just did a story for the football media day, talking about the differences in money and athletic budgets the Big South. You know Liberty and Coastal Carolina, of the full-time members, are far and above – they spend way, way, way more than anybody else in the conference. Charleston Southern tries to get by on a $7 million athletic budget, including football and all other sports, while Liberty’s football budget is close to $7 million on its own. UNC Asheville is spending like $3.5 million for their entire athletics department, so it’s a weird league in that way. Liberty has aspirations to be something much bigger than the Big South, and I think Coastal Carolina does as well, so you’ve got those two that are building facilities and spending money and putting all sorts of stuff into the program and you’ve got some of these other small schools that – I think UNC Asheville is pretty content to be what they are. It is definitely sort of a have and have-nots league right now.

Liberty Has the Budget and Aspiration to Go Along With It

Williams: Money is a finite resource and we’ve got to recognize that we aren’t a professional franchise. And thank goodness we’re not. We’re part of a greater and grander institution, and we recognize our position within that institution. We feel very fortunate here that our president, our administration and our board value to a great extent what basketball does for our athletic department and what it brings to the institution. We’re very fortunate of that, because it doesn’t exist everywhere. They’re willing to invest a real high percentage of the overall investment that the school makes in athletics and so we’re standing in a real good spot. But we recognize that those are finite resources and we’ve got to do as good a job as we can possibly do as an athletic department maximizing our revenue opportunities. I’ll jump back to the Kentucky game, that gives us an opportunity to bring in revenue that we otherwise would not have been able to do, move the game to the Rose Garden to attract a much larger fan base, that’s revenue right there. It gives us the opportunity to earn future revenue by getting bigger gates at other games from people that go to the Kentucky game and say “oh man, that was a great time, I’m gonna go back and see the Pilots.” And so, we’ve really gotta be very focused on how to increase the revenue that we can generate, because we can pour that back into the program and build it just as the likes of Xavier and Gonzaga and some of the other mid-majors have done.

Roberts: We need to manage expectations in terms of the number of resources we have and the number of things we can accomplish in a one-person SID. When I compare us to some of the larger schools, and I mention Duke a lot, but when I look at the way they manage their operation, their SID guy is just the basketball guy, he doesn’t have to deal with football or softball or… It’s just basketball and that’s it. So there are times when I see some of the things that he is doing, with maybe game notes or something, and I would love to do those things, but it just works out before I get too far into it, that I have to stop and think, do I really have the time to where I can spend the time to accomplish those things, especially when I have to handle other sports. I really try my best to decide what is feasible and what is not, what is a good use of my time, what is not. I don’t feel bad about the job that I am doing, just because I am a one-man band and I get an opportunity to make a big impact. If I had an idea about something that I want to do with one of the programs, I’ll go to my athletic director, and ask him and depending on him he’ll either say yes or no, as opposed to at a bigger school there may be more levels of red tape to have to go through to put ideas to action.

One thing all of these institutions have in common, is their ultimate goal: to grow the program within the structure of their university, to bring in new fans and new supporters and to make more people aware of their program, and by and large, each of them has had their successes.

Brown: You can call us a small school or a mid-major, but at the same time, we’re constantly growing.

Lang: When I came here about five years ago, I was talking with the guy that covers Virginia Tech came at the same time and he said, Tech may be fancier, it’s an ACC school, you’re watching bigger schools in bigger venues, but Liberty is more interesting. And in the last five years, it really has been interesting because there has been so much here in terms of growth that the school has gone into, there’s been facility development, a lot of off-the-field type issue stories to write. They’re very accommodating people over there, I think they understand that they have to work a certain way with the media because they’re trying to get as much word-of-mouth out there as possible about what they’re doing, so everybody in that athletic department has been fantastic to deal with.

Roberts: Coming off last season, we’re already getting people asking about basketball season tickets (in July). There’s never been as much interest as there is now. The team has had some success and that has allowed us to generate some energy among the local fan base and the community. It has been a change of culture.

Caputo: I think the Final Four was big. Our administration has done a good job of capitalizing on that. We’ve broken a number of attendance records, which coincided with the vision of our university. We’ve got just about the largest on-campus population in the state, or close to it, so our success has kind of coincided with the on-campus population boom, so we’re breaking all sorts of student attendance records. In that sense, it has been great. Season tickets are up, visibility with our radio package and television games are up. We had a goal years ago to get into the top 100 in attendance, and I think we’ve been in there every year since the Final Four. So we’ve had a number of years where we broke our league’s attendance records, and we often lead our league in total attendance, because when we go somewhere, it is a big game.

Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland: You know, we’ve got these mid-major success stories. Gonzaga, obviously. Butler, George Mason. And you study them, you look at them, you learn from them, but then the clever part and the fun part is trying to apply it to your own situation.

Williams: So, the question for our program, and it’s something we have to constantly be aware of, is how can we put the pedal to the metal as hard as possible, while still respecting the position we have within the institution? It’s a tough balance because our coaches are so talented and we just have to be patient in our approach to it. The one thing we have to practice more than anything is patience in our commitment to getting better.

Thank you for reading In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level.

rtmsf (3720 Posts)


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