From families to students

How UB Athletics marketing plans to grow football attendance around program success

student-reaction-2

From this year’s first-time NCAA tournament wins in basketball, to former-Bull Khalil Mack being selected fifth in the 2014 NFL draft, UB has experienced some of its top sports moments in school history within the past five years. 

Senior director of marketing for athletics Elaine Russell uses these accomplishments to market an emerging Division I sports school to students, families and the Buffalo community. 

Russell said the UB sports fan base can grow through past success.

“You want people to say ‘Oh, I saw Anthony Johnson play before he got drafted,’ it creates a buzz around the whole team,” Russell said in an interview with The Spectrum last April. “I saw the same thing happen with Khalil Mack … you could see the crowds grow throughout the year and it makes people want to see what the players are all about.”

Already, UB football has higher attendance numbers compared to last season having a reported attendance of 17,959 for the season opening 48-10 win against the Delaware State Hornets, which is 6,413 more fans than reported for the 2017 home opener.

“I went to the first game this season and it was awesome,” said Erick Rivera, freshman mechanical engineering major. “Everyone there was loud and into the game until they [Buffalo] really started to run away with. It was my first UB game and I will definitely try to attend more.”

Rivera said he didn’t see UB as a sports school until seeing the success of men’s basketball in the past NCAA Tournament. Now at UB, Rivera said the school provides the college sports experience he expects from other Division I sports schools. Rivera said he also attended the soccer team’s game against Canisius and enjoyed it.

Russell said the student experience is always important when trying to market to on-campus students. She said spirit groups like True Blue help to draw in more students by increasing awareness through word of mouth and leading the student section.

Kyle Yagielski, a senior media study major, has been a member of True Blue since 2016 and has started his own UB mascot as UB Naked Guy. Yagielski said the recent success has helped True Blue recruitment “a ton” as more students show interest in attending games, including students who aren’t in the club. Yagielski said he has had more people than ever recognize him for his signature speedo and cowboy boot look.

“It’s a lot easier to get someone to go to a game when you can tell them that the team is good and have actual stats to back it up,” Yagielski said. “After the basketball teams had their runs in March, things have just been building momentum.”

Yagielski cited the success of events like the recent True Blue Fest as an example of the growing fanbase. 

For Russell, the goal is to convince students before the start of their freshman year or over the summer to get into UB football.

“To get students excited early, you have to market around players,” Russell said.

“We have a linebacker in Khalil Hodge, who could be the next coming of Khalil Mack. We have a six [foot] seven [inch] quarterback in Tyree [Jackson], a future draft pick in Anthony Johnson. So we try to take those elements to try to get people excited about the team.”

Thomas Parry, a freshman biomedical major, said before the basketball teams’ recent success, he also didn’t consider UB a sports school. Parry said now that he is at UB, the school offers the “full on” college sports experience he was looking for.

“I definitely wanted to go to a school that was serious about sports,” Parry said. “UB really offers that and it helped in my decision to come here.” 

There is a “widespread effect” on attendance when one of the revenue programs [football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball] alone is having success, according to Russell. The success of one UB team can be used to promote another, according to Russell. This gives athletics the ability to promote from season to season instead of year to year.

Russell said UB football offers a “less intense” option for families when compared to the Bills, even with the commitment to having a strong student section. 

“UB football is a family-friendly sporting experience,” Russell said. “We target the surrounding suburbs … by trying to have something for everybody. You can come for the concert, there is face-painting in Stampede Square, there’s the rock-climbing wall [and] we also added food trucks. We try to do all this while keeping it an affordable ticket for whoever is going.” 

Undergraduate students can attend the game for free, while graduate students have to pay $10. Single-game tickets cost $30 with group rates starting at $15 per seat. Blue and White Priority season tickets cost $225 per seat with discounts available for staff and alumni.

Russell said that the more selective ticket options, like the $10,000 12-person box suite season tickets, are easier to sell when attendance and team success are strong. She said the boxes are marketed toward corporations and business groups to create more clients for other aspects of athletics, such as sponsorships.

“The more of a hot ticket item you can make the games, the easier it is to get those businesses to buy whole boxes for the season,” Russell said. 

In 2017, athletics earned $1.1 million for ticket sales, $84,966 for programs, novelties, parking and concession sales and $925,352 for royalties, licensing, advertisement and sponsorships. Marketing had a budget of $1.2 million for 2017.

Russell said there are students, locals and businesses that don’t have an interest in sports and are much harder to market toward. She said even though she would like to convince them to attend, the marketing strategy is more focused around the, “die-hard sports fans Buffalo is known for.”

Alumni Arena, the UB Stampede and UB Stadium have ads that promote upcoming games, while groups like True Blue oversee promotions in the Student Union. On Wednesday, True Blue ran a merchandise give-away to promote Saturday’s game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles.

UB’s brand continues to grow with three more men’s basketball games being added to national broadcasting on ESPN and CBS this past Monday. With numbers already up and teams looking better this season, athletics seems primed to have one of its strongest attendance years to date.

Thomas Zafonte is the senior sports editor and can be reached at: thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @Thomas_Spectrum