Guest Blogger: Michelle Morgan, Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator at the University of St. Thomas
Since September, we have had multiple colleagues across different sectors of sport, and especially in Division III, reach out to find out how St. Thomas was able to put over 37,000 people into the friendly confines of Target Field. That is not a typo… 37,355 to be exact, for the 2017 Tommie Johnnie football game. The largest recorded attendance for a NCAA Division III game previously was 17,535, meaning this game outdrew that record by almost 20,000. In addition, there were over 17,000 web stream viewers and the institution saw earned national media the week of the game at over $7 million.
There certainly is no universal blueprint or one-size-fits-all approach for making a splash with these large-scale events. The creativity occurs within the gap between existing budgets (or lack thereof), personnel resources and what you are trying to accomplish. I find that we, as administrators, are stretched thin and often do not have the luxury to brainstorm the next big splash we can make in order to highlight our respective teams, departments and institutions. By making time to generate ideas, we might just stumble upon our next competitive advantage. Your event need not be a large-scale game in a non-traditional venue like a Major League Baseball (MLB) ballpark. Maybe it is playing a conference game in a neutral site city where you have a large alumni base, or a target market for the admissions office. Possibly, it is a double header during cross over seasons with two very different sports. Is it a unique venue in your market? What have our peers at other teams and universities done that can be tweaked to work for your brand, institution, and department. Make it your own.
However, ideas alone cannot guarantee a victory. You have to strategically manage people, responsibilities, and thousands of to-dos in order to successfully execute large-scale events and promotions. To do so, you need a plan. For St. Thomas, our contract negotiations and planning started 13 months prior to game day. Once we had a signed agreement, we strategically picked a slow sports day in the Twin Cities market for our press conference. We leveraged the communications team and ticket department at the Minnesota Twins to expedite timelines and make sure tickets were on sale in time for holiday gift giving. Ultimately, we were deliberate with a month-by-month operations plan and acted accordingly with creativity. We knew where we were going, which enabled us to be more effective throughout the process.
Once you get to game day, take time to experience the event from different perspectives while in the moment. Sit in the student section; visit with donors, experience what the media experiences. Fans should feel as though they are a part of something special, and if possible, history. The details of the experience make the difference between good and great. Show your appreciation, and give them chills at the same time. Build equity before the event. Think outside of your normal communication channels and outlets. Then, be buzzworthy, and tell your story consistently and frequently.
When athletics is successful, there is a strong correlation in institutional visibility, student applications, as well as donor and alumni engagement. Aside from the successes on the court, in the classroom and in the community, sport can help raise the awareness for our brands. Unique events like the 2017 Tommie Johnnie game at Target Field was a stretch assignment. It took a year to negotiate, plan and execute. However, the time was well spent as it allowed us to leverage and highlight the unique capabilities for our department and institution.
Take time to brainstorm, accept stretch assignments and be deliberate with a plan. In 2017, St. Thomas climbed to the top of the mountain for the first-ever football game at Target Field. We enjoyed the view, learned immensely along the journey and now prepare for the next event’s climb.
Michelle Radzik Morgan
Michelle Morgan currently serves as the Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator at the University of St. Thomas. Morgan oversees the areas of athletic external relations, sports information, event management, season ticket operations, sponsorship sales and revenue generation. In September 2017, she led negotiations, planning and execution of all game operations, fan experience, ticket sales, merchandise and marketing for the first-ever football game held at Target Field, home of MLB’s Minnesota Twins. Michelle came to St. Thomas in 2010, after spending time in various roles in the front offices of the Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Blackhawks. She holds an Executive MBA and BA from the University of St. Thomas, and is a former student-athlete in women’s ice hockey.