UW sports: The marketing of Bucky
(Wisconsin State Journal, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jan. 30--There was a time not that long ago when the approach to marketing and promoting University of Wisconsin sports wobbled between the surreal and the simplistic.
Surreal? Those who attended Circus Day at Camp Randall Stadium in 1988 will never forget what the elephant left on the home sideline during halftime of a game against Illinois.
Simple? It was around that time that advertising the Badgers consisted mainly of a student intern with a car, a stack of schedule posters and a list of campus-area businesses to visit.
Even simpler? In the early 1990s, UW football tickets were sold through a local grocery chain and, later that decade, season-ticket brochures for women's basketball were printed on plain stock white paper, run through an office copy machine, then folded manually and stuffed into envelopes.
Understatement alert: Times have changed.
In-game promotions for UW sporting events at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center are now scripted and choreographed down to the second, employing state-of-the-art video equipment and a team of overseers.
Season-ticket brochures for six upper-tier sports -- football, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's hockey and volleyball -- are slick, multi-colored productions.
Season tickets for football and men's basketball are sold out prior to the first huddles at Camp Randall (capacity 80,321) and the Kohl Center (17,142). At the same time, UW is on pace to set another national record for men's hockey attendance while ranking among the national leaders for women's basketball, women's hockey and volleyball.
A long list of businesses in the state pay an estimated $4 million to $6 million annually to sponsor events and giveaways involving Badgers sports, including soft drinks, trading cards, refrigerator magnets, hats and T-shirts.
Schedule posters, once plain and straightforward, have imaginative themes that utilize props and studio photography.
The UW athletic department's Web site, www.uwbadgers.com, made its debut in 1996 and was recently redesigned with cutting-edge multimedia components -- that helped generate more than 47 million page views during the 2005-06 school year.
When Kevin Kluender came to the athletic department as an intern to write advertising copy and do some graphic design work in 1997, he recalls the simple approach. There was a single hour-long meeting about season football tickets. Renewal notices for season tickets looked like utility bills.
"There were no frills," he said.
Earlier this week, Kluender, now the UW assistant athletic director for marketing, attended the latest in a series of meetings about ticket sales for the 2007 football season that is still nine months off. An element of that plan is a full-color brochure insert for season tickets that features a foldout poster.
How did we get here from there?
"We started to realize that we could do things better," Kluender said. --
Long arms needed One needs very long arms to get all the way around this aspect of the $80 million enterprise known as UW Athletics.
Most of the segments are represented on the UW external relations team, which meets every Tuesday afternoon on the second floor of Kellner Hall to compare agendas, solicit feedback and troubleshoot when the need arises.
UW senior associate athletic director Vince Sweeney is joined at a conference table by Kluender, Justin Doherty from communications, Tam Flarup from Web site services, Jeff Jurgella from Badger Sports Properties, Brian Moore from the ticket office, Marija Pientka and Nate Pokrass from the Badger Fund and Jim Roberts from technical services.
At a recent meeting they discussed everything from ongoing memorabilia auctions on the Web site to fundraising efforts for Heritage Hall inside Camp Randall to Black History Month projects to a personnel opening in the ticket office to the advent of digital courtside advertising at the Kohl Center.
But the dominoes from this get-together tumble in all directions.
What this group does affects facilities management and arena control, which impacts event management, which affects security, which impacts guest services, which affects food and beverage, which impacts Bucky's Locker Room, which affects the National W Club and its concessionaires.
Then, of course, there are the two headlining entities: The 800 or so UW student-athletes and the millions of customers who pay the freight through tickets, merchandise and donations.
Keeping priorities straight, and everyone on the same page, is a daunting daily challenge.
"I think we all have the sense that the reason people are here is because of what's going on on the field and the court," Sweeney said. "We have to enhance that. You can't distract from it. You can't tarnish it. Because the thing that's drawing people here is the team and the players."
Sweeney, a former newspaper editor, has been a member of the UW Athletic Department management team since 1994. He said seeds for the current marketing approach were planted by former UW athletic director Pat Richter, who brought a consumer-driven formula from his days at the Oscar Mayer Co.
"The bacon had to be good," Sweeney said.
The process evolved through the 1990s, aided greatly by the emergence of Badgers football as a national entity and noticeable improvement in UW men's basketball.
Then came an early-August day in 2000 when UW athletic department personnel came together for a summit that produced three initiatives:
1. Communicating directly with Badgers fans -- via the Web site, newsletters and other mailings -- instead of relying on traditional media outlets.
2. Customer service and satisfaction. Selling tickets wasn't enough. Customers had to feel like they were treated well and would be inclined to come back.
3. Connecting with the next generation of UW fans, whether it be through kids days, interactive clubs or even a game day birthday party featuring Bucky Badger. Those three items "serve as the backdrop to a lot of decisions that we make," Sweeney said.
According to data supplied by the school, UW Athletics has budgeted $748,100 for marketing during the 2006-07 school year. That's roughly $150,000 more than what was spent in as recently as 2003-04 ($600,896), but still less than 1 percent of an $80 million budget.
Mark Schmitz, who runs a Madison-based design company called Z-D Studios, said $80 million businesses typically spend 15 times what the UW athletic department invests in marketing on an annual basis.
Schmitz is currently working on projects for athletic departments at Duke and Michigan State, among other schools. He said UW, his alma mater, has a national reputation for doing things the right way, whether it be upgrading facilities or promoting its 23 sports.
"They've done an amazing job," Schmitz said. "A lot of people around the country are looking to Wisconsin to see how it was done right." --
One game at a time If it's all the same to you, Kluender would prefer you don't notice what he does during game day with the Badgers. Take last week's men's basketball game against Michigan at the Kohl Center, for example.
Sitting at the scorer's table, wearing a headset and holding a two-way radio, he's part traffic cop, part choreographer and part stage manager.
Kluender is simultaneously communicating with the scoreboard operators, the student intern queuing the UW Band, marketing assistants Adam Ahearn and Amanda Benzine, as well as public address announcer Mike Mahnke.
All this is done after Kluender and his staff spend the day preparing for the game by writing scripts for Mahnke and the video board operators, as well as consulting with members of the external relations team.
"I don't want people to think about the mechanics of what we're doing," Kluender said.
A graduate of UW-Eau Claire, Kluender is trying to make sure the band doesn't play over PA announcements. He's trying to assess the controversial content of certain video replays. He's trying to make sure the halftime entertainment goes off without a hitch. He's trying to make sure that no one with a ticket notices the process.
"Some of those things will stand out if it's not right," he said. "If it is correct, people won't give it a second thought."
The key, Kluender said, is cooperation and communication in the ranks.
"None of this happens because of one person," he said. "There's a lot of talented people we work with. We do work hard. But to go to a game where it's sold out and there's excitement, that makes you feel good."
Kluender said the essence of marketing UW Athletics is the overall atmosphere, not specific teams or individuals no matter how high-profile they are.
"We never talk about wins or this player is one of the better players in the country," he said. "A lot of our messages relate to the experience of coming to a Badger game and having a good time."
Kluender works closely with a staff of seven. In addition to orchestrating the game day mechanics, they help design mailings, publications and team posters.
The posters are done in conjunction with the UW Publications Office and assistant director Earl Madden, who said the idea for themes and props came from UW associate athletic John Chadima when Chadima came from Iowa to work with the Badgers football team in 1990.
"That's what they did (at Iowa)," Madden said.
Madden laughed recalling a meeting with Bo Ryan prior to his first season as UW men's basketball coach in 2001. Madden asked if Ryan had any ideas for a poster theme.
"He said, 'Well, what if we just set up a photo shot where we just have a bunch of smoke and mirrors,'" Madden said, mindful of the fact Ryan eventually led the Badgers to the Big Ten title.
Madden said working with the athletic department is one of the more enjoyable aspects of his job.
"Their success has matched their marketing effort," he said. --
Looking down the road When the athletic department embarked on this marketing evolution back in the early 1990s, its main challenge was selling a stagnant product. Football and men's basketball were doormats. Men's hockey, which won the NCAA title in 1990, sat atop the marquee.
Now the challenge is trying to grow and satisfy a large customer base knowing that widespread success has made tickets hard to come by -- and the prices of those tickets are going up.
As guardian of the athletic department's Web site, Flarup is at the forefront of that initiative. She said the site, which is equipped with more than 300 videos and a wide range of multimedia options, is focused on keeping its content free for as long as possible.
"We don't want to nickel-and-dime fans," Flarup said, adding more advertising has been sold to ensure access remains free.
One of the more popular features of the site is live streaming of news conferences involving UW coaches, players and administrators.
Flarup said e-mail messages from Badgers fans suggest the biggest hurdle in the future involves the advent of the Big Ten Channel in this year and UW games moving further away from the major networks.
"People are still complaining that we're on ESPN," she said.
Ten years ago, no one could have fathomed the heights conquered by UW Athletics. Its facilities are among the most modern in the nation. Its teams are adequately funded. Its budget reserve is in excess of $15 million. Its turnstiles keep spinning.
Where will the Badgers be 10 years from now? Sweeney revisited a vision offered by former UW deputy athletic director Jamie Pollard before Pollard left to become AD at Iowa State.
The vision: That when someone walked into an airport convenience shop anywhere in the U.S., Badgers merchandise would be for sale.
"I would like, in 10 years, that somehow Wisconsin is in that elite category," Sweeney said. "When you ask people far, far away from Madison, Wisconsin, to list the top five athletic departments in the country, our goal is that amongst the five schools that they rattled off, Wisconsin is on that list."
Copyright (c) 2007, The Wisconsin State Journal
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