The interview lasted only a half hour, but the content was enough to fill three separate posts. Mike Polisky, Northwestern Athletics’ Associate Athletic Director and head of marketing took some time for a sitdown in person interview to go over a host of Wildcat marketing initiatives. Today we share Mike’s thoughts on the items that directly impact the gameday experience at Ryan Field in 2014. Let’s get in to it…
LTP: I was really excited about your decision to move the band and the student section to the east side of Ryan Field as part of the effort to ensure we pack that side with purple. Tell us about the response to this move from a ticket perspective (ed note: I have moved my family and about 20 friends with me to section 110 on the east side).
MP: It has been seamless so far. I believe it was a very logical decision when you take a look at the television perspective in the way they shoot our home games. Sometimes perception equates to reality even though it isn’t. Take the Ohio State game (last year) for example. Even though we had a ton of fans the east sideline is where the television cameras primarily capture the stands which gave the notion it was an overabundance of red. Certainly they had a lot of people there, but it was more 60 percent Northwestern, 40 percent Ohio State, but it didn’t look that way to a television viewer. We decided we needed to do something a little more dramatic to alter that misconception.
We took our most avid fans, our students and our band and moved them to the east side. Then, we took our visiting section which was located the northeast section of the stadium and moved them to where the students and the band were previously, which is buried from a television camera perspective.
There are a lot of benefits to doing this. The first is the Stadium Club and many of our loyal fans on the west side were staring in to what they felt like was a visitor’s side. It’s not. This Ryan Field. This is Northwestern’s home field. There is no such thing as a visitor’s sideline. It’s our stadium and we need to make sure we position it that way. That was the first step.
The second step is that our football program has decided to do something that we believe may be the first of its kind. They are going to decide which sideline to play on based on competitive factors. If you can imagine our first few games in September it may be 90 degrees outside they’ll probably want to stay on the west side where they can get the benefit of the shade. But, come late October or November games where it is much colder, the sun on the east side may provide a slight benefit. I’m not suggesting at all that this is the be all and end all in determining wins and losses, but we do think it makes sense from a competitive advantage point of view.
The bigger picture benefit of this will be that any existing or new season ticket holder who wants to sit on the east side won’t feel like they are slighted because the team is one side and they are on the other. This reinforces that we’re making this our stadium.
MP: They’re going OK. We’re up slightly versus last year which was an all-time record and considering that this is coming off of we thought was a surprise football season followed by an eventful off-season, we’re pretty happy. We are trending a little bit above the all-time record which is a good thing.
Our group sales are up 25 percent right now so we’re excited about the progress we’re making (ed note: more on why and how below)
LTP: NIU. What are your expectations for that game? A lot of people, including me, talk about that game as an attendance draw, especially considering how good NIU has been in recent years.
MP: I think there will be a lot of excitement for that game. NIU has put together a nice program over the past handful of years and I know the institution itself has taken a lot of tickets for that game. We’re hoping for a great crowd and that is our objective. Great crowds, an exciting environment and we’re excited to play our brethren from within the state. I think it makes it all the more exciting for our fans.
LTP: Let’s talk about the videoboards. Fans were extremely excited about this news and you and I have covered this quite a bit. What does this open for you from a marketing perspective having access to these new assets?
MP: It’s not a new statement to talk about the challenges of sports properties around the country, which is how do we compete with staying at home and watching a beautiful HD television and being able to pause the game to do anything from pizza delivery to picking up the kids and being able to control your environment.
We need to make sure the gameday experience at Northwestern events is worth coming out. It’s gotta be worth your time to get in the car and deal with traffic and parking and all the things that go along with attending a live event. One of the primary ways to engage is with video and entertainment. So with the football videoboards we’re moving from a 280 square foot video portion to nearly 1,200 square feet. The technology is going to be significantly better, it’s going to be a high definition feed and because of the size of it people who may in the past have had an obscured view will be able to see more. Our students and band will now have great views of the board as well.
We also have a brand new LED board that will be on the north facia, which we’ve never had before. We’ll be replacing the southern facia board with the same quality and technology as the north board. Our objective is to do everything we can to bolster the gameday experience.
Way back when Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls, Steve Schanwald did a great job of figuring out how to make the gameday experience was as important as anything that occurred on the floor because they knew at some point Michael Jordan wouldn’t be playing anymore and [Scottie] Pippen was going to go away at some point and they did a great job of setting that bar. It became a trend and we’re trying to make sure that we similarly entertain fans in between quarters, TV timeouts, pregame intros, videos that create a fun, creative and collegiate environment so that what happens on the field is important but that it is not the be all end all to the experience.
MP: You’re going to want to make sure you look good because the high definition could come and grab you. I’ll make one promise – no KissCams! Outside of that we expect to engage our fans and incorporate our student-athletes and the people that mean a lot to the university. We’re going to try a lot of different things because our objective internally is to be innovative and creative to the point where other schools and sports properties will look at us and say “wow, that’s a neat concept, let’s do that ourselves.”
LTP: You made the decision to restructure ticket pricing at Ryan Field. Explain why.
MP: What we ultimately decided to do was what consumers’ expect. If you’re sitting 20 rows up at midfield you shouldn’t be paying the same amount as someone who is sitting at the goal line 40 rows up. We used this off-season to restructure everything. It was all integrated. The students are moving, the band is moving now we’re putting a structure where the seats between the 40s are at a bit of a premium compared to the seats that are between the 20 and the 40 and those are at a premium compared to the ones between the goal line and the 20. The end zones are different. Some seats went up a touch in price, but other seats went down in price. We felt it was logical.
LTP: Thanks Mike. We’ve still a got a lot to get through so stick around for our next installment when we dive in to the broader marketing strategy questions.