What do free pizza, a $5,000 iPhone app and Shia LaBeouf memes have in common? They are all tactics used by the Rice Athletics marketing team to promote game attendance and ticket sales.
Starting last semester, Rice students were inundated with emails encouraging them to attend games with promises of free food and athletic gear. The subjects lines read, “Food and Shirt Giveaways plus a chance to win $25,000,” “1,000 Students for $1,000 at Rice Football this Saturday” and "MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE! YES YOU CAN!" In response to the emails, some students attended games, and some did not. The source of these emails, and their impact on the Rice community, remained a mystery.
The minds behind the emails are Rice's Associate Athletics Director and Marketing Director Jana Woodson and Senior Associate Athletic Director and Chief Revenue Officer Tanner Gardner, along with their team of marketing staff members.
Woodson and Gardner were hired in 2014, and their unique visions for Rice Athletics catalyzed the recent uptick in promotions and adverts.
Woodson said she has spent her entire career in college athletics marketing, and, at Rice, she is overseeing all of the promotional efforts for our sports.
“I’ve been in college athletics my entire career and the marketing sector. I handle all the marketing for the athletics department and for all of our sports,” Woodson said. “That goes all the way from putting people in seats and making sure they have a good time while they’re here to community service and community involvement to in-game production.”
Gardner said he is expected to promote the Owls’ athletic events and generate revenue, and his experience in strategic management lends itself to his job at Rice and enables him to succeed.
“I’ve been here about 18 months, and my background is in the private sector doing consulting,” Gardner said. “My job is to build the brand of Rice Athletics and increase the amount of resources we generate to invest in our students.”
According to Gardner, he wants the athletic community at Rice to reflect the one he experienced as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.
“I went to Stanford, and college athletics was a really big part of the experience compared to Stanford,” Gardner said. “I was an athlete myself, so it was especially important to me, but it was also important to the rest of the campus: It was a source of connection, it was a source of pride, and I knew that was something I wanted to see happen here.”
While it may seem unfair to compare the fan bases of an athletic powerhouse like Stanford and a smaller Division I school like Rice, the history of Rice Athletics would indicate otherwise. According to Gardner, athletics were a major aspect of the Rice experience in recent decades.
“When you talk to [alumni] from the 60s, 70s and 80s and even in the 90s, they talk about athletics being one of the memorable experiences of their time here,” Gardner said. “When you match that with what we’ve since been talking to students there isn’t that same sense of pride anymore. We want these people to be our fans in the future.”
In addressing this, Woodson said that she and her team spoke to several different sources, including Rally Club members, student athletes and student leaders from the residential colleges.
“[We worked] with the students to partner with them and install things they wanted to see and just making sure that we reached them in the right realms — through email and social media,” Woodson said. “Through going out on campus, and just doing it on a regular basis to make sure students remember athletics and make sure it’s something they regularly do, rather than just hit and miss.”
Woodson and Gardner synthesized the information gained from meetings and surveys to plot different strategies to increase student attendance. The marketing staff increased advertisements and incentives, and, in total, spent $20,000 of their $80,000 annual marketing budget on students. According to Gardner, the new marketing method is not designed to produce an immediate profit.
“This isn’t generating a dollar for us short-term,” Gardner said. “As we evaluate our fan demographics, our fan base tends to be old. Our average paying customer is over 50, which is not unlike any other college. But if you think about that, if you don’t invest in the people who are going to be your fans tomorrow, then your business is going to be in trouble tomorrow.”
So far, based on the statistics provided by the marketing department, the results have been encouraging. Since Woodson and Gardner arrived at Rice, volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball have all seen dramatic upticks in student attendance. Between the 2013-14 and the 2014-15 season, men’s basketball student attendance saw the largest increase, spiking by 105 percent.
Football attendance, however, has remained stagnant, actually dipping slightly from 2014 to 2015. Despite large investments in tailgating events, Gardner said the marketing department needs to rework its approach to increasing football interest.
“What ends up happening is we have a lot of students come to the tailgate but then they don’t come to the game,” Gardner said. “So if you believe the money we are investing is meant to put students in seats then how we’ve been investing our money hasn’t been effective so far.”
Despite the setback, Woodson and Gardner believe their marketing has had a positive impact. According to Woodson, however, they have much bigger goals to accomplish before they can consider their work successful.
“Our numbers increasing have been great but they’re obviously not where we want them to be because we want every arena sold out,” Woodson said. “We always want to continue to grow and keep up with trends and make sure people are excited to come to our games.”
While it may be a long time before 47,000 fans fill Rice Stadium, the marketing department’s promotions have managed to generate interest surrounding the teams over the past two years. Whether that change can impact the culture surrounding Rice Athletics remains to be seen.