One fall Saturday a few years from now, you will probably see cars decked out in blue and gold packing the campus of East Tennessee State University and tailgating parties outside a brand-new stadium soon to be filled with fans cheering on the newly formed Buccaneer football team as they take to the gridiron.
That’s the hope, anyway.
But it may take work to get fans, specifically student fans, excited and engaged with this new football team. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal indicated students at some big-name football schools are not attending the games. These schools include Southeastern Conference powerhouses with notable brands like Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama.
But Richard Sander, athletic director at ETSU, thinks his school has an edge over long-established dynasties.
“For us, I think it’s going to be a little bit different because it’s new, exciting, it’s going to be something that students can kind of rally around,” Sander said in a recent interview. “And I think just the novelty of it initially will kind of create student participation.”
Earlier this year approval was given by the Tennessee Board of Regents for a new football program to be started at ETSU. Football has not been played on campus since the program was ended in fall 2003. A new football coach has since been hired, a new stadium is planned and a team could be on the field by fall 2015.
Sander did say there is a possibility that attendance could wane at ETSU football games once the new wears off, but he also said it was important remember that ETSU is working hard to grow the student population, which will continue to help football attendance grow.
“I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “I think we can make it a great experience and an environment that students really want to come to and I think it’ll bring a lot of life back in to the campus.”
One way to help ensure good student attendance is through student engagement. And new head football Coach Carl Torbush was hired in part because ETSU administrators felt he was a great communicator and someone who could, in fact, engage students.
Sander estimated Torbush has already been to 20 student events since being hired back in June.
“If you as an athletic department and you as a football staff are interested in what students are doing, whether it’s playing in a band or in an ROTC competition or even going to intramurals or, you know, something the Greeks are doing, if you show that you are interested in them we really believe that they will then be interested in you,” Sander said.
But beyond engagement and the actual thrill of the game, there is the whole experience of a football game with the marching band and the cheerleaders and the tailgating, and all that will have to be such that students want to come and participate, Sander said.
“So for us, I think it’s a little bit different than probably for a lot of schools that get to be a little bit of an old hat,” he said. “They’ve done it for a while and they haven’t done anything any different, I think it will decline.”
When Sander retired from his previous job and before being hired at ETSU, he did consulting work and encouraged clients to be aware of the use of social media and the technology to better engage fans and students. Students in particular are much more tech savvy now than in the past.
To that end, any new stadium at ETSU may need things like reliable wireless Internet access, which is already available across the ETSU campus. ETSU President Brian Noland has stated in the past that the preference for a new football stadium is for it to be located on campus.
Sander said there will probably be a stadium location chosen in the next few weeks.
“So I think that’s one of the other challenges, not only wi-fi, but how do you communicate with those people because now they want information instantly through their mobile device,” Sander said. “So I think that’s clearly going to be a major marketing piece for any proactive kind of forward-thinking program.”
But football is more than just that game once a week.
Sander said athletics has met with music department administrators to put together a plan for the marching band. Cheerleading and a dance team has also been a focus of planning for the return of ETSU football. Sander said all those things are the foundation for a successful football team that engages the student body.
But there is more work to be done, he said, adding that all this is just scratching the surface of student engagement.