SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/Colleges

SEC taps N.Y. firm for game-day research

The Southeastern Conference for years has put the best product on the football field and played in front of the most fans. Despite that, the conference’s athletic directors see room for improvement.

Within the last month, the SEC has hired a market research agency to study fan habits and behavior on game day. Now What, the New York-based firm, will spend the coming football season shadowing fans to better understand their game-day experience and, the conference hopes, answer critical questions ranging from stadium connectivity to parking, pricing and the full in-venue experience.

Conference members are intent on reversing a decline in student attendance, since that demographic holds their future customers and donors.
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Answers to these questions could affect everything from installing Wi-Fi in a stadium — a $2 million proposition — to scheduling.

Now What, which has worked with NBC, ESPN and the PGA Tour in the sports space to examine consumer behavior, will study fans on game days throughout the season and across all 14 member schools.

“We’re going to find out ways to improve the fan experience on game day,” said Kyser Thompson, a Now What director who is spearheading the SEC project. “What we do is understand people’s habits, how they think, how they behave.”

The SEC formed a working group in the spring to oversee the project. Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State’s athletic director, chairs the nine-person group. Greg McGarity from Georgia is the other AD on the committee. Michael Thompson, senior associate AD for marketing at Ole Miss, ran point on finding the right agency.

Five more administrators from across the league and ESPN’s Chris Turner round out the group. Turner, a senior director for SEC programming based in ESPN Regional Television’s office in Charlotte, has been the network’s day-to-day contact with the league since their latest TV contract went into effect four years ago.

The conference issued a request for proposal and selected Now What from a list of three market research candidates. The cost of the project was not available.

“We all know there are things happening in the marketplace that are affecting everybody who sells tickets,” Stricklin said. “Before we move forward on making a lot of decisions on the game-day experience, we want to have as much information as possible. … Technology is changing, and the way people interact with our schools is changing.

“We hear all the factors — prices, the economy, parking, inconveniences, the at-home TV experience. … Things change so fast and we’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything we can to stay ahead of it.”

Hiring a firm to study fan behavior might seem to be a curious move for the SEC, which has led the nation in average attendance for the last 15 years and won seven straight national titles. Eight of the 14 schools in the SEC average more than 80,000 fans per game.

But Stricklin, whose Bulldogs have sold out 23 straight games, said the SEC’s position at the front of college football shouldn’t be assumed, and that’s why the league’s leaders decided to move forward with a study that should provide them with fan insight they haven’t had before.

The SEC saw slight declines in average attendance in 2011 and 2012.
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A closer look at the attendance numbers show that the SEC’s average saw year-over-year declines in 2012 and 2011. ADs also have complained that student attendance is down, which worries them about their future consumers and donors.

“There’s been some softening,” Stricklin said. “But I don’t think it’s really the attendance numbers that created this interest across the conference. We want to protect ourselves from the things that maybe we don’t know.”

Now What, whose employees have a mix of journalism, psychology and anthropology degrees, is going through preparations now for a focus group for the football season.

The firm will work with each school to identify a group of fans representing each institution. Those fans will be paid to participate.

Feedback will be gathered in a variety of ways. In some cases, Now What employees will shadow fans at the games. Other times, the fans will go to a website, where Now What will gather information. A little more than 100 SEC fans in all are expected to participate.

“Fans will be blogging, so to speak,” Thompson said. “We’ll be talking to them through the season to find out about their experiences. They’ll tell us about going to the good games, the throw-away games, for lack of a better term, the scheduled bye weeks, how winning and losing impacted their experience. They’ll record videos and upload images. We’ll interview them in-person, we’ll be in their home, we’ll watch games with them, we’ll be there with their friends, we’ll go into the stadium with them.”

Once the research is finished in November at the end of the regular season, Now What will bring groups of fans together with administrators from SEC schools and the conference office to discuss the season and their feedback.

By January or February, the firm will have a report for each of the 14 schools that is presented in the form of a magazine, with features on the fans who participated. From those profiles and the information gathered, a set of recommendations will be made, specific to each school.

“What are the real issues?” Stricklin said. “What might be the opportunities? What we hope is the research will help guide our decision-making in the future. A lot of the propositions we’re talking about — like connectivity — are expensive. Before we spend that kind of money [$2 million per school to provide Wi-Fi throughout a football stadium, for example], we need to have as much information as possible.”

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