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Volume 21 No. 39


Hope and pray that a presidential visit isn’t in store for your sports event — if you are an organizer or a fan. That’s the lesson from President Donald Trump’s appearance at the College Football Playoff in Atlanta. I felt bad for CFP organizers, including Bill Hancock and Michael Kelly, and the executive team of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Steve Cannon, Rich McKay and Scott Jenkins, among others, who had planned for years on successfully executing around this big event. I felt even worse for the fans, many who waited two hours in a damp, cold rain to get into the facility for such a highly anticipated game. 

All of us have experienced a similar situation and can agree that it sucks. There is so much talk about — and steps taken — to improve the fan experience, that when it breaks down, it’s discouraging. When you hear officials of Mercedes-Benz Stadium talk, you can sense their incredible frustration about what occurred, as they were as angry as anyone. The takeaway is simple: during a presidential visit, especially one announced just a few days out, organizers lose control on directing and handling logistics. 

“When we found out the president was visiting, we tried to understand the impact of it. It’s hard to do,” McKay said during a recent meeting with our editorial staff in Charlotte. Stadium officials expressed frustration by the dearth of communication from the Secret Service, who took over the event, bringing in their own metal detectors and dictating access points.  As one said: “They have a reason for what they do, but they are not going to tell you.” McKay outlined all the steps the organization took — from stressing to fans to get to the game early, to moving up entrance openings by 30 minutes, to trying to shift people who were waiting in the rain to more accessible gates. But as evidence of how hard it can be to make nimble adjustments, officials said that even when told that another gate had no wait, fans refused to move, concerned of losing their place in the long line they had already invested time in. “We sent people out to tell them to move and many did, but many didn’t,” McKay said, wearily. “We just couldn’t get people to move around. Next time, we’d probably be more vocal and louder to try and get people to move.” 

Little worked right that night to get people in the building for an organization that has worked hard at the fan experience in their new facility, and has been ranked atop recent NFL fan studies for operational excellence. “It’s not something we were happy with,” McKay said. 

We all remember the powerful moment when President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11, but such historical moments are rare. Face it, fans get understandably excited during a presidential visit. But in the future, the White House and event organizers have to do all they can to minimize the disruption, however possible. Because while a visit from a sitting president amplifies attention and excitement around an event, it may not be worth the headaches, challenges and  frustrations for organizers and, most importantly, fans.

Stadium officials in Atlanta grew frustrated as a number of factors delayed fan entry.
Photo: getty images

ADVANTAGE ATLANTA: The business success of the AMB Group, which includes the Atlanta Falcons, United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and PGA Tour Superstore, among other entities, has been impressive. Company executives outlined the highlights of 2017 and plans for 2018 during a meeting with our editorial board in Charlotte, and a couple of things caught my eye. First, less than 4 percent. That’s the shockingly low number of overlap between season-ticket holders of the Falcons and the Atlanta United. Second, the United’s inaugural season success is well-documented, but I still can’t believe they have a season-ticket base of 35,000 and are seeing a 92 percent renewal rate. This is a franchise that could average an amazing 50,000 per game next year. Third, the PGA Tour Superstores saw 15 percent same-store growth this year, e-commerce sales were up a massive 42 percent, they added four stores and have plans to grow from 31 stores to 50 over the next few years. While not predicting a sudden upward trajectory in golf sales, executives feel the game’s retail business has stabilized. Finally, expect to see some results soon from the Falcons’ closely watched value-pricing food and beverage offering. Remember the industrywide angst over the $2 hot dog and $2 bottle of water? Well, early indications are that sales surpassed even the organization’s expectations. My question is simple: Who will be next to follow the cost-conscious model?

ME AND MY UNCLE, A UMASS MAN: I attended the funeral service for my uncle, Dr. James Ralph, of Amherst, Mass., earlier this month. The Ralphs, my mother’s side of the family, instilled a strong love of sports in me, and my Uncle Jim was very influential in teaching me the nuance of competition, as well as introducing me to some great athletes and teams. He worked at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and was the team physician for the athletic department from 1964-97. Over that time, he developed close relationships with several athletes and coaches, and introduced them to our family. In the early 1970s, he told me stories about a young basketball player, Julius Erving, that he called one of the most special young men he encountered. That was followed by the gift of a classic autographed photo of Dr. J wearing a New York Nets uniform and scrubs performing “surgery” on a red, white and blue ABA basketball (I still have it), and it began my long appreciation of Erving’s talents. Uncle Jim shared stories about Lou Roe, Marcus Camby and, of course, John Calipari, who went on Twitter immediately after my uncle’s death to praise him. My uncle loved being a part of the UMass athletic family, and was inducted into the UMass Athletic Hall of Fame. He remained a season-ticket holder and attended home games of various sports — sometimes taking in three games a day — even while his health declined. He personified what it meant to be a “team” doctor, and the outpouring of support from former athletes and coaches reinforced how much of a positive impact he made on people.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

Last February, fans gathered in Houston to watch an unforgettable Super Bowl. The battle between the Patriots and Falcons will be especially memorable for the lucky fans who paid to be at the game. The price of witnessing sports history? A small fortune, with ticket prices ranging from $4,744 to $74,928.

Consumers pay that much money to attend events like this because they expect a unique experience. And the best way to meet those expectations is by taking a hands-on design approach to guarantee that no matter which team fans root for, their experiences last longer than the time they spend inside the venue.

For most fans, the experience begins the moment they pull into the parking lot and doesn’t end until they arrive home. Providing a fully immersive experience for fans means brands, teams and venues have to carefully think through and collaborate on every detail. Explore the property. Learn exactly what path guests will take to find their seats, make their way to concessions, or explore an activation.

The bluemedia team worked with GMR Marketing and the NFL to create experiences meant to engage fans at a multitude of touch points within the stadium itself, including the secure fence line that surrounded the stadium, which depicted images and information related to the state of Texas, the Super Bowl, and past winners. The signage aimed to make the most impact at the south entrance to the stadium, where most fans entered.

The team also looked beyond the stadium, creating experiences to build anticipation about the big game and boost fan engagement weeks before kickoff. At Houston’s Discovery Green Park, we crafted a projection show to celebrate the sport and tell the story of the rivalry between the Falcons and Patriots. Part of the digital show was projected on a large water screen, and the rest was mapped onto a nearby hotel building. The show played several times each night during the five days leading up to the Super Bowl.

Also, experiential graphics for the NFL’s team hotels and headquarters hotel, NFL House, area airports, media center and many other entertainment centers throughout the city were themed consistently for the Super Bowl and reinforced the fan journey even though they weren’t in the stadium itself. Each asset was designed to keep fans, players, guests of the NFL, and even Houston’s own residents excited about the game ahead.

Fan engagement and creative design at big events extends well beyond the game itself.
Photo: getty images

Want to determine whether your hands-on efforts are giving your fans the experience they paid for? Consider these three strategies:

1. Check your ticket sales, and listen to the purchasers.

Produce online surveys for ticket holders, and pay attention to the results. Monitor single-game and season-ticket sales to determine whether group events deliver the desired fan experience. Every touch point you have with a fan is an opportunity to tell a part of your story through simple, consistent, and well-timed messaging.

Keep an eye on social media to recognize trends and potential areas for improvement. If numerous fans are posting about a failed marketing tactic, listen to them. Change your messaging or redesign the path to their seats — do something to respond to the problem; don’t just ignore the issue.

2. Understand guests’ physical journeys.

Don’t stop working once it’s clear that customers are buying tickets to your experience. Understand where and how each guest will navigate through the stadium. If they’re sitting way up in the cheap seats, for example, how will they make their way down to the nearest concession stand? Technology such as AmpThink and Umbel can help marketers understand the fan journey.

Marketers can also keep track of fans’ social media posts via geofencing, which uses GPS or a radio frequency to let an administrator establish a geographic boundary and alert administrators when customers with smart devices enter that area. You can also monitor Wi-Fi opt-ins to help you know where fans’ seats are and how they move around the stadium. If, for example, you notice a fan had to stand in line for eight minutes to buy a beer, send a coupon his or her way to say, “Sorry you had to wait so long — have a beer on us.”

3. Update designs based on results.

As fans increasingly expect the entertainment value of sporting events to extend beyond the field, marketers should create sponsorship and activations that add to the experience. Don’t overwhelm fans by adding to the clutter — engage them through cohesive, consistent messaging.

It’s hard to gauge a stadium’s environment from off-site, but what you can measure is social media feedback, merchandise sales, and customer activation levels. Companies such as Ampsy can help you keep track of how customers are interacting with various parts of the stadium in real time. If a sponsored lounge isn’t getting any customer activations, it’s not working to bring customers back, and it’s time to rethink your design strategy.

Designing an immersive, captivating experience for sports fans can take a game from a day of fun to a lifelong memory. Hands-on collaboration among brands, teams, and venues is a surefire way to give people their money’s worth and make events like the Super Bowl one-of-a-kind. Just be sure to check the score after your design is in place.

R.J. Orr is an executive vice president and partner at bluemedia.

For further information on guest columns, contact Jake Kyler at (704) 973-1436 or  

I was lucky enough to work with Dick Enberg for many years, as he served as the national spokesman for the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame program and hosted its annual induction ceremony. Dick maintained a rare blend of qualities that made him well-liked and highly respected by everyone he met. A consummate professional, Dick carried a high passion for academics and education throughout his career, recognizing and elevating achievement in the classroom as a quality every bit as valuable as success on the playing field.

Beyond his stature behind the mic, Dick’s personality was one of kindness, good humor and a gentlemanly manner — a rare and admirable mix. He was never an intrusion on the events he covered, only an appreciative guest.

He will be missed by everyone he touched.

Jim Millman
Founder, Millsport