Game day reimagined: Texas style
For an athletic director who made his reputation on big ideas, Chris Del Conte obsesses about the details. Each morning on a Texas football game day, Del Conte inspects the grounds in and around the stadium.
If it’s a home game, the Texas AD is hyperfocused on the setup of Bevo Blvd., the Longhorns’ supersized fan festival that stretches the length of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and then some. He picks up trash, steps off the distance between displays to make sure they’re even and pulls blades of grass from cracks in the sidewalk, literally getting into the weeds.
If it’s a road game, Del Conte scans the opposing team’s stadium looking for ideas that he might take back to Austin to enhance the Longhorns’ own fan experience. One of Del Conte’s favorite lines is “Ripoff and Duplicate,” or what he calls his version of R&D.
If there’s a way to create a better game day, Del Conte has tried it, or he’s about to.
“These days, you’ve got people staying at home and watching the game,” Del Conte said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get them there and make them want to come back. Sometimes, that requires you to change the script.”
When Del Conte, in his first football season as the Longhorns’ AD, decided last year that Texas was going to reimagine game day and create the best fan experience in college football, he didn’t just change the script. He shredded it and set it on fire.
Texas wound up completely overhauling its game-day experience inside the stadium and out with the launch of Bevo Blvd. and Longhorn City Limits, a concert series that featured acts such as Aloe Blacc.
Del Conte believed the Longhorns could give fans — all fans — a better alternative by taking the fan fest model and supercharging it. The old game day at Texas was fine for the biggest donors who parked within the shadow of the stadium, but traditional tailgating space was scarce. Everyone else was relegated to parking decks, hardly an incentive to get to the game early.
Taking lessons he learned from Disney about delivering a first-class experience and from Southwest Airlines about creating value, Del Conte and his team made Bevo Blvd. the hub for all pregame activities.
Eat, drink, shop, cheer — do it all at Bevo Blvd. And there’s no admission fee.
Texas generates more revenue than any athletic department in the country, but the Longhorns aren’t unique in one sense. They’re looking under every rock for ideas to make game day irresistible at a time when college football is enduring unprecedented declines in attendance.
At the FBS level in 2018, average home attendance dropped for the seventh time in eight years to 41,509, its lowest average in 22 years (see chart).
But the Longhorns found out last season that fans would come for the entertainment even if they didn’t have tickets to the game. As many as 30,000 fans filled Bevo Blvd. and the Longhorn City Limits concerts on game day, which combined to provide one of the most compelling combinations of sports and entertainment in college athletics.
“Back in the day, game day was about tailgating and the game,” Del Conte said. “We said, it has to be more than that. How do we add enough value that people want to come celebrate Texas, whether they go to the game or not? Just come enjoy the day and who knows, maybe that person ends up buying tickets one day.”
When LSU comes to Austin on Sept. 7, Del Conte projects that 150,000 people will be there — 100,000 in the stadium and another 50,000 outside. This is what Texas football looks like now.
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Del Conte’s pregame walkthrough last Oct. 6 was a little different. In the early-morning hours before the most recent Red River Showdown against Oklahoma, Del Conte and Executive Senior Associate AD Drew Martin walked through the Texas State Fair. Del Conte, a longtime Texas resident who previously had been AD at TCU and Rice, had never been to the fair in Dallas.
As they ventured through the fairgrounds for the first time, Del Conte went into sensory overload. He often talks about the guest-first principles he’s learned from Disney, much of which he’s instituted into Bevo Blvd. But the fair was a totally different experience.
Chris Del Conte’s R&D
Chris Del Conte has a bevy of funny one-liners, but one of the best is his definition of R&D. It’s not Research and Development — it’s Ripoff and Duplicate. The Texas athletic director is an unabashed thief of great ideas.
When asked what experiences he used in creating a series of new entertainment options for Longhorns fans, he went down a roster of events that he’s seen at other places.
What makes Texas different are the school’s resources and its ability to do fan events bigger and better.
Five events or game-day entertainment that formed the inspiration for UT’s Bevo Blvd., Longhorn City Limits and the new Smokey’s Midway:
■ Austin City Limits
■ Texas State Fair, Dallas
■ Frog Alley, TCU
■ Fan Fiesta, Arizona
■ Mustang Corral, Cal Poly
The corn dogs, cotton candy with light-up sticks, games with prizes, a dunk tank, face painting, pop-up street performers — Del Conte was enthralled. He wanted it all.
Martin, one of the architects of Bevo Blvd., feverishly took notes and snapped photos with his mobile phone, knowing that the fair, or some of its elements, might be coming to Austin.
Sure enough, when the Longhorns open the 2019 college football season on Aug. 31, a new addition to game day will be Smokey’s Midway, which will replicate — R&D — much of what Del Conte saw at the fair. The midway will stretch across the north end of the stadium, linking Bevo Blvd. on one side and Longhorn City Limits on the other.
“Chris fully understands that in order to grow our business, we’re not maintaining, we’re not hoping fans come,” Martin said. “If you’re going to grow and thrive, you have to take chances.”
Contemplating the millions of dollars Texas has spent to produce a different type of game day, Del Conte pointed to the need for a better fan experience.
“We can’t afford not to do this,” he said. “For sure, you’re taking a leap of faith, but I don’t think there’s an alternative. If you’re relying on wins and losses, I don’t think that’s plausible anymore.”
When Texas launched Longhorn City Limits and Bevo Blvd. last year, it didn’t do it to enrich its already deep coffers. Del Conte said the athletic department projected a financial loss. It costs a lot of money to hire agencies, bring in talent, book concerts and, in general, create a whole new way of entertaining fans.
Texas hired 4front, a Dallas agency, to manage and program Bevo Blvd., as well as the new Smokey’s Midway. C3 Presents was hired to book musical acts for Longhorn City Limits. Multimedia rights holder Learfield IMG College sells corporate sponsorship into all of the entertainment areas, and concessionaire Sodexo is responsible for food trucks, alcohol sales and other food and beverage.
After a slow start, Texas managed to break even last year, but taking Learfield IMG College sales into account, the Longhorns were “3x to the good,” Del Conte said. “Mucho bueno!”
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The challenges to pulling this off last year were considerable.
Del Conte asked the Longhorns’ biggest donors, the ones who parked closest to the stadium, to give up their coveted spots in favor of a new valet parking arrangement. Texas needed the space to expand Bevo Blvd.’s footprint. The donors went along.
He asked Texas’ corporate sponsors — about a dozen of them — to surrender their marketing and advertising presence inside the stadium. Part of reimagining game day included rewriting the show flow for the game, start to finish. Del Conte and Martin wanted timeouts used to fire up the crowd, play high-energy music and keep the momentum going for the home team. Sponsor mentions after a Longhorns’ touchdown no longer fit. Sponsors agreed.
“We changed the way we were interacting with our fans,” Del Conte said. “We want to deliver them a college game, the way it’s meant to be played. So, we cleaned up the entire in-game presentation.”
A substantial factor in improving the fan experience was lowering the price on concessions. Del Conte, again using his R&D, worked with Sodexo to produce fan-first pricing on 10 items, a la the Atlanta Falcons. Prices were slashed inside and outside the stadium.
The Longhorns are doubling down on fan-first pricing this season with cost-cutting on 12 new items, for a total of 22 when the season starts.
Coming soon to Bevo Blvd.
Scott Willingham has run Longhorn Sports Properties for more than 20 years, most recently for Learfield IMG College. He said close to 100 sponsors activate in some form on a Texas football game day. Here is a sampling of national and regional brands at Bevo Blvd. this year:
■ Nissan Heisman House
■ General Mills
■ Gulf States Toyota
■ Deep Eddy Vodka
■ Southwest Airlines
“When you take Chris’ energy, his fundraising ability and his personality, you start to understand why he moves at a different pace than everyone else,” said JMI Sports President Tom Stultz, who has known and worked with Del Conte across two decades. “He’s a guy who gets things done, so when you add in the resources at Texas, I don’t think anybody is surprised at what is happening there.”
All of the preparations for Bevo Blvd. and Longhorn City Limits were being made in the months leading up to the 2018 season, meaning Del Conte hadn’t even completed his first year as the Longhorns’ AD when he went to his most generous donors, the school’s biggest corporate sponsors and its concessionaire asking them to make material sacrifices.
“The guy is just fearless,” said TCU AD Jeremiah Donati, who worked as Del Conte’s Deputy AD at TCU and has known him for 30 years. “Chris never saw a mountain he couldn’t climb or a goal he couldn’t attain. I think that’s contagious to everyone around him.
“Chris has always had a ‘Field of Dreams’ mindset, which is, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ A lot of that does take a fearless approach.”
Del Conte has established himself as the best, most persuasive salesman among college ADs. Using his combination of humor and storytelling, he owns a room the minute he walks in.
Del Conte was AD at TCU when the school privately raised $164 million for a complete renovation to Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2012. In just 19 months at Texas, Del Conte has gained approval and started fundraising for a new $338 million basketball arena and a $179 million football stadium renovation. Eight families already have committed $80 million.
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As the Horned Frogs know and the Longhorns are finding out, it’s not easy to tell Del Conte no.
But sometimes his research and preparation get overlooked. That is the very essence of why Del Conte is so convincing, whether he’s making a big ask of a donor or negotiating a new multimedia rights contract.
“There’s a misperception of Chris that things just come easy to him,” Donati said. “But Chris does his homework. I don’t know anyone who reads as much as he does. He spends a lot of time studying what other schools are doing and what the industry trends are, and he’s got high expectations for his staff to deliver for his fans. That was the case when he was here at TCU and you can see that in effect now at Texas.”
Before Texas launched all of those new concepts last season, it surveyed hundreds of fans and assembled focus groups to find out what they wanted from their game day. The responses validated the Longhorns’ plans to imagine a new type of game-day experience.
Del Conte’s role throughout the process evolved, Martin said. At first, he was the idea guy, setting the big-picture vision or what it could be. Then he became the skeptic, forcing his staff to prove to him that these new concepts would work.
Texas’ fan-first pricing
A sampling of food and beverage pricing by the Longhorns and their concessionaire, Sodexo:
20-ounce bottled water
Soda in souvenir cup
Earl Campbell sausage wrap*
Chicken tender basket*
Big Bertha hot dog*
Texas chili nachos*
Texas burger basket*
*New price this season … items were reduced by $1-$2
“We took the feedback,” Martin said, “and asked, ‘What does it all mean? What can we create out of this?’ Then we threw out ideas. The thing about Chris is that he’s one of the biggest devil’s advocates I’ve ever met. Even though you may think it’s the best idea, he’s going to find ways to poke holes in it just to make sure that you’ve thought your way all the way through it.”
When the Longhorns kick off the 2019 season next week, they expect more than 30,000 people in Bevo Blvd., Longhorn City Limits and this year’s new addition, Smokey’s Midway. That number could climb to 50,000 people outside the stadium a week later when LSU comes to town for one of the most highly anticipated games of the season.
This is what Texas, one of the premier brands in college athletics, looks like when it brings all of its resources to bear.
Del Conte, in the weeks after his December 2017 hiring, told SBJ: “When you go to Texas, you know that everybody is looking at you.”
All eyes are on Del Conte, all right. Anybody who is in the business of delivering a better fan experience in college football is paying attention to the Longhorns.
“Chris has an intuitive sense of what will work and what won’t or where to take the risk and where not to,” said North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham, a longtime friend. “What he has been able to do with fans, with his staff, with the university — he builds a sense of community. And people want to come.”