The Indiana University Athletic Department is intent on reaping financial rewards from its football program for the first time in more than a decade with a marketing campaign built around its affable new coach, Terry Hoeppner.
IU officials said they will spend nearly as much on marketing the school’s football program this year as on Hoeppner’s $250,000 base salary.
Bolstering football attendance is a critical step toward stopping financial hemorrhaging in the school’s Athletic Department, IU officials said. In 2004, the department reported it was $2 million in the red on its $34 million budget. Financial difficulties began in 2001, when the department reported a $3.3 million deficit.
With average game attendance at 28,377 last season, there’s plenty of room in 52,500-seat Memorial Stadium to close the revenue gap.
At capacity, with seven home football games, IU could sell 367,500 tickets each season. By comparison, 15 home basketball games at Assembly Hall, which seats 17,000, can produce only 255,000 basketball tickets a season.
“Ticket prices for both are about the same, so you do the math,” said Tim Fitzpatrick, who was brought in from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point seven months ago by Athletic Director Rick Greenspan to head the department’s marketing. “Basketball is in the DNA of people here in Indiana. But football is at the heart of our financial success.”
The marketing effort is aimed at students at the Bloomington campus and alumni in regions including Indianapolis, northwest Indiana and Chicago, Evansville and Fort Wayne.
For the first time, IU has hired an advertising agency to develop creative content-The St. Claire Group, an Indianapolis-based agency, which used to work for the Indianapolis Colts.
The IU campaign includes billboards, radio, television and print advertisements. Since his arrival at IU eight months ago, Hoeppner has also been busy on the speaking circuit, with nearly 100 appearances before student and alumni groups statewide.
“Terry is as good a coach as a marketing person can have,” said Fitzpatrick, IU’s associate athletic director for external operations. “He has a great personality and is very engaging and committed. We have a very marketable commodity in Coach Hoeppner.”
Already, the campaign is paying dividends. Season-ticket sales are up from 13,524 last year to 16,662 heading into the Sept. 10 home opener against Nicholls State University. That’s 23 percent overall, with a 47-percent increase among students and 17 percent among alumni and the general public.
“Our goal was a 15-percent attendance increase, so we’re on our way,” Fitzpatrick said.
But the work is far from over, as the effort now shifts to single-game and group sales.
“We’ve taken a short walk down a long street,” Fitzpatrick said. “You don’t have 10 down years, then add 20,000 to your season-ticket base.”
IU’s football team hasn’t posted a winning season since 1994. The lackluster eras of Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo continued the downward spiral in fan interest that started in the final years of the Bill Mallory era.
IU’s financial difficulties were compounded by the cost of buying out the contracts of Cameron, DiNardo and former Athletic Director Michael McNeely. Fitzpatrick said the focus now is on the future.
He and his staff quickly moved to reduce ticket prices as part of a campaign to win new fans. Student season-ticket prices were lowered from $60 to $48 and single games reduced from $15 to $10. The prices of season and single-game tickets for non-students are $168 and $35, respectively, a $7 per-game discount on season tickets.
“This is one of the lowest ticket prices in the Big Ten, but this is what the market will bear,” Fitzpatrick said. “Our studies showed the ticket was valued below the price. We also have a lot of entertainment competition.”
In addition, Fitzpatrick moved to offer former season-ticket holders and earlybird purchasers a 10-percent discount.
“What had been missing most of all was a synergized approach to marketing,” he said.
Hoeppner was chosen as much for his ability to be a front man as for his coaching ability, said Mike Peegram, who operates the IU sports Web site www.peegs.com.
“He showed he understood what was needed to market the program,” Peegram said. “He immediately began his outreach campaign.”
It’s a theme the IU Athletic Department and The St. Claire Group quickly seized upon, fashioning a campaign with a “Coach Hep Wants You” tag line.
“Coach Hoeppner has worked harder than any college coach I’ve ever seen-certainly at Indiana-to market the team and increase attendance,” Peegram said. “He’s shown he knows more than on-field X’s and O’s.”
“He’s in a unique position to know the market,” said Mark Rosentraub, former dean at IUPUI and author of “Major League Losers,” a book about professional sports operations. “And he has a resume that makes him credible.”
It helps that Hoeppner is Indiana-born, started his career as defensive coordinator of Franklin College, and built a coaching record that includes a six-year, 48-23 stint at Miami University in Ohio.
“You just can’t recruit guys, coach them, work them out in the weight room and leave it at that,” Hoeppner said in a February interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal. “The job is much more multifaceted. I view myself as the CEO of this organization, and part of my job description, as far as I’m concerned, is reaching out to the IU and Bloomington communities, the state of Indiana and alumni all over the nation.”
Richard Sheehan, a University of Notre Dame economist and author of “Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports,” said IU’s sales job is made more difficult because the institution lacks tradition as a football school.
Hoeppner quickly sought to build a tradition, this month instituting “The Walk,” where players march in unison from the west side of Assembly Hall to Memorial Stadium before each game. Fitzpatrick is hopeful The Walk will eventually take place through throngs of fans.
But Sheehan, who studied the influences on college football attendance, said marketing can often be a cheap ploy and must be backed up with on-field success. That, for Hoeppner, he said, is still a long shot.
“It’s cheaper to market than to go out and really do what it takes to be successful,” Sheehan said, adding that IU needs improved staffing and football facilities.
Recent self-reported figures showed IU’s annual $8.5 million in football spending trailed Purdue University by nearly $2 million. The University of Michigan, in addition to outspending IU by nearly $2 million on its football program, also nearly doubled IU’s $14 million non-gender-specific sports budget, which includes such things as training facilities used by the football team.
“I don’t know that I encourage that kind of spending for a tax-supported state institution, especially with the current state budget crunch,” Sheehan said. “But that’s a big part of what it takes to succeed.”