Almost universally, a strong relationship between Athletics and alumni is required to consistently field competitive Division 1A athletics programs. However, previous policies at the University of Idaho made achieving this relationship a challenge.
First, about a year and a half ago, management of the ticket office for athletics events was moved under the control of the Athletics Department. This allowed ticketing systems to be modernized and tailored around athletic events. But more importantly, the emphasis of this Department is being changed from order "fulfillment" (i.e. taking orders) to sales and marketing.
Policies evolving allowing Athletics to reach out to Idaho's 90,000 alumni.|
Although these changes were instituted over a two year period in two separate decisions, these NEW policies will be combined for the first time this year. More importantly, the Athletics Department will finally be able to market Vandal Athletics to a "new" group of engaged customers: Idaho's own 90,000 alumni.
University of Idaho President Duane Nellis came to Idaho from another remotely located land-grant university -- Kansas State University –and was instrumental in changing these policies. Now, these changes should lead to stronger and broader alumni support of Idaho's ever-changing Athletics program.
PAT HAUGE: Earlier in our discussions you announced a game with Washington State for 2013. Have there been any new scheduling developments for 2013 or beyond that you can share with us?
ROB SPEAR: "No. None, because I need to be somewhat flexible and try and figure out what league we're going to be in for 2013, and how many conference games we're going to have. That's all going to dictate where we're going with football scheduling."
PH: Does that change after July, when you might get a better picture of what's going on for 2013?
RS: "I would think so. It has to be either before July [preferably], after July certainly, because we have to move forward one way or the other."
PH: Somewhere in that July window you'll know where you're headed in 2013.
RS: "We would hope so, and if it requires us to have to pick up – if we go independent and have to schedule eight more football games – we have a lot of work to do.
PH: Can you talk a little bit about what challenges you would face scheduling as an independent at U of I?
RS: "The number one thing is scheduling and finding games in the middle part of a football season. I think you can schedule games in the first five or six weeks of the season and the last two weekends of the season. But in the middle part of the season it becomes really difficult, because schools that are in conference play don't like to go play nonconference games in the middle of their conference seasons; so that and recruiting are the number one challenges as an independent."
Idaho versus Colorado State in the Kibbie Dome, 2009.|
TICKET SALES AND MARKETING
PH: So what steps are being taken to grow season tickets in football and basketball?
RS: "Well, as you know, we finally – coming up on two years ago – got control of the ticket office, and we made some changes in there. We got a new ticketing system, and we felt we really needed to change the emphasis of our ticket office from fulfillment, to ticket sales and outbound sales; so, we restructured. We are going to hire a sales manager who is going to be responsible for ticket sales. We've blended our ticket sales in with our marketing department, and we're hopeful that this new structure is going to allow us to do more group sales and be more aggressive and proactive, and help us sell season tickets."
PH: What you're talking about is something I don't think our readers realize. Can you talk a little bit about the ticket office structure – when you first took over – and the challenges you faced to affect change in how that group works to support athletics and an FBS operation?
RS: "The ticket office then never reported to athletics. It was a University entity ran by University Support Services. It was tied in to the Auxiliary Enterprise area. As you can understand and appreciate this entity was extremely important to our operation [ticket sales], but we really didn't have any control over their day-to-day operations and the expectations, and changing the culture and structure was difficult."
PH: So back then, didn't Idaho pay a large fee to Tickets West to outsource ticket sales?
RS: "We did. We paid [for their service], which is why we changed. We went away from Tickets West and now we're with NeuLion. I think it's more of a cost-effective ticketing system and allows us to be more up-to-date. It also allows us to really create a better data base of clientele that we reach out to.
"The other thing is us getting access to alumni contact lists that in the past we did not have access to. Now, with the help of President Nellis, we are getting some access to some of those alumni lists so we can do a lot more outreach, and calling, and take advantage of this new structure we have."
PH: That just came on in the last month or so, right?
RS: "It did."
PH: So before that, you couldn't call a customer [a University of Idaho alumnus] unless they were already a customer to UI Athletics?
PH: It wasn't simply that they had to be a donor to the University of Idaho, they had to actually already be a customer to UI Athletics before you could call them.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The UI has over 90,000 alumni. However, until this month, UI Athletics was unable to contact any University of Idaho alumni unless they came to UI Athletics first. So, instead of being able to contact 90,000 alumni, UI Athletics could only contact the 1,500 or so season ticket holders (who buy about 3,000 season tickets) and VSF donors who were already customers and supporters. The Athletics Department could not reach out to all of Idaho's alumni to grow ticket sales or VSF support for Vandal athletics programs. Simply put, this is a monumental change of UI internal policy towards Athletics.]
PH: Okay, switching back to ticket sales, you also have updated the operation so that your customers can buy tickets on line – they can choose their tickets on-line, including which row and which seat they want to buy. That on-line system was just developed in the last year or so?
RS: "That just came on last year with the new functionality of the NeuLion ticketing system."
PH: But you weren't able to develop that on-line ticket selling system until it came under your Department's control. Is that true?
PH: So you had a number of obstacles affecting your ability to sell tickets?
RS: "Yes, there were some challenges there. But now we've worked through those, and now that we have control over it I think you're going to see a more efficient, well-run operation that is going to focus on outbound sales and hopefully increase our ticket sales."
PH: Finally, was Dr. Nellis involved in getting both of these obstacles lifted for you?
RS: "Ultimately he makes all of the decisions in the University; so the decision to get ticketing under Athletics was approved and supported by him. And then of course allowing us to get lists from alumni that we could call and create our own data base that we could reach on an annual basis and encourage them to purchase season tickets, he was very supportive of that too.
"I might just say it would not have happened if it was not for him."
PH: Where do you see Vandal Athletics at the end of this year? Football will have just wrapped up its 2012 season and basketball will be just getting started. What do you expect for those programs this coming December?
RS: "Well, I expect both of them to challenge for WAC championships. I always have high expectations of all of our programs. We're coming off our best season ever as a Western Athletic Conference member. We unfortunately finished second in the WAC Commissioner's Cup by just a few points. I was hoping we would win that. We led it for a long time, and then, at the end, we got nipped by Fresno State, who actually gets to count one more sport (17 vs our 16). But overall that is a great accomplishment by our athletic programs, coaches and student-athletes [especially given Fresno State] has one more sport counted than us.
"But at the end of the day we were second, which is our highest finish ever in the WAC. [Overall] 14 of our 16 programs finished fourth or higher in conference play this year; so if we get women's swimming and dive and football up there, then we win the WAC Commissioner's Cup.
"It just goes to show that the overall competitiveness of your programs means nothing in regards to conference realignment. This is all driven by football success and television money. Again, my number one expectation is that we will challenge for WAC championships in every program."
PH: Looking forward, where do you see Vandal Athletics in one year, in five years, in ten years?
RS: "Boy. I wish I had that crystal ball."
PH: Are there things you're looking at doing to expand the program in those time frames regardless of conference affiliation, or are they too intertwined?
RS: "Well, I think independence in football is something that we are continuing to look at. You have to have a conference home for all of your other sports, and that's a key for me and one of the main things that we need to figure out -- whether it's in the WAC or somewhere else.
"In a year -- I mean one year from now -- we're still going to be in the WAC. Five years from now, I think with the impending anticipated restructuring, you will see Idaho in a league -- an FBS league if that's what the title will be -- out west made up of western teams. Hopefully we get back into some traditional rivalries.
"Now don't assume that that means we're going to play FCS football. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I think it's time for some of those schools to consider taking a step forward now, because you're continuing to see the main FCS players from the east continue to move up. Georgia State went into the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern is looking at moving up. Appalachian State is looking at moving up. Old Dominion just got the offer to move up to CUSA. I think schools are moving up, and I think that will accelerate and possibly make it easier, if there is some overall restructuring. In five years I think you see Idaho in a Division I league that plays a high level of football with a western flavor."
PH: So a question that is on everyone's mind is timing for expansion. Do you see an Events Center in five years? Do you see football expansion in five years? I mean, those are the things our readers are ultimately concerned about right now.
RS: "You know, I hope so. I hope that once we get it [the Events Center] on the six-year plan we can accelerate and find a way to make this happen."
Idaho versus Boise State in the Kibbie Dome, 2006.
Idaho student section making the Vandal football games an electrifying event.