As he anxiously awaits concrete details on NCAA reform and a potential ACC channel, both of which will have enormous impacts on Virginia Tech’s balance sheet, Whit Babcock continues to work on the promise he made when hired.
Indeed, the overarching theme of Babcock’s seven months as the Hokies’ athletic director has been enhancing fan experience, and during a wide-ranging interview Thursday he detailed many of those efforts, while also discussing the costs of impending NCAA legislation and the benefits of a network dedicated to ACC programming.
Just this week Tech announced the hiring of Carly Northup as an assistant athletic director for external engagement. A Northern Virginia native and Liberty University graduate, Northup worked with Babcock at West Virginia and Missouri, the latter a pioneer in catering to fans in an era when more and more are electing to stay at home.
“The fact that she had done it, worked at a school that had been progressive on that front and is a Virginia native,” Babcock said of his rationale in hiring Northup. “If you do enough little things (for fans), I think over time it adds up. Our entire staff will be dedicated to that, but Carly will have the specific focus.”
Toward that end, the school announced Wednesday the creation of a football fan festival across the street from Lane Stadium, catering to families with children, and a Hokies Xtra smart phone app for game days, complete with live stats, audio broadcast, parking and concession maps and a social wall.
Sports arenas college and professional are rolling out such amenities, and those that don’t will perish. With so many options available online and on television, today’s sports consumer demands a better spectator experience, and Babcock wants to examine Tech’s product “from driveway to driveway,” from the time a fan leaves home and turns on the radio, to arriving in Blacksburg and then returning home.
“I don’t want to overpromise,” he said, “but I certainly hope when our fans come to games this fall in football and then basketball and beyond that with our Olympic sports, I hope they notice incremental change. I certainly don’t want people to think we’re going to throw tradition out, but some strategic change, incremental change.”
Babcock and his staff, led by new associate AD Desiree Reed-Francois, also have added more videos and blog posts to the Hokies’ website — I begged Babcock not to make newspapers and their websites obsolete before I hit retirement age.
“I don’t think we’re going to put Disney out of business anytime soon,” he said, “but we’re certainly trying to move in the direction of what they practice and preach there.”
Coinciding with the football team’s preseason media day earlier this month, Tech held its first fan appreciation event. Babcock and Co. had no idea how many folks to expect.
“We were sitting there going, ‘Man, have we done all this work to have a hundred people show up? If so we’ll make it great for those 100,’” Babcock said. “But it rained like heck, and we had 4,500 through there. If the weather had been good, I don’t know that we could have handled them all. But we’ll be ready next year. …
“I really feel like we tapped into something there where people could have free access to our coaches and players and autographs and if the weather had been nice, to allow people to be on the game field to run around.”
Last football season, Tech’s streak of 93 consecutive home sellouts ended, and while upbeat about 2014 ticket sales, Babcock does not anticipate capacity crowds of 65,632 for all seven Lane Stadium dates. The Hokies this year offered two “mini-plans” of three games each, both of which did sell out.
“I felt that was a good alternate price point for people that can’t make every game or might want to dip their toe in and see what being a quote, season-ticket holder, is all about,” Babcock said. “I think it might get some younger alumni involved. …
“The last time I saw we were just under a thousand season tickets, not including the mini-plans, behind where we were last year. But we’re gaining ground, and hopefully the drop in our season tickets that we’ve experienced in the last three years has hit a plateau. As much as I would like to tell you we’re going to sell out every home game, I don’t believe we will.
With the first game less than two weeks away, the athletic department intensified marketing of $77 student season tickets — the deadline to purchase was Thursday — and Babcock expects Tech to reach its student capacity of 17,000, which includes the band and Corps of Cadets. He hopes to track and reward students who attend each game.
“That’s the season ticket base of the future,” he said. “We have not yet made enough strides on the student front, but we will, and that’s a big deal.”
Babcock credited former AD Jim Weaver, football coach Frank Beamer and former president Charles Steger with “great wisdom to keep stadium capacity at 66,000. Certainly there were days when they could have taken the stadium up to 80, and now you’re seeing everyone downsizing and come back. So they had great foresight on that, and I don’t think it will take us long to get back on the right side of supply and demand.”
More big picture, I asked Babcock about expenses Tech and other major conference schools will incur as the NCAA approves enhanced, cost-of-attendance scholarships and reacts to the recent O’Bannon legal decision that allows athletic departments to reward football and men’s basketball players up to $5,000 per year for their names, images and likenesses (NILs).