By Cameron Smith
School of Journalism and New Media Graduate Student
Fan experience when it comes to Ole Miss sports is particularly important because it helps sell tickets and creates revenue, and when the pandemic shut down the country, it changed the landscape of marketing for athletic departments at UM and everywhere else.
Paris Buchanan is the assistant athletic director over marketing and the fan experience for the University of Mississippi Athletics.
“It completely shifted, not just our school, but pretty much the entire college landscape of how we connect with fans, and really what priorities we put on it,” Buchannan said.
It was a time when athletic seasons were cut short, and everyone shifted to working from home.
“I remember in March of 2020, we all collectively took a deep breath and looked at things and said, ‘Hey, we have to kind of adjust and we have to do it very quickly. We have to do it with a lot of technology that we’re not used to,’” Buchanan said. “So, you know, Zoom, for instance, no one even knew what Zoom was.”
Buchanan said UM Athletics made leveraging Zoom a priority in engaging fans.
“We did some things where we had former players come on Zooms and we did interviews with them, we had them watch, you know, highlights of things, and then they would come and commentate on it,” he said.
Things continued to shift throughout 2020 and leading into the fall, Buchanan said they knew that fans would be coming back to athletic events at a limited capacity. The fan experience was going to look different, but they wanted to see how close they could get to a normal game day.
“We kind of said, ‘Okay, we got 15,000 people that can show up just to football, not including our other sports, and how do we make that experience good for them?” Buchanan said. “Because they’re paying for these tickets, they’re showing up and they’re kind of putting not only their health and safety on the line to show up, but they’re also putting financially a big commitment for us.’”
According to research from Deloitte, COVID-19 “amplified the critical need to reimagine the way [sports organizations] engage with their fan bases.”
The report said the “focus should be on unlocking the power of digital technologies to build year-round, two-way relationships with fans.”
Ole Miss got on trend in February of 2021, according to Buchannan.
“We brought in a director of analytics and digital strategy, who helps steer that ship in the digital side that encompasses everything from social media to even selling tickets online, targeted and paid campaigns,” he said.
Deloitte research also found that “more than 60% of fans agreed that having a great year-round experience would make them more likely to become more engaged with their team in the coming season, while 55% said that it would make them more likely to purchase a ticket in the future.”
According to Buchanan, the focus on fan experience is not solely geared toward those who are season ticket holders or students because those fans typically want to be at every game. It is also about hyping the fan experience for the 20% of fans who attend occasionally. It’s also about taking the excitement of the Grove further.
“We have a really big party in the Grove, and it’s great, and we love it. But we’re trying to make sure that that party translates into our party in the Vaught, and, and it can still be a party, you can still come have a party, we just want it to be from the Grove into the stadium.”
Buchanan’s team is also working on getting to know UM fans better.
“Now we’re having to really target and figure out, where our fans are, why are they coming? Why are they not coming? Reach out to those people and really dig a lot deeper into that data, Buchanan said. “We like to say we’re a data-driven department; we don’t like to make decisions, unless we have information in front of us that can tell us, yes, we should do this, or no, we shouldn’t.”
The focus is currently on fans who live within a 90-mile radius of the university because these fans have the flexibility to more easily make it to three football home games on back-to-back weekends.
“For the most part 90 miles, we’re really targeting Jackson, I know that’s not 90, but Jackson area, Tupelo market’s big, Memphis market, Southaven area, North Mississippi, and then the Mississippi Delta as a conglomerate of people that are kind of spread out.”
For example, Buchannan and his team are looking at creating some different football packages for families to be able to purchase a sort of mini-season ticket package next year.
“I think you’ll see, when we release some stuff, very soon, you’ll kind of see our thought process on making the ticket options for football a little more different, a little more appealing to different groups, rather than just offering a season ticket package,” he said.
The COVID-19 shutdown showed fans that they do not have to show up to stadiums every weekend to enjoy watching their favorite teams. Now Buchanan and his team are intent on winning them back to the stands with an experience they just can’t get anywhere else.