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Click the timestamp below to jump to a specific question/topic. Scroll below for a full transcript.
John Roberson: Hi, I’m John Roberson. I’m the CEO of Advent. And today I’m joined by two important figures in collegiate athletics. Mike Sinquefield, who is the deputy AD at TCU, and Ross Bjork, who’s the athletic director at Texas A&M University. And we’re going to talk about how facilities are impacting the programs on their campuses. And so, I’m going to start by opening up with a question to you all. And, Mike, we’ll start with you, if that’s okay.
We have heard you say before in past interviews that two critical assets that you deal with are current student athletes and coaches, they’re critical to the program. But what fuels those two assets are the recruiting pipeline, and also the passion and the monetary support of fans. So as you think about those things, talk about how facilities are impacting those and what issues are coming up related to that, that you’re having to deal with and your role.
Mike Sinquefield: Well, facilities are a big part of recruiting. I mean, first of all, you know, we can’t have success without student athletes, and recruiting is going to be the major pipeline and for us is trying to keep up with the arms race as best we can. And facilities that engages student athletes, give it something that coaches can recruit to. And that in turn, brings in higher-quality student athletes, begets winning. Winning brings fan support, so it all, is cyclical and works together. But we’re going to take the approach a lot with what I do in looking at what can we do to serve our coaches and our student athletes and provide them with the best facilities we can, and the rest of it will come along with that. So that’s, that’s a big part of it is how can we do that and how can we be the best TCU. Obviously, you know, things that Texas A&M is doing and other places are doing are great and fantastic, but we also want to stay in the arms race, but it also needs to be reflective of what, what we’re trying to do in our mission and the culture we’re trying to generate with our student athletes and trickle down to our fan base and our donor base as well.
JR: Good. Ross, what about at Texas A&M and college…?
Ross Bjork: Well, I would equate the student athlete and the recruiting experience really to the fan experience. And, I think our job is how do you create enough of something that everyone can be involved. So kind of something for everyone. And so, I think that’s the challenge that we have moving forward is everybody has their own personal, what television platform now, right, I can, I can choose things independently. I can choose things in my life, you know, separate than what everybody else is doing. And so, when they walk into a facility, boy, do you have enough things where that person says, “Hey, I really liked the academic presentation.” And then the next family, of course, we’re going to promote athletics, but the next family says, “Hey, my son is going to the NFL. Show me the NFL wall. Right. I want to know how you’re going to prepare my son to get to the next level.” So it’s that something for everyone. So whether that’s graphics, whether that’s video, whether that’s technology, touchscreens, whatever all those things are when you walk in, we have to create platforms that says, every… we can speak to every recruit, we can speak to every fan that says, “You know what, that relates to me.” And you have to try to personalize it. So I think that’s the challenge. That’s where I think the digital things and the lighting and the graphics that can be interchangeable. And I think that that’s what’s key, I think, to where this has all gone, probably in the last five to eight years.
JR: So, you hit on the idea of the fan experience. We’re hearing a lot about the fan experience and how important it is, how crucial it is for continuing to evolve for your sponsor base. Talk a little bit about what your priorities are for the fan experience. You’re new in your role.
JR: But you have a terrific culture there that has always been very vibrant and very unique for the fans. Talk about what your priorities are.
RB: You know, at every place it’s different. You know, Texas A&M, very strong, unique, you know, deep, passionate traditions, right. So you have to respect that, obviously. To walk in as a new AD and say, “Hey, you know what, tell me about this, you know, midnight yell and I’ve got another idea.” Not so fast, right? So how do you blend the tradition and keeping all those elements with being innovative and bringing in new technology? Maybe it’s a different lighting scheme, right? But you still have the same, you know, tradition. So you have to be innovative, but also keep the traditional core.
And so, what we’ve tried to do around fan experience is, “Where do people gather?” And you know, and so, we instituted alcohol sales this year at Kyle Field, and we’re looking at other venues, because it’s about gathering. And again, back to something for everyone, hey, not, not everyone is going to drink and that’s okay. But where do they gather? What are those spaces look like? You know, A&M has done a great job. There’s an Arctic cool zone, right, and so obviously, it’s hot in Texas. That gives the fans a chance to cool down.
So where do they gather? What are those spaces look like? How do we convene people? How are they then connected to the game? So, is it an open concourse? Is it a standing-room-only area? Those are all the things that I think we have to be innovative about because it’s not the traditional, I’m going to sit in my seat, I have my cup holder, I’m going to watch the game and then I leave. It’s not that way anymore. We can’t be that traditional, where the fan experience has to be, you know, interchangeable, you know, throughout our stadiums.
JR: Mike, what about you, you’re in the, in the shadows of important pro markets and they’ve done some amazing things to be an experience.
MS: Sure. And we also have the challenges of being small.
MS: You know, a campus population of 10,000. We only have 80,000 living alums. Certainly a dwarf compared to what we, we see with, you know, our peers in the state of Texas. So we have to be a little bit different and try to capture, capture some of the metroplex that we can and get people to come but give them a reason to come. You can read all the articles. Everyone is facing the same troubles with declining attendance. We’re facing the troubles with not great kickoff times and in the state of Texas, the sweltering heat when it’s not ideal to get people there. So how do you try to engage them. And for us, it was, put a measure out there and what, what do our fans want to see. What do our people want to see? And we’re the same thing. We took on beer sales, because that was something that overwhelmingly our season ticket holders and our fans said, “That’s something we’d like to see.” So how can we do things that get them to want to come into the stadium, come into the venues, stay there, be a part of it, continually trying to find ways to revamp the in-game system so that they can be engaged in it, whether it be through social media, electronic devices, again, open concourses, places to go, places to gather, do something that gets them in the gate and keeps them tied into the game or the event as best we can. And, you know, it’s an amoeba out there, which we’re constantly trying to chase that and find what that is, because that generation is changing with it as well.
JR: While you aren’t huge at TCU, you have used your community to really incubate some things. You will have been a first mover in things like ordering from your phone and having a queuing line for your concession stand foods. I understand that some of your ushers are empowered, child spills their drink, you can give them a coupon to replace it. Talk a little bit about in terms of a hospitality feature, as Ross was saying, where people are gathering what you all have done specifically to change the fan experience.
MS: Well, I mean, I think about one of the things we… kind of an internal joke at TCU because a lot of times we take extra lengths to say we’re taking care of you, that we want you to come and have a great experience, and it could be, you know, that drink voucher, it could be a designated driver program, you know, with the open sales, but it’s making people feel welcome as they come in the door. And welcome to TC, we’re glad you’re here. Engaging families, you know, I go back to something Coach Patterson started back in the early 2000 that was called Bleacher Creatures and it was… he saw a way that if I can get little boys and girls to have to come into the stadium earlier to be a part of the game activity, a pregame, well, guess what, now mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather, they have to come in early as well. And to this day, we still have hundreds of kids that run down the field as the team takes the field because they had to get in line in an early queue, so that means people had to come into the stadium earlier. And that’s now 20 years past and now some of those kids have actually played for us and has created some, some other fans that not everyone is going to have the opportunity to come to TCU a lot. Well, we get it. It’s a private school, not everyone is going to be able to afford to. But we’ve got so many people in the metroplex, can we find those people that are willing to come and spend their resources to spend a day and have a great family affair in our stadium, in our festivities before the game to make it a family event they can do?
We’ve done an awful lot early on. Now it’s different when we moved to the Big 12 where we attacked… attack is not the right word, but reached out and found people in the metroplex, that were Oklahoma and Texas A&M and Texas alums. But guess what, they had a young family and they couldn’t, didn’t have the resources or the ability to go to college station or Norman or even Austin every week. “Hey, while you’re here this weekend, be a TCU fan.” Now, that’s worked out well. There’s a lot of fans now. Every other year those fans have our season tickets and they change colors on us for that one game every two years. But they’re still fans outside of when their… when their alma mater is not playing they become Horn Frog fans and part of the TCU community and the fabric that makes TCU very special in Fort Worth.
JR: So your new, new on the assignment, but what about some of the things you’re seeing and that your staff has been looking at putting in place for the fan experience?
RB: Yeah, you know, one of the things that I think people like to have when they come into a venue is, you know, local flavor, if you will. And so, one of the things that was started before I got there was bringing in local brand name concessions, you know, so the local pizza shop that everyone likes to go to, the local bar barbecue, obviously, in Texas, you know, you can, you can’t go wrong there, right, especially that brisket.
RB: Right, exactly. You know, bringing in the local flavors, right? And so, people say, “Hey, you know what, I’m used to go into this one pizza shop, you know, all the time.” And so, bringing those things in, I think has definitely helped. Back to the beer aspect, there’s a local brewing company, you know, Karbach Brewing, so they have a big presence, you know, in our venue. You know, again, the local flavor. Again, back to getting people to come to the stadium. You want to bring them in there for stuff maybe they can’t get somewhere else. But you also have to have comforts of the stuff that they like. So I think there’s that balance. So bringing in kind of the local flavor. Our biggest challenge, and this is a good problem to have is we are so big. How do we personalize it?
JR: That’s right.
RB: You know, and so, that’s the challenge that we have is how do we personalize every season ticket holder to then bring on new season ticket holders to have that kind of experience where it’s not just a mass rush, hundred thousand people every game. Boy, we have 35,000 students here, again, great problems to have. But do they all feel like they’re a part of it? Those are the things that are challenging that we all have to come to grips with as we move ahead in this conversation.
JR: In addition to winning reputations, part of what helps you with recruiting is deliberate strategies. And each of you has, whether in your current role or in the past, each of you been involved in deliberate strategies to improve the recruit walk path. Talk a little bit about what you’ve done to try to captivate that recruit when they do sign up for a visit, come with their families. What’s their walk path like and what have your coaches asked for? And what have you responded to in terms of improving that?
MS: Well, and actually, we, we’ve done two different pieces. And, obviously, you guys have been a part of both of them where football is a little bit of a unique facility. And as our facility footprint has grown and we moved and given football more spaces, make that a very genuine space just for football. And also, we did a very poor job early on. I mean, we’re comfortable our own skin and it’s TCU and it’s great, and it’s our, it’s our people and our connection with people and the warmth you feel when you come on campus. It was really special and our number one recruiting tool was our current student athletes. We realized we didn’t do a very good job of beating our own chest. We’ve had success, historical but obviously since Gary has been the head coach, a lot of success, we didn’t have that up anywhere. And so, we took the time finally to update our recruiting path, as you say, to beat our chest and showcase that Gary Patterson is one of the winningest coaches college football, the success we’ve had, the games we’ve won, his record, our bowl game series, all that type of stuff that we never did. And it gave us a chance to showcase that and then put it in a method that, that welcomed these kids. As they, as they hit the door, they knew they were at TCU football and, and we’ve got an outstanding program and now we can show that off.
And on the flipside of it, when we did the basketball arena renovation, we really didn’t have an up to date Hall of Fame, though we have a great layout and facility space, all of our sports are kind of under the same roof. Nobody had a great place to show their own self off. So when we open Schollmaier Arena, we brought on the Hall of Fame and designated a space in that for every sport. So now there was a commonality as someone comes from campus on the academic side, they walk in the front door of that and bang. There is something there for every sport along with our Hall of Fame. But there’s the mannequin and the recruiting showpiece for every sport. I mean, from equestrian to swimming and diving to basketball and football. They all have the space there and everyone in between, not only to showcase their gear, I mean, that’s one of the things that kids want to see is the gear and what am I going to get, to also the showcasing some of the historical features that each one of the programs have, and even to the professional ranks for all the sports. And we’ve got Major League Baseball players. We’ve got PGA, LPGA. So all of that is important for us to showcase and we were finally able to do that in our front door, you know, so that every student athlete that would walk in from campus, I mean, 200 feet from a student union, now you’re in the front door of athletics and now everyone has a showcase point.
JR: Ross, you’ve got a much more expansive footprint within your athletic facilities. What, what are you aware of that’s been done in terms of trying to captivate that recruit?
RB: Yeah, you know, we’re doing a couple of things. One, we’re doing a men’s and women’s basketball project where we’re really just updating the practice facility. And so, it’s a lot of just graphics and lighting and just openness, just to try and to showcase kind of a… the building was tired. The bones were good. The structure was good, but it needed just a facelift. So those projects are happening right now. And it’s all about this sort of this lighting where it just brings the buildings, you know, to a new life, if you will. So you guys are involved in that project.
The thing that I’ve noticed about sort of our palette, if you will, at A&M is a lot of white lighting. And so, we just did this tunnel, pulsating lights, you know, home of the Texas Aggies, like it, I mean, it pulsates to music, and you can customize it. And I mean, it may, it may dizzy some of our players. We haven’t had anybody trip yet. So that’s a good thing. But it’s, I mean, it has that wow factor.
And then you take that over to our expanded weight room, we have a very similar type lighting package where it’s a Nutrition Center, so it’s a fueling station, get a smoothie, you know, grab a Gatorade, grab a piece of fruit, whatever, but it’s all this sort of this white lighting. And then when you walk into our bright football complex, three-story lobby, a lot of the same type of feel and then a lot of graphics. So that’s, that’s been the A&M sort of palette, if you will. And I think that, I think that resonates, resonates with recruits. There’s a lot… it’s a positive feeling when you walk in there. It’s like, “Oh, okay, I’m here to work. There’s energy in this building.” So I think we’ve done a great job working with you all to, to capture that.
JR: You all each have honored the traditions and the uniqueness of your brands but you’ve not been afraid to take those aggressive risks and to, to punch up lighting and use, you know, LED, video-based lighting, but also use dramatic ceiling lighting that, you know, evokes the red of the Horn Frog eyes in the ceiling of the of the locker room. There are some swagger that you all are programming in without, as you said earlier, Ross, without ignoring the traditions, you’re putting in some swagger, you’re boasting about your programs. Is that important to the recruit?
MS: Oh, absolutely.
RB: Yeah, I think the confidence, portraying confidence. I think your coaches, they feed into that too, right? They want people to walk in and be like, “Okay, this is the place for me.” So I think that confidence, however you package that I think has to be part of whatever you do. Recruit walkway, the pathway as you lead onto the field, things that your fans see, maybe it’s behind the scenes, but your fans see it as part of a video package. I think all those things you have to definitely portray the confidence aspect.
JR: So let’s transition. Let’s talk about the problems that are coming your desk what, what comes to your desk in terms of issues or concerns, what needs to be addressed now? What’s the, you know, there’s always some, you know, somebody in line that, that’s got their hand out, right?
JR: That’s right. So…
RB: It’s that, but it’s also did you just see what this program just put in? Boy, I didn’t know we could have sleeping pods, you know, in the locker room. That’s a locker that folds out. Well, guess what? That’s here now. Right. And so, people are asking about that. So, I think it’s just all the new wave stuff that comes, you know, comes in our industry. But I think that’s exciting too that, hey, look, you have the ability to create these things for your student athletes. You have the ability to, to maybe do some custom things based on what your program needs. I don’t know if we need sleeping pod lockers at A&M. But you know what? The, the sleeping, kind of the sleeping rooms, we’re putting that in for women’s basketball. Yeah, that’s something that they wanted. So it’s those, kind of those new wave things, but there’s always an idea. There’s always something new. Your coaches boy, if they’re not pushing the envelope, though, then they’re probably not pushing the envelope with the sport.
RB: So you kind of want them to be aggressive, you know, in growing the program. That’s really what it’s all about.
JR: You want them out. They are advocate, they may be getting tips from first class cabins and airlines, right, sleeping pods, but you want them pushing the envelope. You’ve just got to find that balance of how you invest, how you keep all programs happy because that’s a tough thing. But as you’re doing that, leave this interview with one or two things that you see are going to impact the future in terms of recruiting or in terms of fan experience, what are the one or two priorities that you feel like we need to be talking about as a program, we need to be talking about as an athletics community within collegiate athletics in terms of priorities on the horizon?
MS: Well, I think it cover a lot of it with the simple statement of student athlete welfare. You know, we all, dealing with, you know, the new stuff that’s coming out now but it’s the mental health, the student athlete welfare. What are we doing for those young men and women while they’re here and when they leave? What are we doing the best to make sure that they’re leaving equipped to be successful in the world, to have a great student athlete experience? And knowing that we all grew up at a different day in time and the challenges we faced as students in college is much different than what our student athletes are facing now. And how can we continue to try to serve them in the best way we can so that they’re getting the most of their opportunity to come to college? Because a lot of them would not have the opportunity to be on my campus or your campus if it wasn’t for college athletics. So how can we give them the fullest experience we can in knowing that they’re very different, they’re growing up in a different world than we did? And I think that covers a lot of it.
RB: Yeah, you know, I, there’s a lot to this, you know, John, but I think it’s… we have, we have to really adapt to the modern-day student athlete, right. And they’re… they’re just different. They’re different around technology. They’re different around the, the mental health aspects of it. So I think it’s, it’s really creating, whether it’s staffing, whether it’s spaces, whether it’s coaching styles, whether it’s the academic piece, how do you put them in the best, you know, sort of mental, you know, framework where they, they can succeed, you know. And so, that’s what we have to package together as we put them in the best position possible. And so, part of that is this, all this, this talk that’s out there right now. We haven’t done a good job of telling our story about the value of college athletics. So I think in our facilities as well, how do you tell that story and put them in the safest, best mental approach, you know possible where they can achieve their full potential. That, that’s really what I think we have to do. And probably most of that is probably the mental health aspect of it.
So it’s probably, again, more staffing and maybe facility, you know, redevelopment, the fan experience, I think it goes back to what I talked about the social. I think Major League Baseball has figure this out, you know, how many, you know, sort of sitting areas that are standing-room only where I’m paying attention one minute to the game, but then I’m turning around hanging out with my friends, and then I’m back to the game. Those are the spaces that I think we have to adapt to from a fan-experience standpoint.
JR: What a privilege to get to be with these two leaders and to hear from each unique perspectives, unique campuses, unique culture, unique tribes, in each of your university settings, but to get to hear your final note there about the importance of that student athlete and the importance that you hold in terms of their health and well-being, their safety as well as how you prioritize the fan experience. And I appreciate the conversation from both of you.