The Disney Experience? Colleges Are All Ears

June 3, 2013

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By: Michael Smith, Sports Business Journal
The SEC, during last week’s spring meetings, put together a committee to study the fan experience at football games. Among the things they’ll look at are Wi-Fi in and around the stadium, enhanced replays on the video board and better scheduling.

For Jeff James, vice president and general manager of the Disney Institute, something was missing.“Technology is great, but it will never replace the emotional connection with the fan,” James said. “We get a lot of guest letters at Disney and none of them ever point out the technology in Cinderella’s castle. They all talk about a human connection they had with a cast member.”

The Disney Institute has been around for 25 years, sharing its ideas on how to culturally run a business and interact with guests, and much of its growth in recent years has come from working with sports clients, including the NFL. Most of those sports clients have been pro teams, but Disney now sees an emerging business in the college space.

In the last few years, Disney has worked with Michigan State, Tennessee, Arizona State, Auburn and, beginning this month, North Carolina. All of the college business has been generated by word-of-mouth from one school to another.

The requests from schools generally ask for ways to improve the game-day experience. But Disney also works with them on creating a better working environment inside the athletic department. Costs can range from the high five figures into the six figures, depending on how the program is customized.

“The feedback we’ve received has been astonishing,” said Rocky Harris, senior associate athletic director at Arizona State. “People told us that they saw noticeable changes. People who have been here a long time said they’d never heard so much positive feedback.”

Harris joined the staff at Arizona State from Major League Soccer, where “fans were like gold.” He knew something was culturally amiss with the Sun Devils when he heard staff members complaining about donor requests.

“This guy gives us $50,000 a year and we’re actually trying to prevent him from getting a better parking space?” Harris said. “Customers were thought of as a hindrance. It was such a different mentality than the pros.”

Arizona State, which was in the midst of an administration change with the promotion of new Athletic Director Steve Patterson, addressed the lack of customer focus by hiring the Disney Institute in 2012 to train their employees and vendors on creating a better game-day atmosphere.

No, Mickey didn’t replace Sparky as the school mascot, but Disney was central to changing the way employees at Sun Devil Stadium viewed the fans. Disney also worked with ASU’s administration on internal relations between senior staff and employees in the department.

Disney doesn’t establish the measurements for return on investment, but Harris said there have been tangible improvements. Season-ticket holders have renewed at a 90 percent clip, the highest the school has had. ASU’s new ticket sales are up 50 percent over last year, and donations are $2 million ahead of last year’s pace.

While some of that can be attributed to The Aspire Group, ASU’s ticket marketing agency, Harris said the results are evidence that “we’ve reconnected with the fan, and they’re noticing.”

Some of the changes were common sense. Harris said an ASU vendor sold mini-footballs outside the stadium, but fans were not allowed to bring the balls inside the stadium. So fans had to turn around and take the ball back to their car before they entered.

Internally, ASU employees also asked for better communication. Too often, they said in surveys, they discovered news about their own department through the media. Athletics revamped internal communications to ensure that employees knew about news before it was released to the media, and monthly staff meetings were established.

“The next step from informed is empowered,” Harris said. “We give the staff the ability to make decisions on the fly and not feel like they’re going to get in trouble. If fans show up and their ticket is torn or whatever, don’t turn them away. If a family has to endure a rowdy fan, help them out, solve the problem. It sounds simple, but it doesn’t always happen.”

In addition to the athletic department staff, Disney trains the vendors who work with the schools, from concessions to security and parking. On an Arizona State game day, the school will have about 170 people working, compared to 500 or more from vendors.

“Getting the vendors to buy in is a major piece of this,” said Brent Centlivre, an account manager at Disney Institute who oversees the sports sector. “The colleges look at Disney and they want consistency, from the time the fan parks until they get a hot dog. We’re not trying to turn East Lansing into Disney, but there is a process behind that and that’s what we’re looking to share.”

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