Welcome to Club Erwin, where UT’s changing the gameday experience

February 16, 2015

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Austin American-Statesman

By: Brian Davis

The person most responsible for turning up the music, finding DJs and bringing fireworks to Texas athletic events is Felisa Israel, a striking brunette just under 6 feet tall with copper-toned skin, charisma and someone who, quite frankly, got a little freaked when the locals refer to her as ma’am. She’s from LA.
Israel, who has a long background in working with NBA teams, had never really spent much time in Austin. She knew of Texas men’s athletic director Steve Patterson from their days together at the Portland Trail Blazers. When Patterson came to Texas in the fall of 2013, he saw what most Longhorns fans have known for years. The Frank C. Erwin Jr. Special Events Center has about the same dull, lackluster basketball atmosphere as the name implies. No offense to the progressive former Texas regent, of course.

So Patterson hired Israel to, as she said, “sprinkle some professional sports dust on what’s going on here.”

Welcome to Club Erwin. Patterson didn’t want to know what was planned. “They told me they had some good things coming and they wanted to surprise me,” he said. Israel went to work. “The first thing that came into my head was how am I going to incorporate Kevin Durant’s MVP speech?,” Israel said.

The arena staff was incredibly helpful with some out-of-the-box ideas. What about lasers? What about video mapping, the hot new NBA craze? That’s where an image is projected onto the floor to give it a three-dimensional look. Katy Perry used it during the Super Bowl. But Israel said 90 seconds of video mapping costs $100,000. Per game. “I said let’s get a $7,500 disco ball and start with that,” Israel said. A new pregame video featuring Durant, a darkened arena, lights bouncing off the mirror ball and some on-court pyrotechnics create a completely different environment lasting 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

“I think they’ve tried to embrace who we are. I think it’s awesome,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes, now in his 17th season. “I know I appreciate it, and I know the players do.”

Listening to feedback

Remember that survey the Longhorn Foundation sent out in September asking questions about the game-day experience? An astounding 5,500 people responded. From the sound of things, Texas fans just let ‘em have it. “In every single aspect of our business, we are listening,” said Steve Hank, Texas’ chief revenue officer. Overwhelmingly, the survey results said, “the game experience in men’s basketball was not where it needed to be.” Hank promises the athletic department will conduct the survey every year to track improvements. Patterson made a lot of die-hard fans nervous when he first took over in November 2013 because he suggested changes were coming. “Everyone’s afraid of change. Everyone’s afraid of the unexpected,” Israel said.

Club Erwin is a prime example of Patterson’s laser-like focus on improving customer relations and the fan experience. That’s what Disney Institute officials stressed during their meetings with Texas administrators in Orlando, Fla. “We can’t control what happens on the field, but we can control how people feel,” said Brent Centlivre, Texas’ account manager at the Disney Institute. “Even if it’s a close game and we lost, did someone thank me for coming? Did someone say they appreciate me being here? “I’m going to remember how someone treated one of my daughters as opposed to whether Texas won the game,” he added.

Does winning or losing change how one feels about the game experience? Possibly. Everyone loves to say they were at the 2005 national championship game at the Rose Bowl. Not too many brag about being there in 2009. Cliff Mountain, the CEO of Open Labs, has been a Texas football and basketball season ticket holder for more than 15 years. He truly enjoys the new atmosphere and understands what Patterson is trying to accomplish. “Austin have a lot of places to spend their entertainment dollars,” Mountain said. “The fan experience has to deliver something incremental. Part of the incremental piece is winning.”

Bringing fans back

Reporters who cover Texas football games would be aghast at the scene in the Royal-Memorial Stadium press box. It now looks like a Wall Street trading floor, with dozens of computer workstations, dual monitors and more than 20 people smiling and dialing. The press box inside Bellmont Hall is now the home to “the largest customer service and sales team in collegiate athletics,” said Bernie Mullin, CEO of The Aspire Group. “It’s not even close.”

Patterson initially signed a one-year services contract with Aspire to outsource Texas’ ticket selling operations. Texas and The Aspire Group are now engaged in talks to sign a multiyear extension, according to Texas officials.

The partnership must be working. Men’s basketball ticket sales are way up. Sales of six-game mini plans are up an eye-popping 325 percent, from 277 packages sold during the 2013-14 season to 1,129 this season. The Aspire Group receives a monthly $15,000 management fee, according to the initial contract obtained by the American-Statesman. Ticket representatives, many of whom are mid-to-late 20s college graduates getting their first break in the sports business, receive commissions based on their weekly season-ticket sales totals. And Aspire engages in revenue sharing once Texas goes over 10 percent of its annual sales goals. No matter how many tickets Aspire sells, the company is capped at 15 percent of revenues. Every season ticket holder is assigned to a sales rep. If you are a Texas season ticket holder, odds are someone has likely tried to call you.

Carly Reger handles service inquiries and manages those responsible for season ticket retention. Max Kozinn oversees new sales. Mino Solomon runs the entire department. All of them came to UT with some kind of professional sports backgrounds. If you send an email to complain about something, these three will probably read it. “Today, there was a lady who sent an email that said my floor at the Erwin Center has been sticky since the beginning of the season,” Reger said. “Within five minutes, we’ve got somebody at the Erwin Center headed to mop the floor where she sits.”

So what about football? 

It’s clear that changing that fan atmosphere at men’s and women’s basketball is paying off. But what about football? “Wabash Cannonball, March Grandioso, Texas Fight, that is not going away,” Hank said. “We are not here to denigrate, ruin, get rid of the traditions that have made the University of Texas great. But you know what? Every tradition started somewhere.” Israel has carte blanche to try new things this fall at Royal-Memorial Stadium. As a self-professed “band geek,” she smartly brings up ways to go about highlighting the Texas band. “I definitely want to enhance it. I want to make it more fun, make them more of a presence than they already are,” she said. School officials have already confirmed to the Statesman that Jet Pack Guy won’t return in 2015. Trey Goldsmith, longtime marketing consultant for Mighty Fine Burgers, is excited about what opportunities lie ahead at Texas athletic events.

“The fact they’re willing to do a jet pack says to me they’re willing to do almost anything,” Goldsmith said.

So what’s next?

“Alien spaceship from Mars coming to drop off hamburgers!,” Goldsmith declared. “Maybe not.”


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