Episode 1: Chris King, Robert Morris University
Welcome to A New Game-day powered by Nevco. I’m your host Cody Junot and in this new podcast series, we’re going to talk with college administrators and leaders about A New Game-day. As we all get ready to thrive in this post-COVID-19 world, we’ll discuss what A New Game-day is going to feel like, what it’s going to look like, and how administrators across the country are already adapting to our new surroundings and rules.
Cody Junot: (00:00)
Welcome to A New Game-day powered by Nevco. I’m your host Cody Junot and in this new podcast series, we’re going to talk with college administrators and leaders about A New Game-day. As we all get ready to thrive in this post-COVID-19 world, we’ll discuss what A New Game-day is going to feel like, what it’s going to look like, and how administrators across the country are already adapting to our new surroundings and rules. I’m pleased to be joined by a leader that many of you are familiar with, past AD of the year award winner who spent 10 years down at UTRGV and is finishing his first year as the director of athletics at Robert Morris. Excited to welcome Chris King. Chris. Good afternoon. Appreciate you taking the time. How’s everyone in Pittsburgh?
Chris King: (00:41)
Well, I mean we’re doing well. I mean it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster of emotions over the past six weeks. And if you go back to Tuesday, March 11th, when we had the NEC men’s basketball tournament, you know, on ESPN2 and the men’s basketball team, you know, won the tournament. And we’re excited with that. We’re getting a chance to play an NCAA March Madness game and we’re hosting our women’s basketball tournament as well. We’re hosting men’s hockey tournament and we had three different tournaments being played in an eight-day span. And so based on the success of those programs and you know, then, you know, 48 hours later we’re finding out that, uh, you know, the, we’re the number one seed that we’re being, crowned the champs of the women’s tournament because of the tournament being canceled.
Chris King: (01:19)
And so we thought we had both teams in the tournament and then 24 hours later we find out that the tournaments had been canceled. You know, the men’s hockey term, it was canceled all spring sports and their championship seasons were canceled. And so you kind of go through that roller coaster of emotion, you know, for them, you feel horrible for those athletes. And the, and the coaches and you know, really led into, you know, we lost a lot of national visibility, potential revenue generation and a lot of marketing and media opportunities with that NCAA March Madness bid for, you know, an institution such as Robert Morris, the Northeast Conference. And so, you know, but it’s been a little bit of crisis management over the last six weeks and we’re living in a virtual world and virtual culture with 80 staff members. And so we’re making it through and we’re looking forward to this next upcoming season.
Cody Junot: (02:03)
Yeah, everybody I think is looking forward to getting out of this, this virtual world. A lot of folks I’ve been talking to are meeting now more than ever, you know, whether it’s on the zoom or just over the traditional conference line. And I know that one of the things that keeps coming up in the conversations I’m having, and you’ve mentioned it a little bit there about branding and messaging, right? Studies have come out where some kind of indicate that maybe folks are ready to get out to events, others maybe not. But once we get the all-clear to return to activities, how are you messaging to your constituents, to your fans that it’s going to be safe to come out, you know, to enjoy the Colonials, right? You’ve got this beautiful new 4,000 seat facility. What’s kind of the messaging that you and your team are working on and having with constituents you’re talking to now?
Chris King: (02:51)
Well, you know, we’re spending a lot of time on what are we doing in the present and we’re spending a lot of time on what we do when we actually return to campus in the fall, uh, or later on, potentially in the academic year. And you know, presently, you know, we’ve done a lot of grassroots efforts and we’ve done a lot of human interest stories and you know, whether it’s on competitive excellence or it’s stories hearing from our head coaches or our student-athletes. And you know, one of the things that we’ve done with our tickets, you know, we’ve had to adjust our timelines for our season tickets. And so we’ve had to update our ticket and development, communication, our renewal timelines. You know, we have to be very sensitive and, and be considerate to our fans during this time of economic uncertainty.
Chris King: (03:27)
But, you know, once we have a better idea of the future, we’ll put together a communication plan to kind of update our key constituent groups. You know, as information becomes more available from the NCAA, our conference and of course some regional and local governmental agencies. You know, we’ve kind of took on what I would consider embracing a new media technology to kind of connect with our fans beyond just sports and competitive excellence. And well, one of the things that we started doing is we had these relive the win type videos and commentary type sessions with our head coaches. And as an example, they replayed our RMU Men’s Hockey Tournament game in 2014 and the NCAA, actually had our head coach take over the NCAA Ice Hockey Facebook page, and Twitter feed, which was a pretty cool deal.
Chris King: (04:09)
We had some of our former athletes involved in some of the commentary and you know, over the next month we’re going to replay that NEC men’s basketball tournament game. We got to do one with our previous women’s basketball tournament championship game and they’re going to have in-game commentary, you know, from our head coaches. And so that’s one example. We’ve done a lot of zoom chats that we talked about before you got on the podcast today and you know, our coaches have done, you know, discussions with, you know, we have a lot of talent here in the city of Pittsburgh with our broadcasters and from the print media and the radio and so they’ve done a lot of zoom chats with our coaches on the current state of athletics and sports specific.
Chris King: (04:48)
And know one of the other things that I did was, is that we actually had an RMU athletics, virtual town hall meeting with our donor base. And I did a current state of the department. I talked about what COVID-19 issues that we were dealing with, from athletics from our budgets, NCAA revenue distribution, you know, are we going to bring back our senior student-athletes and what does it look like. And then also looking at some of our initiatives and core priorities for next year. So, you know, we’ve been doing quite a bit and it’s the new normal, I guess you could say. And in a good way I think that our fan base has embraced, you know, without sports being available. You know, what we’ve been able to provide as far as content for those fans.
Cody Junot: (05:27)
I’m a big believer that innovation is going to get us out of this crisis. And you touched upon it there a little bit, right? In that you guys have become more socially present, doing more social media, right, doing different things. That may be, you know, in your first year as you’re kind of watching and observing, you’re doing a lot more of that than making, you know, hands-on changes. But yet you guys have had to adapt to this new normal as you put in. That perfectly plays in until my next question is using that social media right in those new skill sets that you guys have developed as a team, I mentioned that the 4,000 seat UPMC event center, once you get fans back in there, how can you incorporate some of that digital and social media to keep them entertained right? During those TV timeouts during halftime, how is your interaction once you get fans back on campus, back into your arenas, back into your stadiums? How can you guys incorporate this social media that’s really become much more engaging?
Chris King: (06:27)
Well, when you talk about our message and how we’re going to market differently and then how how we’re going to do that through social media and in-game experiences. We’re, looking at a number of different initiatives in the summer and the fall. Chelsea Blakely our deputy athletic directors, chief marketing officers, she was with me for the past 10 years at UTRGV. She came up this past fall. She’s worked really hard with herself and the external relations team as well as our multimedia rights holder, Taymar Sales U, in both our ticket sales and corporate sales general managers that we just recently hired on. And so they’re putting together a marketing and media relations initiatives and a longterm plan. And so one of the big, I guess, initiatives we’re really working on for our fan engagement and how to market directly with our constituent groups is we’re going to create a new athletics app launch this summer.
Chris King: (07:19)
You know, it’s going to have a lot more Game-day exposure then maybe what has been done for Robert Morris, we’re going to put in the fans fan rewards program, a student rewards program to drive attendance, to improve our engagement across our digital platforms and our touchpoints. And, you know, we will be able to increase our value and opportunities for our corporate sponsors. And so it’s a big initiative and big undertaking. A lot of schools, you know, have the athletics app, but we’re fortunate that we’re going to be able to tie in our ticketing and tie in our corporate sponsors and drive a lot of value there and you know, we’ll be able to tie in a lot of our other special events and our coaches shows we’re going to have a new TV coach’s show with the leading station here in the Pittsburgh area. And so that’s just some of the small ways that we’re looking to kind of really drive the fan engagement.
Cody Junot: (08:03)
When you think about innovation, what are the things that your team’s discussing? You know, internally looking at ways in which as we think about COVID-19 and how it’s changed the way we act and some of our hygiene habits of touching and washing hands and those sort of things. Now are there a couple of things that your team is working on to try to, I guess put at ease as much as possible folks who return to your events?
Chris King: (08:28)
At RMU we have an emergency management team. It’s comprised of a number of faculty staff across campus. And they’ve kind of leading the efforts for the president’s cabinet, which I serve on as a vice president and providing us a lot of information and education. We’re also fortunate that we have a president, Dr. Chris Howard, who is very influential throughout all higher education but also in college athletics and has a ton of resources and uh, has a number of contacts, particularly Dr. Brian Hainline who is the head of the NCAA Sports Science Institute, and he has a direct line into Dr. Hainline and so you know, we’ve looked into, we created a, what’s called a COVID-19 ad hoc committee. It’s comprised of a number of athletic staff members from our deputy AD, chief operating officer that will oversee that committee as well as our head trainer, head strength coach, a number of other staff members in athletics.
Chris King: (09:14)
And so they’ll work direct hand in hand with the emergency management team. But you know, they’re looking at a lot of different things, what it looks like, what conditions might be for fans when we’re able to return to competition, you know, what are the entry points, you know, what are the precautions, will everyone have to wear masks? Are there enough hand sanitizing stations, can stadiums be at full capacity or do they have to be at half capacity? And you know, so those are all the things that they’re kind of looking at. We were fortunate to have a lot of great resources, as I said, the NCAA and they’ve provided a lot of direction, and again, we’re really going to be mostly focused on, what the NCAA, indicates to us, provides us direction. And so that committee has gotten a number of resources in particular from NATA, which is called the National Athletic Trainers Association and so they provide a lot of resources for them to utilize from, you know, preparation to return to campus. When staff returns, when student-athletes return, when you return to training, return to competition. You know, what’s the coordination? What education do we have to do? You know, what’s the screening like, you know what COVID-19 testing is going to be available. And it is a very comprehensive and broad responsibility for this committee and so I’m very fortunate to have a very good group of administrators that are heading that up for RMU athletics.
Cody Junot: (10:30)
Yeah. I think when you start peeling back the onion, you realize just how many layers there are that go into running and operating events, even though you’re familiar with, you know, from the parking attendant to the security to the concession worker, to the IT person, right, that’s on standby just in case something goes wrong. But when you really dive in and look at it, it’s as you pointed out, just a massive undertaking to start working through each and every one of these steps.
Chris King: (10:55)
No, absolutely. And I can tell you, the last six weeks, you know, trying to balance your everyday job as an athletic director and then also as a vice president on the president’s cabinet. And then also you’re responsible for 80 staff members, 22 administrative areas. You know, 16 sport programs and you’re dealing with a new virtual world, you’re dealing with new, virtual culture, and then the balance that you have a pandemic. And so you know, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of moving parts to everything that we’re trying to do. There’s way too many uncertainties, way too many unknowns, and we really have to kind of over-communicate, collaborate quite a bit, utilize all the resources we have on campus and in our communities. And so, you know, it’s been something that has not been great for anybody. But I can tell you crisis management 101 and crisis management plans got a lot stronger over the last six weeks for all athletic departments.
Cody Junot: (11:43)
You know, you touched upon this a little bit earlier and budgeting and revenues, right? And so you were slated to have two clubs head to the NCAA tournament, your men’s and basketball team, your hockey was still playing, NCAA distributions obviously were, were cut. So that money is limited. What are some of the things that you guys are looking at as possible revenue drivers when it comes to returning to sport, right? You talked about hand sanitizer stations. Is it as simple as, you know, slapping on the local dairy logo there and what are some of the things that you and your partners are talking about as you look to try to find additional revenues? Because one thing that is certain is that everything we just talked about in all of the different departments that are being looked at as we get set to return to sport is those are going to have costs associated with them. And so what are some of the potential revenue opportunities that you and your staff are looking at?
Chris King: (12:35)
Well, we have a lot of different revenue opportunities. We were looking at even prior to the pandemic. And so, when, when we hired on Taymar, we hired them initially to deal with our ticketing, our marketing and customer service oversight in our plan and that aspect. And so we’ve been in the middle of doing our strategic planning on how to enhance that process, the ticket sales and operation side. And you know, we’re collaborating with Taymar to develop different fan experience opportunities for groups of games as an example. Uh, but then we actually went one step further. We decided to actually bring on Taymar in our corporate sales partnership and expand the relationship for additional revenue opportunities. It is the uniqueness of a ticket sales team and a corporate sponsorship team for additional opportunities. And so, you know, Mark Dyer, he’s just done a fantastic job.
Chris King: (13:21)
I know we finally got him on board for the ticket sales in January. They actually doubled the revenue than what we expected in our ticket sales area, the new GM for sales for corporate, he actually started this week and he used you his current time wisely. He developed a really good strategy for organizing and growing or outreach to fans and creating value for sponsors. And so, you know, there’s, there’s been a lot of discussions and how we’re going to team up that ticket and corporate side. There’s some uniqueness that you have to decide upon is, is that there’s your general standard revenue-generating and that’s what they’re going to hone in on and make sure that we organize that and have that set up. But then there’s a lot of other unique things that, that we’re going to take a look at from, you know, the other digital inventory that we might better utilize through that athletics app that we talked about.
Chris King: (14:08)
You know, you know, there may be an opportunity where fans can not be in the stands. And so we have our NEC Front Row, you know, video streaming and our audio-video type broadcasts. So maybe a lot of sponsor, partner, opportunities there as well. And so there’s just, there’s a, there’s a lot of opportunity and I think everybody’s trying to start to explore that. I mean, you know, we just talked today doing a virtual sellout at our football stadium for a game this fall in case we don’t end up playing. And so, there’s a lot to that, you know, for the home opener and, and, uh, you know, we would maybe charge per seat, you know, with a commemorative ticket certificate and you know, there’s a lot of corporate opportunities and the corporate sponsor of the game and, you know, there’s a posting a digital game program and doing different features in our student-athletes and their zoom chats that you can do. There’s just a lot of virtual opportunities that exist, the virtual auction that we talked about to do with this virtual sellout. So I think everyone’s going to get very unique, very creative. There’s going to be, I think a lot of new digital inventory developed that we’re all gonna probably steal off each other over the next 12 months.
Cody Junot: (15:18)
Yeah, I think getting creative, really pushing, you know, we talked about earlier, something your team was doing. I think we’re going to see a lot of departments who, let’s face it, most were there, but I think a lot are going to be fully, fully invested in that now in this new world that we live in. And you know, Chris, the last thing that I want it to pick your brain about here is, we talked about messaging a little bit earlier, you know, but when you’re talking with constituents one-on-one or you’re talking with your staff or even your family, what’s that one message you’re driving home as we gear up for while we don’t know when, we do know that we will eventually return to that new Game-day. What’s that one message you’re driving home?
Chris King: (15:56)
Well, I’ll use an example. You know, we did the AD virtual town hall to our donors last week. You know, one of the things I really kind of hit off the bat was number one, I’m an athletic director. I’m not a medical professional, and I’m not a politician, and I don’t have all that behind the scenes information. A lot of it’s very uncertain and unknown at this point. But you know, there is so much uncertainty around this, but we’re developing plans as we, you know, are going to operate as normal in the fall hopefully. And then, we’re working through our different contingency plans as information continues to become available. I know we’re spending a lot of time on our student engagement plan, our ticket sales plan, our corporate sales plan, and put a lot of new initiatives and how we tell our story for our fan base and our fan experiences.
Chris King: (16:38)
And you know, this is my first year and so we’ve already started our strategic planning process. You know, this is something we start every April and preparation for the next year and there’s just a lot of initiatives we want to work on and put in place internally, externally to enhance our student-athlete experience and grow our brand. And we’re just weaving through these moving parts into that process. As information becomes available and you’ve got to be ready with a message to communicate to your constituent groups once you return to camps and competition.
Cody Junot: (17:04)
Yeah. There’s no doubt being ready, being prepared for, while we may not know what’s coming next, it’s having a plan in place when we find out what is, what is next. And it sounds like your team there at Robert Morris is certainly taking those steps to make sure that you’re ready when everyone gets the all-clear. Chris, really appreciate you taking the time to join us and giving us some really valuable insights to how your team there at RMU preparing for A New Game-day when we returned and this post COVID world. Really appreciate it.