Episode 11: Joel Erdmann, University of South Alabama

Cody Junot (00:00):
Welcome to A New Gameday powered by Nevco changing the game in scoreboards, video displays, and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot and in this podcast series, we’re going to talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about A New Gameday, as we get ready to thrive in a post COVID-19 world. We’ll discuss what that new gameday’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how administrators are already adapting to our new realities. Our guests today, after serving as the athletic director at both North Alabama and Southeastern Louisiana, has just completed his 11th season leading the Jaguars of South Alabama, I’m pleased to be joined this afternoon by South Alabama AD Dr. Joel Erdmann. Dr. Erdman appreciate you taking the time, how’s everyone in Mobile?

Joel Erdmann (00:43):
Everybody in Mobile is doing well. July is here, so it’s muggy and it’s warm like we like it, but everything is going well and, and managing things the best that we can in an interesting time. So I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today.
Cody Junot (01:01):
You guys are in the midst of opening up a brand new football stadium, and we’re going to talk about how that planning has changed for Hancock Whitney stadium, a beautiful on campus facility that you’ve got there. But before we dive into that, you go all the way back to March, and you’ve got the Jazz and you’ve got the Thunder and seemingly the world kind of changed that day. Right or wrong, maybe being in the sports industry, that’s kind of, at least in my mindset. I know things changed that day. And so one of the things that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with leaders like yourself about is from that day moving forward. So many unknowns, still many, many unknowns. As we sit here today, how have you been able to message your constituents, your student-athletes, your fans, your coaches to keep them engaged and abreast of what’s happening as the situations change from day to day, hour to hour, minute by minute?

Joel Erdmann (01:57):
You know, and Cody, that’s tremendous question. And to kind of take it piecemeal, if you will, we have tried to be very continuous and consistent with our communication with our head coaches or our entire department, our staff, you know, being on the president’s council and some other councils on campus, I am involved in certain organizational logistics. I communicate that to the people that I’m responsible for. We’ve leaned heavily on our, head coaches to maintain an open communication with our student-athletes, not only in the world of COVID, but also education, in our society today and with the civic unrest that is throughout our country. We’ve also communicated with our fans in, in various ways, such as direct emails, but we’ve also had some video programming, some podcast programming in which we’ve attempted to keep everyone up to date with this is where we’re at. This is where we think we’re going. And here are some contingencies that we will execute along the way as the path becomes more clear.

Joel Erdmann (03:16):
So I think we’ve given due diligence to be open and to communicate. And I think that’s the key to the next two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve months is to have that ability to communicate to people. I think people are more at rest if they understand what’s going on. And even though the ambiguous aspect of everything, as long as we’re touching base and saying, this is where we’re at today, I think that lends a sense of security to people.

Cody Junot (03:48):
One of the things you touched upon there is constantly keeping folks up to date. And I think one of the innovative ways that you’ve been able to do that is, going back to mid-April, you guys launched something called JAG Bytes, a virtual lunch each and every Thursday with whether it’s yourself or coaches, you know, people that your fans, your constituents want to hear from. And so I want to take a look at that program specifically and how it came about then how it fits in with your overall structure of using social media to reach fans.

Joel Erdmann (04:22):
JAG Bytes was a brainchild of our assistant AD Megan MacLeod who oversees our marketing, branding, digital content, creative services with the intent of keeping people engaged and not sliding to the back burner. She has coordinated that programming, our coaches have been very involved to present some insights specific to their programs. And then along the way, updates on Hancock Whitney Stadium from a construction standpoint, but also a programming standpoint. I think it’s fair to say over the past couple years, we’ve really been able to develop our social media platforms and the content of social media platforms has risen to a level that we’re not perfect, but we’re getting to a better place and engaging with those fans of all different ages, through all different means.

Cody Junot (05:16):
Everybody’s doing social media, I mean, that’s a given, that’s the way you have to communicate, one of the main ways in which you can communicate with your fans and your alumni, but going back to March, did it force your hand? It sounds like you guys were already starting to pivot, and have a much more heavy hand in that social media, but then the, you know, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the changing in the way in which we communicate and the inability to get folks in a room and talk to them. Did that kind of push you guys to kind of ramp up the work you were doing on social media?

Joel Erdmann (05:52):
Yeah, I think so. And you know, that not only to the good of your fans and, and our supporters, our student-athletes and people of interest, but quite honestly, we had a little time on our hands. You know, we’re not managing games. We’re not getting on the road in a physical point of view and so we had a bit of a void to fill, and I think the good folks who work in the world of creative services have been very effective. We also have some sport programs that themselves are very active and they have personnel within the sport that work closely with our centralized marketing and communications folks. So I think when you put it all together, we’ve got a great team with an understanding. And, you know, we also coordinate with the universities platforms. So there’s a synergy, if you will, from the larger platform of the university, to the department of athletics and even into the sport programs themselves.

Cody Junot (06:57):
So it sounds like you’ve taken that new focus and really found a way to create new ways to get media and messages out. So let’s take that newness and the fact that at some point you will open up a brand new football stadium. I don’t know that we know when exactly that will be. We’re all hoping for a normal, regular September kickoff, but whenever that date comes and you get to open up that, that brand new on campus facility, Hancock Whitney stadium and all of the bells and whistles, it has, I would imagine some of the things that you and your team have been working on here over really the last year, year and a half is moving from Ladd-Peebles Stadium and finding new ways with all these bells and whistles to keep your fans entertained and engaged when there is no action happening on the field, whether it’s a timeout review, a commercial break, whatever it may be. And so how can you take, maybe some of the lessons that you’ve learned from things you’ve been able to do on social media over the last several months and incorporate that in that new gameday?

Joel Erdmann (07:58):
When we went into the design from the conceptual to the design phase of Hancock Whitney Stadium, what we learned from other stadiums that had been built in the past five to 10 years or significantly renovated was the industry has shifted and people are no longer just a large part of the consumers that are going to be in your building are not apt to sit in a chair for three hours or three and a half hours, and watch a game. There are some that will do that, but there’s a good number that want to socialize. And they want to mix and mingle. And so that in an ironic twist I think we were very effective in, in building a stadium that has specific areas for people to be social and gathered and fun with each other.

Joel Erdmann (08:56):
And now we’re going to have to shift and take those social areas and distance them if you will, but we will manage. And we will provide the best customer experience that we are able now with the social media and transition to the customer experience in the stadium. I think what we will see this year as you’re going to have more limited access to on-field traditional components of gameday, you know, however that’s defined, there’s, there’s no final decisions yet, but you may have a playing surface that literally only has players and coaches and officials, and that’s it, the band may or may not be on the field and promotions are likely not going to be on the field. The ceremonial coin toss by somebody coming from a sponsor probably isn’t going to happen. And those on-field promotions probably aren’t going to happen the way that we’re used to them happening.

Joel Erdmann (09:56):
And so I think what we are doing and will do, is we’ve got to capitalize on our visuals with our technology and our video boards, our ribbon boards, our music selection, and create an environment that is unique. It’s rich with images, it’s rich with fan interaction. It’s rich with color and sounds, bringing the fabric of the game and the experience out, even though what we all consider traditional college football may not look the same this year. And I think the folks that work in our social media areas who are skilled at that imaging and that branding and that look and that feel we’ll transfer that very effectively to our game days, not only in football, but we likely need to plan for that in basketball, baseball, and softball.

Cody Junot (10:53):
No, I think it’s a great point that you bring up there in sponsors. The traditional coin toss, as you mentioned, you know, the kick for cash, whatever it may be. The traditional promotion is probably out the window here as we plan for some sort of hopeful sporting events in 2020. And so I think that leads perfectly into the next question. Because you go back to March and the first thing that a lot of folks started saying is, well, my NCAA distributions are down. Those were cut by nearly two thirds. And you’ve seen budget cuts across the country. You’ve seen whether it’s personnel downsizing, or unfortunately, you know, the cutting of sports, there’s cost saving measures happening across the industry. And so how can you make up some of those revenues? How can you capitalize on the traditional revenue streams that you had, whether it’s that in game promotion, whatever it may be and do it a little bit differently, but then what opportunities are there for maybe new revenue streams that maybe weren’t there before, but now that we’re in this digital age and mindset have maybe presented themselves.

Joel Erdmann (11:56):
I think we need to be creative in that realm and capitalize on possible remote broadcasting to the best of our ability. The fact of the matter is going to be revenue production over the next 12 months is going to be very difficult. And, you know, if we’re limited on capacities, which I think we will be, hopefully not, but, you know, I think there’s a likelihood that that will be, that will ultimately impact the potential value of, of sponsorships.

Joel Erdmann (12:30):
You’re, going to have cases of declining ticket revenue, donor revenue, philanthropic giving, and we will need to shape and mold our requests if you will, of our donors and our customers to stay committed and to help us make it through the storm and get to a place to where we all are running in what we considered to be an environment where we can generate various types of revenue.

Joel Erdmann (13:02):
And, you know, let me, let me go down this road a little more. Depending on the circumstances group sales may not exist and, and hospitality opportunities in and around the stadium may or may not exist due to limitations on the clustering of people in a defined area. You bring up a great point about trying to be creative in generating new revenues. And I think everyone will be grasping at that and searching for that. But I also think we need to be very realistic that we’re, we’re in a time where that’s going to be pretty tough. And so I think the bigger portion of this is going to be how do we control our costs without impacting the student-athlete experience and without negatively impacting lives? I know that’s a loaded statement, but I think that’s the reality of where we’re at.

Cody Junot (14:00):
Well, I think to be fair, the cost saving measures are often overlooked. When we talk about revenues and building, and we forget that if we maybe find a more efficient way of doing things we can save costs and ultimately when you get to the revenues there, you’ll see some of that, that difference. But when it comes to those revenue opportunities and promotions, what are your partners saying? What kind of feedback have you been getting from them? Is it a two way street of sharing ideas as they get back to work and they want to continue to get their message out that, “Hey, we either never went away or we took a quick break and now we’re back.” What have those conversations look like? How have you and your multimedia rights team and your partners been working together to create those, some of those new revenue opportunities?

Joel Erdmann (14:47):
I think that our people who have those relationships and have those accounts have done a very good job at listening and explaining where we’re at, and listening to where our partners are at. Some of the partners are, you know, somewhat flattened nature from a margin. Some of our partners are actually doing really well for certain circumstances in this environment. And so those that have the ability, we do brainstorm with them and customize what we have to offer to meet their needs. Both they have a certain need or, or expectation or a group of people they want to target. We’ll do our best to customize our packages, if you will, to meet, meet what they want to do. So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Cody Junot (15:44):
I think that’s the idea right, to have both parties make the best of this situation. Working together to get through that and create opportunities for both entities. For South Alabama athletics and your coaches and your staff and your student athletes be your fans and then those partners who have been so supportive of you for their livelihood. So I think working together is going to be incredibly important. You know, the last thing I wanted to pick your brain about we talked about how your messaging and how social media at South Alabama has evolved into several new programs and, you know, to keep fans engaged as we get ready for a fall season, unlike any other, what’s the one message that you’re driving home? Whether you’re talking with friends, family, staff, coaches, student-athletes, campus administrators, what’s the one message that you’re constantly driving home. As we get set for a gameday with so many unknowns,

Joel Erdmann (16:38):
I think it’s, everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. We’re going to make it through this. We’re going to get to the other side. And we all have to have a degree of tolerance and flexibility because nobody knows what’s going to happen on August 1st. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen on September 1st. And, and hopefully as time passes if we can start to manage ourselves and start to manage the spread, then maybe we can better predict what tomorrow might bring. Right now I don’t think we can do that. And I think if you talk to health experts they’ll emphasize that, but I choose to be a half glass full guy all the time, the best I, I am able, and we will all be okay, we will talk about this for a long time, but let’s for each other. Let’s hang in there together and let’s get to the other side and let’s be flexible.

Cody Junot (17:39):
A great message of optimism there, which sometimes can be hard to keep in mind as we go through the day to day of so many unknowns. Dr. Erdmann, again, I really do appreciate you taking the time here, sharing with us. Some of the programs that you and your staff have implemented as you get set for A New Gameday in a season, unlike any other.