Episode 16: David Sayler, Miami University

Cody Junot (00:15):
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game with 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 set to return to the field in courts of play. We’ll discuss what the new game day’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are already adapting to our new world and surroundings. Our guest today has been the director of athletics at Miami University since 2013. I’m pleased to be joined this afternoon by Mr. David Sayler. David, really appreciate you taking the time to sit with us here today. How’s everybody at Miami and how’s everybody in Oxford?

David Sayler (00:57):
Boy, I kind of feel dizzy right now in my job between all the different scenarios I’m running through and trying to communicate with everybody and you think you’re making progress and then you have to kind of start over again, based on new data, new information. So, just a lot of moving parts and trying to keep the messaging, you know, consistent and up to date for everybody so that they can make the best decisions possible is really what I’m focused on the most right now. And ultimately of course, the health and safety of the student athletes, but that goes without saying, that’s the number one priority.

Cody Junot (01:32):
Absolutely, and we’re going to dive into some of that messaging and how you’re reaching your constituents and your coaches and your student athletes. But first, let’s start with the return to play and being a member of the Mid-American conference, the vote to delay the start of fall sports. Not necessarily what went into that decision because I know that there were a number of factors, but now that that decision has been made, from you as we look to prepare for that new game day, where has your energy and focus kind of shifted now that we know, okay, we’re not getting ready for a football season. Are you focusing on basketball? Are you focusing on your other fall sports that that could take place in the spring? What’s been the thought and the focus?

David Sayler (02:16):
Well, if you just take a step back for a minute, you know, when we canceled the rest of the spring sports season back in March, which the whole country did, a lot of the MAC ADs started talking about the concern that was present, not just for fall, but even for the next four years. And I say that because you know, all of the schools in our league are very, we’re very focused on the institution. We get a lot of support from our institutions. If the school’s not doing as well, that means that the athletic department resources aren’t as strong either. And if you miss a class one year, you know, it kind of shuffles through the next three years of problems as well. And so we started having some discussions, even back in the late spring about, you know, should we be functioning as a league the same way in terms of the number of games we play, how many non-conference games we play, how many, how much team, how many teams go to the conference tournaments that we offer, should we shrink our travel rosters, lots of different discussions. And we actually came to some conclusions and put those out to the membership and that was over the summer. And then, we were trying everything possible to play fall sports. And, you know, the challenging thing for me at Miami is that this was one of our best schedules ever in football. We had Cincinnati here at home, which is always a big rivalry game for us in football. We had army coming here, which is a great game and it was family weekend and it was going to be a really great event for us, which is always our best attended game. And then, of course, we had an FCS team on there and our FBS guarantee power five game was Pittsburgh, which was drivable for everybody from our fan base. So we really felt like coming off the MAC Championship last year, this was a year we had been pointing to for a long time to really make hay with tickets and sponsorship and everything else. And so half my struggle has just been trying to lift the staff back up, but at the devastation of losing those games and all the different things that those games were going to bring this community. We’re not going to get those games back unfortunately. It doesn’t look like even if we, you know, whatever the spring schedule is going to look like, it’s most likely going to be conference only. And, some of those teams that were not playing, they’re all still planning to play this fall at this point. We’ll just have to see how things shake out, but a lot of discussions with staff about how we can refocus. Of course, the conference is spending a lot of time trying to mirror what the schedule’s going to look like for the spring. And so we haven’t spent a lot of time as a staff on that just yet because the MAC is doing that heavy lifting right now. But I would say we’re definitely trying to get focused on basketball. And also, here at Miami, our second-best ticketed revenue sport is hockey. And it’s actually right now is generating more revenue than basketball. So we need to be prepared for whatever hockey season is going to look like, as well. And those are both slated to start in October. But if I was a betting man, I’d say that neither one is probably going to start anytime sooner than probably around Thanksgiving at this point at the earliest.

Cody Junot (05:20):
Yeah, still waiting on those official start times from the NCAA. But you touched on a couple of things that I want toto dive into. First, the communication portion of it. You go back to March and in all of the news and we adapt to this virtual reality here, you and I are doing a podcast, you know, hundreds of miles apart yet we can see each other through a video screen. How have you and your staff been able to communicate to your fans? What kind of changes did you have to make in getting the messaging out and keeping everybody of the situation as it was changing so rapidly?

David Sayler (06:01):
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of zoom calls with various constituency groups, donors at different levels group together. Some of our coaches have done their own sessions with our donors. The one thing that I’ve kind of enjoyed through this, cause there’s not many things I do, but the one is probably the media press conferences have been a lot easier because you just kind of do it like this through zoom and everybody just gets on at one time. So we’ve done multiple press conferences where we’ve been able to get out information quickly and everybody hears the same thing and everybody is on the same page from that point. That’s been one of the better ones, but phone calls, just traditional grassroots phone calls has really been key to even though the bulk of our staff has worked remotely the entire summer. They all have phones and no matter where you are, you can stay in touch with somebody, whether it’s through this medium of video chatting or podcasting, just talking face to face through your computer or over the phone. I think we’ve tried to really focus on doing that, knowing that we’re going to have to have some discussions with those fans down the road about attendance or tickets or whatever. Because we were constantly dialoguing with the governor’s office all summer, too, about if we were going to play, what were our attendance restrictions going to be? Here in Ohio, they were at one point focused on about 20% capacity and we were kind of basing a lot of things off of that, but then they were saying maybe it’s only going to be 10. And so there was a lot of moving parts, even with just knowing, you couldn’t even tell our fan base how many people were going to be able to have even into June and July. And then, everything stopped in August anyway, but those were ongoing discussions and trying to stay on top of things with the staff and also with our fan base has definitely been challenging.

Cody Junot (07:47):
You know, one of the challenges that people have shared as you go back to March since everything stopped, right? So for athletics professionals like yourself, yes, you have a little bit more free time, a lot more free time because you’re not at events in the spring, but there is a need to keep your fan base engaged, and content flowing. Well, how did you guys tackle that issue and that problem of finding ways to keep your fan base engaged?

David Sayler (08:15):
I give a lot of credit to our social media staff. They’ve put a lot of stuff out. Our coaches in particular have really taken control of a lot of their social media accounts and done a fantastic job of putting video content out and some humorous content, as well. When everything first went down, my staff was unbelievable. They were reading books to children through Twitter, kind of virtually doing the pledge of allegiance for schools and just trying to stay involved and connected with people in the community. And I give our group a lot of credit for being creative and kind of staying on the cutting edge of that. The other challenge that we dealt with was once we did some position eliminations and we lost a bunch of people in social media and even in some of our different areas of our department. And so, the workload got stretched and certainly some people picked up the slack. And I think a lot of our coaches frankly picked up the slack and did a really good job. Again, I just wanted to try to continue to have us be integrated in our community and with our fans as much as possible, not always hearing from me either. Because I think sometimes it’s more important that they hear from other people in the department.

Cody Junot (09:24):
As we move closer to maybe, you know, a vaccine and into something that’s going to resemble what we knew prior to March and everything kind of shutting down. You think those, those social media strategies and the content that you were able to create and provide, do you think that that will continue, in a post-COVID world and you know, the new normal?

David Sayler (09:47):
I think it’s definitely going to continue And I think as much from a recruiting standpoint, frankly, as it is an engagement thing, right? I think it’s both. But we’re trying to stay on top of which social media platforms are the best, they’re changing all the time. Frankly, my 13 year old is probably the person I go to for the most advice because something will happen and an example would be we’ve had a couple players who, who have NFL, you know, legitimate NFL aspirations. And they’ve been told that they’re going to get strong consideration to be drafted. We’ve had about three of those young men declare for the draft already, and they’re not going to play in the spring. And we certainly applaud them for everything they’ve done for us here at Miami, but they put their own tweets out kind of saying, you know, announcing their decision. And it wasn’t 20 minutes later, my son came up from the basement and he goes, Oh, I just saw Tommy Doyle’s going pro,’ and you know, he’s 13 years old sitting in a basement. And so the message, it’s amazing how it translates to young people and which platforms they’re really engaged with. So I’ve learned a lot from him and just try to stay up with what’s going on and our staff does a great job of that too. So yes, I think it’s critical for us going forward that we can continue to engage in all those different levels. The one part for me that’s disappointing is how hateful some of the social media has become. It’s really not a place to share a lot. You know, you try to share the positive information, but it can quickly turn into a negative place with some people taking it there and that’s something I always try to be cognizant of as well, not get too wrapped up into that side of it.

Cody Junot (11:23):
Yeah, I think that’s a great point that you bring up, but sticking with the positive sides and in the content that comes out of that, how can you incorporate that into, you know, you mentioned basketball and hockey and in those sports that are played indoors and in arenas. Whenever we return to game day, it’s going to be very different than the game day that we left. I think very much in the way that, you know, the tragic events of September 11th changed the security protocols and the way we enter stadiums, COVID-19 going to have that same impact, you know, whether it’s pre-packaged foods, it’s social distancing, it’s masks, go down the line. So how can you incorporate some of those maybe new found strategies on social media and the content to keep fans engaged that are either at home on their couch watching or those that do choose to return to your arenas?

David Sayler (12:16):
Yeah, no, those are both very valid things that we’ve talked about trying to work on. Um, and I would say they’re very different. Um, you know, how we’re going to try to engage people at home through our broadcast is trying to just provide the extra background as to what went into the game going on and when we think we can get back to normal and just trying to encourage people to stay engaged as much as they can, even if they couldn’t make it out this time. Because I do frankly think that a lot of people will choose not to come. You know, even if we had played and the governor said you can do 20%, I don’t know what our crowds would look like. I mean, we very well might’ve had people say, ‘I know I can come. I know I bought a ticket, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable coming to an outside venue at this point or an inside venue for basketball or hockey.’ and so I think just keeping those fans through the broadcast engaged and sharing what we’re doing and sharing where we are in the process of getting back to the environment that we feel is safe for fans to engage in is going to be important. And then for those that do come, I think it’s going to be important that they see that commitment, right? They need to see that we’re doing cashless transactions, we’re just scanning tickets that they can print from their house. Parking is simple and easy and no one’s really handling things back and forth. We’ve been talking about doing parking upfront and just having people pay and they just show something and they get in, they don’t have to do any transaction of any kind. So I think those types of things will exhibit to fans that they can feel comfortable. And then, while they’re there, we just got to keep entertaining with various things we do with our video boards and contests that may be pushed through their phone, that they can participate in and winners are chosen and we deliver to them in their seats, their prize, or whatever, and trying to do contests around the game itself I think is important for us social media wise to think about throughout the year.

Cody Junot (14:11):
You talk about fans returning and there’s obviously a large revenue associated with that. You go back to March and the revenues lost by no March madness and how that’s impacted things. You mentioned the cuts to your staff. You’re not going to play football this fall. And so you start adding that up really quickly and I’m sure you know better than anyone happened to have made those unfortunate and tough decisions the importance of revenue at all times, but especially now. So let’s kind of shift gears a little bit in taking the revenue aspect and looking at it. How can you incorporate your partners in maybe ways you weren’t able to before? How can you make sure that they’re getting value or more value you know, in partnering with Miami athletics and they were pre-COVID?

David Sayler (14:57):
We’ve talked about that just two weeks ago. We’re outsourced to Van Wagner as our third party rights holder, and they’ve been fantastic partners through this. We believe ESPN is still going to televise us in the spring. That’s been the communication so far is that they’re interested. I think they want to know what the dates are going to be and how it’s going to look and I think we’ll be flexible as to when those dates are to ensure the best opportunity for television. But obviously that’s one thing our partners are interested in s what is the TV schedule going to look like? And that helps their engagement, but in the meantime, we’ve talked a lot about the press conferences that we do, the social media videos that we do. Can we tag those with sponsors since those are getting the most visibility right now. We don’t do the press conferences with the backdrop anymore, but can we kind of put our own backdrop into some of these videos we put out where it engages them and fans doing delivery takeout from the different sponsors in town that are helping us and trying to link those things together to show our support. I think those are the things we’ve been talking about doing, and as games start to come back, it’s going to be critical that we find it in every way, shape and form, because we’re going to be playing sports at all hours of the day and all days of the week. There’s going to be a lot of different variety of things happening in the spring I hope. How we can continue to provide those resources to our sponsors and our multimedia rights holder, that’s really important, and we’re going to honor everything we can.

Cody Junot (16:30):
Collaborative effort between your team, your V Wagner team and your partners, everybody’s sharing ideas of different ways in which everybody can ultimately help serve each other?

Speaker 3 (16:41):
Yes, it absolutely has been. I know they talk, we talk every week with Van Wagner and they update us on the different partners. We did a lot of different deliveries to our sponsors of food. Kroger is a big sponsor of ours and they’re obviously essential workers through the pandemic and it never closed here in town. It was open every day as a grocery store. So a couple of times over the summer, our coaches and athletic staff deliver food to all the workers at Kroger during their shifts and kind of in between shifts. We thought that was important just to give back to them and tell them how thankful we are for all the things they’re doing for the community and that went a long way. Another sponsor of ours who is a restaurant in town, they helped make the food for us. So we tried to connect sponsors and have sponsors helping sponsors and just talking to the community about how important those people are and those connections that we’ve been making throughout the summer, and even here into the fall are really important for Van Wagner, for us and for the sponsors. And so we continue to find ways to do that. We’ve used ice cream sending that out. We have a senior living home here in town that’s a big sponsor and comes to a lot of our games that we send ice cream out to them one day from the local ice cream shop in town. And so just trying to find those touch points to really make people feel connected and special is what we’ve been focusing on with Van Wagner, and they’ve been great.

Cody Junot (18:08):
I think that’s incredibly important and smart in finding ways to, again, keep Miami Athletics in the forefront of people’s minds, but also helping out partners as you help out other partners. I think it’s a brilliant strategy. The last thing I wanted to chat with you about. So we’ve talked about how your messaging and how that’s happened throughout this pandemic. But what are you telling people when you talk to them and when they ask you what’s going on. This is a season unlike any other. What’s the one message that you’re driving home when you’re talking to whether it’s your friends, your family, your student athletes, your coaches, your constituents. What’s the one message that you’re driving home?

David Sayler (18:49):
I’d say that as much as we all in this business like to feel like we’re in control of what we’re doing and I know coaches like to be in control of their programs. We’re all not in control right now. There’s local county health officials, there’s university presidents, there’s conference commissioners, and NCAA making decisions. We still don’t know what the fall championships are going to look like that got moved to the spring and how we’re going to schedule around those and normally that’s not something we have to worry about, right? It’s a pretty given thing how this has worked for many, many years, and just giving up that normal thing of how things work. You know, if we do come back within the spring and play football, maybe it’s going to be on Thursday nights and for the Big Ten that might be difficult because they’re not used to that. The MAC’s a little more used to that with football played various nights of the week, but all of our sports might have to play at different times. The one thing I’ve noticed just watching the NBA and NHL, you know, in the bubbles is they’ve been playing games all hours of the day, right, when they were starting up again and we might be in that same setting. So for me, it’s just dropping the things that are very normal to you, and I’m being open to change and realizing that it’s not all in your control. And I think for a lot of us, that’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to do. So that flexibility, patience, and just not taking everything more than day by day is really what I try to focus on with our staff.

Cody Junot (20:16):
That makes a lot of sense understanding, and it’s hard to step back and let go and understand that you’re not in control. David, really do appreciate your time here. It’s been great, getting a little insight on how you guys and your team at Miami have handled things throughout this pandemic. And, you know, hopefully sooner, rather than later, we’ll see the Miami of Ohio clubs back on the on the diamond or the ice or the basketball court.

David Sayler (20:41):
We all need it because I can tell you a lot of people in our profession, one of the things that us is watching our kids compete, and I love nothing more than watching them compete and get after it and not having that as a part of our lives is difficult for a lot of people. And I know it is for these student athletes. So, amen. I can’t wait for that day we get back to that point when everybody’s running full go with all of their sports.

Cody Junot (21:05):
Indeed. David, appreciate your time.

David Sayler (21:07):
Thank you very much.