Episode 18: Mike Hamrick, Marshall Director of Athletics

Cody Junot 00:03
Welcome to A New Game Day, powered by Nevco — changing the game in scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot, and in this podcast, we talk with College athletic administrators and leaders about a new game day. As we get set to thrive in a post COVID-19 world, we discuss what that new game looks like, what it’s going to feel like, and how administrators are already adapting and changing from week to week in our new world. After spending times as the director athletics at UNLV, East Carolina, and Little Rock, our guest today is now in his 12th year leading his alma mater. I’m pleased to be joined by Marshall Director of Athletics, Mike Hamrick. Mike, appreciate you taking the time this morning. How’s everybody with the Thundering Herd.

Mike Hamrick 01:01
Right now, and please know that I preface everything with right now as we’re speaking, everybody’s fine. It’s a Friday, off weekend. We got through another week without any major issues. And so it’s kind of just day-to-day, Cody. We go day-to-day and see hat what challenges are ahead of us for tomorrow.

Cody Junot 01:28
Yeah, it’s a little bit like March Madness; survive and advance day by day, and you don’t get too far ahead, right. Because to your point, you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.

Mike Hamrick 01:38
Well, it’s real funny. I was reading a book about Navy SEAL training. And the one guy’s motto was ‘Don’t worry about finishing the training, just get yourself to breakfast the next day.’ And if you can get up and make breakfast and that’s kind of what we’ve done. And I think that’s what everybody’s doing right now in college athletics. We’re just trying to get to the next day. We’re trying to get through the day we’re in to make sure we can survive, and I don’t use that term survive in a loose way, I really mean that. Some of us are in survival modes here. And we just try to get through to the next day.

Cody Junot 02:19
Yeah, whether it’s the testing aspect of it or the business ramifications of the business, to your point about surviving. Mike, couple things that I want to dive into here today is, you know, you guys have actually played two games. And so you’ve had the opportunity to host two events, and we’ll talk about that. But communication has been a big challenge throughout this entire pandemic, if you go all the way back to March. And so, when COVID hit, how did you go about communicating with your fans, your student athletes, your staff? And was it a big change for things that you guys were doing?

Mike Hamrick 02:56
Well, it was a big change, but the thing you have to understand is, it’s like when you communicate in this day and age, you’ve got to communicate something that just happened to you. Things happen every day and one communication one day could be changed the next day, but Cody, we started this back in May. We brought our football players back here May 20. And not many people did because we originally had a football game scheduled for August 29 on week zero at East Carolina, and I’m not sure if you know the significance of that. 50 years ago, the Marshall plane crash, we were flying back from East Carolina and we wanted to kick the year off week zero, a nationally televised game with East Carolina to honor those 75 people that lost their lives. So we’ve had our football players here… this is September 21. I don’t know what day, 23rd or 24th. We’ve had our football guys here since May 20. Our first COVID test with our football program was May 27. And we’ve been testing clear up till — we got a test last night. We test three times a week during the season. So we’ve had to do a lot of communications, but when we first started this hike, I say a hike up a mountain, we knew we needed to be prepared and we put together a task force, and obviously I’m not a doctor. No one knows much about COVID, and we put all different, a significant amount of people from different areas on this task force and we put a plan together and you talk about communication, that plan changes every day. The CDC changes, your local health department changes, your University Health people change, your state changes. Our state here in West Virginia changes every day with how they’re going to deal with COVID. So you have to have people that know what they’re doing, you have to have people that are versed on COVID, we do. Anywhere from the guy in the training room to the guy in the equipment room to the guy in the white room. Anybody who has contact with our student athletes, they have to be versed on our policies and our procedures of how we deal with COVID. So communication has been so, so important. And we communicate every day, I can tell you something on this podcast today about Marshall and about COVID and how it affects us and I can call you back tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, by the way, Cody, that’s changed,’ because we’re in a world of change. And I’m sure you’ve heard that, not just from me, but from everyone else.

Cody Junot 05:46
So continuing on that communication path. Communicating with your fans, and so not just folks inside the building that are interacting with your student athletes, but with your fans, with your constituents, right, the Thundering Herd faithful. How has it been getting the message out to them? Have you guys had to lean heavier into social and digital media? Is that something you were doing already? What’s that evolution been like since March?

Mike Hamrick 06:12
Well, I think it’s been more. We’re very good into social media with our website, with our Twitter accounts, with all that. And believe me, I’m not an expert on social media. I’m not in that age bracket. But my daughter taught me how to send out a tweet, and we’ve communicated with our fans, as soon as we know something, we communicate. But the thing you got to know, Cody, is sometimes fans ask who we’re playing, who we’re playing, who we’re playing, and I was interviewed early in August, and I told our beat writer that we might be scheduling football games the week of the game, and I think you’re seeing that start to happen. People are looking for football games for next week or last week or two weeks. And so I think the frustration from the fans is not that they get the communication. It’s when they get it. They don’t get it. You know, well, I need to plan, Cody, I need to plan a wedding in in October. Are you playing October 3? I don’t know if we’re playing October 3. And this could be two weeks before October 3 or two months. So that’s been really the frustrating thing. My staff kids me, they kid me a lot about, they ask me questions, and you know what my number one answer has been: hang tight. Just hang tight here. We’ll get you an answer. Well, you know, Mr. Hamrick, I need an answer. That’s what’s been frustrating. But I think our communications has been good whether we communicate with our student athletes, with our fans, with my president, with anybody in our department, and we all know what we’re up against. And we all know what we have to do, and knock on wood. That’s why we’ve been able to play two football games so far.

Cody Junot 08:10
You talked about playing two football games and scheduling. You’ve had both of those games at home. And so I think that probably puts you in pretty rare air around the country. So let’s go back to that opening week where you have, I believe it was EKU you coming in that first matchup, and so take me through the planning process of gearing up from a game day operational standpoint, for that first game.

Mike Hamrick 08:36
Well, Cody, we didn’t know until about two weeks out from that game if we could even have fans. But we had every scenario in place if we had fans or if we didn’t have fans. Obviously, if we didn’t have fans, it would be no big deal. But we had a plan, we socially distanced our stadium. We were able to get a little below 12,000 people in our stands. Every other people sit in every other row. There’s two or three seats in between each group. There’s no tailgating, there’s masks, there’s the way we do concessions, our suites are 50% capacity. So we had all that planned in place prior to our first game. And then when we found out through the state of West Virginia that we were able to have fans, we put that plan in place. We don’t have hard tickets anymore. Everything’s digital tickets. And you know, and the weirdest thing about all that is I usually get to the football game about five hours before the game. And the place here is electric. People tailgate. The first game, I get here five hours earlier and there’s nobody here because we’re not tailgating. We’re opening our lots up an hour and a half before. Come park, go to the stadium. It’s an eerie, eerie feeling, but I would rather be able to have 12,000 fans in our stadium than no fans. And we’ve had the same plan in effect for our first two games. And, again, knock on wood, everything has went well, our fans have bought into our plan, they wear their masks, they socially distance, our concessions are pre-packed. You can’t stand in lines close to each other. And it’s just a new world we’re living in. And you know that and I know that.

Cody Junot 10:38
Sure. So, in that game day environment and getting the okay to have the 12,000 people, to your point about showing up five hours early, I’m sure you’re meeting and mingling with folks. And there’s no tailgating, so, that’s not there for you to do. And so, along those same lines, once you get those 12,000 people into the stadium, how did you keep them entertained, whether it was in a timeout or review, whatever it may be? How has that evolved from what you would traditionally do from an on-field presentation of, the kickoff, the coin toss, all of those things, what adjustments have you had to make there?

Mike Hamrick 11:18
First of all, our band is not on the field Our band is limited in number. They’re socially distant, so you really don’t have much presence. from your marching band. We have a very good marching band, our people like to be entertained by them. So you take that aspect out of it, you take out all the promotional things that we do on the field, we can no longer do that. So when we honor our sponsor, we do it on our video boards, we’ve got him up in the corner somewhere socially distanced where they can’t be around people. So we do all those types of things. Our video, we have really good video boards. So we’ve upped our game on our video boards for entertainment, for music, but the main entertainment’s on the field, and we won 59 to nothing the first game, so our fans were entertained. And then last week, we beat the No. 23 ranked team in the country, a very good Appalachian State team. And our fans were entertained by that. We’ve changed another policy. In the past, Cody, we’ve let people leave the stadium and go to their tailgate spots and come back. Now, we don’t let people leave the stadium. So people stay in the stadium. And oh, by the way, a little hint about that. Once they leave, they can’t come back in so our fan stayed in the stadium. But a little trick I got for you. We sold a ton of beer last Saturday. Okay, so they couldn’t go out in the parking lot and drink. They bought our beer. So my revenue on concessions was way up because our people love to drink their beer at the game.

Cody Junot 12:58
Well, you know, that’s something we’re going to talk about in revenue. And I want to get that in a second. And you know, new revenue opportunities that have come way but I find it interesting. So you’re still able to incorporate a live presentation to a sponsor by just doing it in a part of the stadium that’s unoccupied?

Mike Hamrick 13:15
Yes, we roped off an area and put a backdrop kind of just like the one you see here with me, where we do those presentations virtually onto our scoreboards and our sponsors love it. So it’s really helped us from the standpoint of not losing sponsor dollars and being able to recognize the people, being able to virtually let them advertise their product to the 12,000 fans we have in the stadium. That’s why it’s important to get some kind of fans in your stadium so those sponsors can have the impressions that they need to pay the money that I need to operate our athletic program.

Cody Junot 14:00
I like that; finding a way to still incorporate a somewhat traditional presentation, just doing it in a slightly different area in slightly different way. That’s one revenue opportunity that I would say has probably stayed the same. You guys have just adopted and found a different way to do it. What are some different and new revenue opportunities that have presented itself, whether it’s doing more digital stuff on the scoreboard and getting those out or maybe incorporating those into some of the broadcast?

Mike Hamrick 14:29
Well, first of all, I mentioned the concessions. Our concession revenue is significantly up from last year because once people get in a stadium, we make them stay in the stadium, they can’t leave, they get hungry over a four-hour period. And we have our pre-contained concessions. We don’t have the open concessions. The video boards are critical, Cody. If we didn’t have those, the ability to advertise and to do the things that we need to do, we couldn’t do, so that would be something that would really, really hurt us. You know, the other good thing. There’s always unintended consequences to anything that happens. With COVID for Marshall, our first two games were on ESPN -not ESPN+ or ESPN3 – ESPN. And then this past Saturday, we played at 3:30 on CBS. So being on that platform, that television platform, our signings in our stadium got way more impressions than they ever would, therefore, our media rights people could go to those advertisements and say, ‘Hey, by the way, look here, your son was on CBS for however the advertising guys do it; three or four seconds to 1.2 million people who watched the Appalachian State game. You understand all that. So that’s an unintended positive consequence that we got because of because of the COVID situation. That game Saturday was Marshall and Appalachian State, usually that would be LSU, Alabama, because that’s an SEC time slot. So we benefited from that. And we took advantage of that.

Cody Junot 16:27
I think it’s great in recognizing that. As many punches as COVID is thrown, that’s one thing, one area, where you’ve been able to find a bright spot there for your program. Last thing for you, Mike, and you hinted a little bit ago, but we talked about how you’re communicating and some of the things you’re doing on game day. But what’s the one message that you’ve been driving home to student athletes, coaches, fans, as we, geared up for the season, and now as we sit here in late September and hopefully find a way to finish it?

Mike Hamrick 16:59
Well, there’s one message and one simple message: If you want to watch Marshal football, this fall, whether it’s the messages to our players, to our coaches, to our fans, to our staff, to anyone, you have to follow and adhere to the guidelines that we put in place. And again, as we’re talking right now, we’ve been very fortunate, Cody, in our number of positive COVID tests because our athletes have done what they’re supposed to do. They wear their masks, they socially distance, they go home, they don’t go to parties, they don’t go to bars, things that probably you and I did when we were in college, and they can’t do that anymore. And we’ve explained to them, if you want to play football, it’s up to you. It’s up to you, the student athlete, not us, we’re going to tell you what to do to mitigate COVID. If you do that, we can play Appalachian State on CBS, we can play Eastern Kentucky on ESPN, all your family can watch you play, you can do something you love. And then at the same time, we send that same message to the fans. If you want to come to our football stadium and watch our game, it’s up to you. It’s not up to us. Sit in your right seat, socially distance, don’t tailgate, wear your mask. If we do all these things, we can mitigate the spread of COVID and the less chance we have of people getting infected with the virus. Therefore the less people getting infected with the virus, we have players that can play, we have fans that can come, our health department’s happy, our universities happy, our numbers are down. And most of all, Cody, the number one thing that we’ve strived for from day one is the safety and welfare of everyone involved. And I haven’t said that in this whole podcast. But our entire plan from day one dealt with how can we play? We believed we could play. If you don’t believe you can play through what we’re in right now, this pandemic, you’re not going to play. And if you’re committed to it, you can do it. To date, now I can get some COVID tests we took last night in an hour, and I can sound like a fool, but to date, we’ve been committed. We believe that we can play college football. We love college football at Marshall. It’s what our university is all about. And we’ve been able to do that and that’s the message that I would send to anyone. Believe you can do it, and then do it, and knock on wood. we were the first. There’s nobody that brought their players back May 20 like we did, and the reason why I say that is because we were supposed to play on week zero against East Carolina.

Cody Junot 20:01
Very well said. There’s plan in place for everybody. If that plan can be executed, you can enjoy the fruits of those labors so to say by watching Thundering Herd football. Mike, appreciate the time, appreciate the insights. It has been great to catch up with you here.