Episode 19: Chasse Conque, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Cody Junot 00:15
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game in scoreboards, video displays and scoring solution. I’m your host, Cody Junot. And in this podcast series, we speak with college athletic leaders and administrators about a new game day as we all adapt to our new world, dealing with COVID-19. Talk to leaders about what the new game is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how those leaders are already making changes and adapting to our new surroundings. Our guest today, after spending nearly five years at Little Rock, leading the athletic department there is now close to his second year leading the athletic department at UTRGV. Glad to be joined by Chasse Conque. Chasse, good morning, how are you? Appreciate you taking the time.

Chasse Conque 00:59
You bet. Well, Cody, good to good to speak with you, appreciate you having me on and all as well in the valley today. So we are we’re doing well. Good to be with you this morning.

Cody Junot 01:09
Yeah, glad to hear everybody’s doing well down there. You know, we were talking beforehand. And where I’m at in South Louisiana, where you are in South Texas, both unfortunately been impacted by hurricanes at some point in time this year. Glad to hear that everybody’s doing doing well there.

Chasse Conque 01:27
Yeah, for sure. And you know, what we’re talking about earlier, the 2020 has been one heck of a year. And it’s certainly presented its fair share of challenges. And as you look at our communities, and you look at the folks in Southwest Louisiana, obviously our thoughts and prayers with those at McNeese and in Lake Charles, but we too had a storm come through towards the end of July, Hurricane Hannah. And luckily it was category one that was manageable, but caused us some disruption and a couple of steps back, but it’s really amazing that the Valley has bounced back, we had quite a bit of flooding and some damage. And so yeah, 2020 continues to pile on, you know, a few few obstacles, but resilient folks down here, just like in South Louisiana. And again, we’re on the other side of it, which we’re fortunate for.

Cody Junot 02:16
As we sit here and talk in in early October, thankfully, just a few months left in 2020. We’ll see if 2021 can, can be a little bit kinder to to not just us, but the entire world. And it goes back to March of 2020. At least when COVID-19 kind of really became a reality, you go back to Rudy Gobert and the Jazz, the Thunder, and I think that’s when it hit everybody, right. And so I want to start there Chasse and just discuss communication, and how communication has changed from prior to that March to then where we are today here in early October. And you and your staff about communicating with your co-workers, your student athletes, but also your friends and keeping them up to date with all the changes that were happening, forget day by day, but really hour by hour.

Chasse Conque 03:07
Yeah, it’s a great point. And it’s definitely changed. Everything’s very, very different, you know, than our normal workflow and communication flow that we had pre COVID. I go back to that moment you you just described and we were in Las Vegas at our conference Basketball Championships are women just played their first game that Wednesday evening, and our men were set to play in their first round game Thursday, we had our senior team and obviously fans and administrators out there. And those hours, when you said hour by hour, those couple of days, they were so critical. And then everybody’s really trying to better understand what’s going on, understand the impact that it’s going to have. And then make sure that you’re keeping your young people safe, and you’re keeping their families informed. And so there’s a lot of moving parts, but really the communication as we saw COVID and we saw the pandemic really start to form and have an impact on our country. I really give a lot of credit to our president here UTRGV, Dr. Bailey, a lot of communication in early March, you know, leading up to the tournament, you didn’t know where this was going to go, you didn’t know how disruptive it was going to be. But you certainly had to be prepared that could be the case. And so we did have a plan in place that if we were to get to Las Vegas, and we were to be disrupted, or we would see the tournament canceled, how quickly we can get our young people out of out of Vegas and back home? How quickly can we get our spirit groups and making sure we’re communicating with everybody that we needed to, but you go back to those days. And I have a wonderful senior leadership team here at UTRGV. And we’re sitting there meeting two, three times a day in person. You know, they’re at the hotel game planning how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to execute this and and probably those few days our some of the last times that we’ve all been in the same room and met like that. And so yes, communication has changed. But the premium that’s been put on communication is really at an all time high. And there is so much uncertainty as you are trying to figure out what’s next. What is that next step? Whether it was the crisis management and in the situation, we’re dealing back in March and even early April. Or it’s looking at the path forward on how are we going to return to campus? how we’re going to return to sport? How are we going to be able to allow our student athletes to train? What are the protocols? What’s the process that we’re going to take on during this covid era? So while communication in the style of delivery is different, the premium that’s been placed on it? Again, it’s an all time high.

Cody Junot 05:35
I think you’re spot on there, let’s talk about that style and delivery of that communication. You know, digital, social media, college athletics has been trending that way for a very long time. But do you find it you’ve had to put more of an emphasis as a department have you had to develop and invest more resources in that department? Have you been able to do so to create communication and really just the awareness not only about your brand, but shat’s happening? You talked about all those changes, and we’re going to talk about some more, you know, you’re going to juggle playing Fall sports in the Spring coming up here in a little bit. How has that changed, if at all, the digital aspect of it for you and your team at UTRGV?

Chasse Conque 06:20
Yeah, and it’s something that you’ve had to embrace. And, of course, things are trending that way, and the social media space, the virtual space, those things are huge assets to athletic departments. But right now, that is, especially for us not playing sports this fall, that is the engager. You know, that is the platform we’re using to engage our campus community, to engage our fans. As far as prospective student athletes, and what they see out there about you and learning about your institution, your region, your athletics department, it has become very, very important. And so we’ve got a really good external team, we’ve got a great marketing and digital team. And I’ll tell you that when I got to UTRGv, I was very impressed with our social media presence pre COVID. I thought that our fans engaged with us, our students engaged with us well in that space, in the digital space. And so it’s just put a premium on it. And we’ve had to get creative and looking at how are you communicating, how you’re coping with COVID, and what the future of athletics will be this this fall or the spring, but also putting a face to our student athletes. Making sure that their personality and who they are. Coaches the same, making sure that our fans aren’t aren’t missing a beat as far as engaging with the arrows and understanding what we’re about and who our people are, that represent UTRGV. And so yes, we’ve had to get creative and, and we’ll continue to get creative. And I think this is just the start. And even if you look at what we’re going to look like post COVID, when we get through this, I think you’ll see several things that departments will be able to take away from this time. And that’s going to be the digital space. Nothing replaces, you know, being able to pack your venues and have fans in the stands and everybody there cheering on your teams. But it’s also a great opportunity for us to learn about how we can engage with our fans in a different way. And certainly we’re having to do that, we’re being challenged to do that. But it’s also a lot of fun. And our team has gotten very creative.

Cody Junot 08:15
Taking that creativity and moving it to the game day, the new game day, whether it’s 25% capacity, right, maybe in the spring will lead the state of Texas up to 50 —whatever that number may be. How do you take some of those aspects that developed pre COVID and further redefine here during COVID and you put those into game day so that you can continue to interact and stay in touch with your fans there?

Chasse Conque 08:45
Yeah, game day is going to be different. We’re seeing that across the country. And, you know, one thing that we do a lot is learn from others. And I think you’re seeing college football, you know, really do a nice job of bringing in limited fans, making an environment safe and really that’s the first thing that we’ve got to make sure we’re doing is the fans that we do allow that will bring into our venues that they do feel safe. They feel like it’s a place that they can enjoy sports, but also be safe and doing that with their families and their friends. But yes, it gives us some opportunities to do things a little bit different in venue, but then you also want to make sure that, you know, if we’re at 25% capacity or 50% capacity, there’s a lot of folks aren’t gonna be able to get into the arena or into the stadium. And so how are we engaging them during the game? Now that’s something that we’re going to try to do throughout the season and making sure that our students, right, we’ve got 33,000, nearly 33,000 students here on campus. And we’ve really seen our student attendance really grow over the last couple years. And so what are some things that we can do if we’re only going to allow a small amount of students in our venues, you know, how are we going to engage with them during the games and also think media becomes extremely important, you know. They’re the ones that are going to tell our story to our base, and again, if we’re at a limited capacity, there’s me a lot of people aren’t gonna be able to come into our building and, and see our games. And so it’s gonna be very important that we deliver to them what they need. That they have access to our games, that they have access to cover us, but also make sure that the content and things that we need to get back in their hands to be able to put that out into the media outlets throughout the Valley, that’s going to be very, very important. And we’re already seeing that. And so it’s all hands on deck and making sure that we’re not missing a beat, we know it’s going to be different, we know the atmosphere is going to be different. But when people walk into our facility, hopefully at the end of November, they’re going to feel safe, they’re going to feel like we’re doing it the right way, they’re going to feel engaged, they know it’s going to be different. But I think we have an opportunity to really do it the right way. And something that all of us have on our campuses, through athletics, we have a chance to be leaders in this. We have a chance to show our campus communities, to show our cities and our regions, that we can live in these interesting times. And we can cope with a pandemic. But we don’t have to lose our entire identity. And so taking on that, as an athletics department, to show that we can do it, we can do it the right way. I think that’s an opportunity for all athletic departments across the country right now.

Cody Junot 11:13
You mentioned that late November start date for basketball. You don’t play football at UTRGV, you do have other fall sports in soccer and volleyball, cross country that are going to move to the spring. You’ve talked about college football and being able to actually on a Saturday, sit back and watch it right instead of being at an event. What I want to know from you is what have you picked up just from TV for some things that maybe you and your staff will implement? And what are the conversations that you’re having with your counterparts across the country who are playing football and other sports? What lessons that they may have learned over the past several weeks?

Chasse Conque 11:50
Well, first, I think the thing you have to appreciate and acknowledge is that every part of the country is different. And I think that’s why we’ve seen you know, institutions really being able to make their own decisions, conferences having control. Really deferring to local situations, local government, local policy. And so I think that’s something we’ve all seen as we’ve watched sports over the last few weeks is everybody’s venue looks different, whether it be at the professional ranks or at the collegiate level. And for us in the Rio Grande Valley, back in the summer, we were a hotspot. And so we had a pretty high spike in cases and something that we had to really make sure that we were paying close attention to and that we brought our student athletes back, we were going to do it safely and do it well. And so as you watch games across the country, you’re already noticing, especially early on, some venues not allowing fans, some venues only having their band or Spirit Squad. Then you look at some and you know you see every bit of 25% capacity. And so the variance there is because of local situations. And so I think that’s one thing, we all have to respect that, while we’re all in this together, and we all have the same challenges, depending on where you are in the country is probably going to predict or dictate what you’re able to do from a facility standpoint. But yeah, we’re having a lot of conversations. And without us having football, we lean heavily on our our WAC counterparts and some of my colleagues across the country that are gearing up for basketball season and you know, how are we going to do this? How are we doing safely? The resocialization plan that came out late last week was that next piece of guidance that we were all anxious to receive. And so all of those things you take into consideration and and then you start figuring out what’s the next best step for you? What’s the path forward for your athletics department? And it may or may not look like others. And so you definitely want to learn from others, you want to see how they’re doing, you want to see the flow of fans, you want to see how concessions are being handled, you want to see what they do with spirit and with their band. But you also have to recognize that it may not be the same in your situation. And so a lot to learn and every day is different. I mean, you learn something new every day. None of us went to school and studied a pandemic on how to cope with it especially sitting in these chairs. But you’ve had to really dig deep and and somewhat become an expert and try to help lead your operation through this, but there’s still a lot to learn. And you know, each week that goes by we’re able to really fine tune our plan. And again, going back to that end of November start date for basketball. We really can’t wait. We look forward to it. And I can tell you here in the Valley, we need athletics and it’s going to be a great rallying point for us.

Cody Junot 14:29
Yeah, no pandemic playbook in the AD manual there, kind of learning as as we all go. You talked about the Valley specifically, obviously that’s where you are in the area and needing sport and I think it’s been a great unifier. What are some of the different revenue opportunities that have come along with that right, along with returning the sport and doing it differently? I think that’s been one of the more interesting things to see is how different people have been able to incorporate partners and sponsors. Maybe in some traditional ways, doing it a little bit differently, and then some others in completely not-traditional, outside the box. How much focus have you guys put on figuring out how those revenue streams, at least maintaining what you had, then ultimately grow those, as you look to replace the revenue loss from no NCAA basketball tournament a season ago?

Chasse Conque 15:22
First, I can tell you that we’re really appreciative of of our partnerships here in the Rio Grande Valley. We’re looking at approaching a 2021 athletic season and have a chance for record partnerships on the corporate side, which is really awesome and really impressive. And our teams work very closely with our corporate partners. And you talk about what are the different assets, and you talk about the digital platform, and in the virtual space and social media, you know, you’re seeing a lot more assets develop through being creative in that space. And so whether it’s shifting an asset that our supporters we’re going to have earlier this fall with our volleyball and our soccer programs and putting it on social media, digital space, or creating platforms, and to truly soliciting new partnerships for that space. All those things are things that we’re having to do. But what’s really neat is that our corporate partners have not left us. They’ve been with us, and they’ve stuck with us. And of course, we all hope for better days ahead. We all know that this too shall pass. And a lot of our people just want to be a part of it. They want to be part of the growth. We’re all going through tough things personally and professionally. And so to see our corporate partners buy into some of the new things that we’ve thrown at them and some of the new platforms that we think we can give them a really good positive asset to promote their brand. It’s been wonderful to work with them. We’ve been very blessed in that space.

Cody Junot 16:50
That’s great to hear. The last thing Chasse that we want to touch with you on, we talked about how your messaging and the conversations you’re maybe having with some of your colleagues across the country, but what’s the one thing that you’re driving home, to your fans, your alumni, your student athletes, your coaches, as we continue to move forward, but still into place with so many unknowns?

Chasse Conque 17:12
You know, if you ask my coaches, what do I say the most and it’s we’re playing the long game. We’re in this for the long haul. We know that this is interesting times, it’s tough times. But we’re in this for the long haul. And we want to play the long game because we truly believe in our model. I mentioned our enrollment earlier. We nearly hit 33,000 students here at UTRGV, our enrollments up 12% this fall. And so there’s a lot of positive things, our funding model is solid here. And so really focusing on the long game and making sure that we’re putting ourselves in a position to be successful. And we hope that this year, we hope to get back to the court, we hope to get back to the field this year. But we’ve got to be patient, we’ve got to do things the right way. We want to make sure you’re finding that happy medium there where you’ve got safety, but also giving our young people the opportunity to compete. And that takes patience. And again, going back to the point I made earlier, you really have to recognize that every part of the country is going through something different. And so we’re fortunate now that we’re seeing things trend, from a COVID standpoint, in a positive direction. And so we’re more comfortable opening up or we’re more comfortable expanding our training opportunities and the access for our student athletes. But it’s a long game. And I think if we’re patient, and we do the right things, and we follow our protocols, we stick to the plan, and then find that opportunity to put our young people in a position to compete and do it safely. We’re going to get through this and I think we’ll look back and reflect and say we’re very proud of how we handled it. And then going back to the other point is we want to be leaders on our campus. Our student athletes, we want folks to see them masking up on campus and doing the social distancing. And all the protocols that we preach as a community, as a campus community, we really want to use our platform as student athletes, coaches and administrators to show our campus community how to do it, how to do it the right way. So I go back to we’re in this for the long haul, play the long game and then also use our platforms to be leaders and show communities how to adapt in this new world.

Cody Junot 19:13
Indeed, one day at a time. Chasse, appreciate you taking some time here to chat with us, share with us some of the things you guys have going on out there in the Valley. We really appreciate it.

Chasse Conque 19:24
Thanks, Cody. Good to see you.

19:27
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