Episode 2: Michael Alford, Central Michigan University

Brief Summary:

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 new podcast we’re going to talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new gameday. As we get ready to thrive in this post COVID-19 world, we’ll discuss what that new a gameday’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how administrators are adapting to our new world. 

I’m pleased to be joined by one of the industry’s top fundraisers and after stops at power five programs such as Oklahoma, USC, Alabama, a stint in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, now getting set to believe it or not complete his third year at Central Michigan, I’m pleased to be joined by CMU, director of athletics, Michael Alford. 

Transcript:

Cody Junot (00:00):
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 new podcast we’re going to talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new gameday. As we get ready to thrive in this post COVID-19 world, we’ll discuss what that new a gameday’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how administrators are adapting to our new world.

I’m pleased to be joined by one of the industry’s top fundraisers and after stops at power five programs such as Oklahoma, USC, Alabama, a stint in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, now getting set to believe it or not complete his third year at Central Michigan, I’m pleased to be joined by CMU, director of athletics, Michael Alford.

Michael, appreciate you taking the time this afternoon. Hope everyone is doing well and staying safe.

Michael Alford (00:51):
Yeah, thanks for having me on Cody. It’s always great to talk to you.

Cody Junot (00:54):
You know, as we’ve kind of been chatting a little bit, it, it’s an ever-changing world out there. Believe it or not, we’ve reached the two-month mark without sports and since our world really, really changed and the world of college athletics looks very, very different than it did two months ago. But I think the one thing that we steadfastly believe is that we are going to make it out on the other side of this pandemic and when we do, you know, folks are going to want to return to athletic events. What that looks like, what that new gameday looks like, I think is yet to be determined. And how athletic administrators like yourself go about easing fans. You know, I’ve had numerous conversations over the last several weeks with leaders like yourself and the main topic that we keep coming back to is messaging and messaging. And so how are you and the team at Central Michigan planning to message and market to fans maybe differently than you did prior to the COVID-19 as you try to get those fans back to your events?

Michael Alford (01:49):
That’s a great question. It’s something we’ve really been working on and I sat with our staff. We have about four different performance or maybe even six depending on what the government comes down and says we can and cannot do. Right. But a big focus early on was just prioritizing the health safety of course, of our student-athletes, number one priority. Our staff that’s working gamedays, what’s our plans for them and our supporters and our season ticket holders coming to the stadium. So really looking at what we’re planning in the different options we have for them and that will continue to be a priority. Making sure that our fans know that we’re open for business and preparing for a great 2020 season.

We’re also build on great content, especially our fantastic history and messaging that to our fans and really concentrate on trying to connect our programs and the fans together. One thing. I leaned on our staff too during this time, Cody was look at our social media platforms and make sure that we’ve even taken a greater focus on how we message everything that we have going on and how to be creative with those platforms to get our fans attention during these times.

Cody Junot (02:55):
Yeah. When you talk about social media and the digital media and, and a way to reach fans in these times where we are social distancing, we’re staying safe and not out and about and you know, actually physically being in the same presence many of times as others. What are you guys doing on those social and digital fronts that maybe you weren’t before to reach out to the Chippewa fateful and keep them engaged while we wait this return?

Michael Alford (03:19):
Like we discussed, it’s even more important than ever without the ability to interact in person. We must increase our fan engagement and that’s been our driving force. So some of the things we’re really concentrating on, just as examples, we’re really reaching out and doing weekly donor features, donors who have contributed to our program and doing write-ups on them and their family and really getting that out social media to keep everyone engaged and we’re highlighting great wins of course moments in our history.

And something that’s really taken off for us has been Chippewas in the pros on the football side is highlighting our pro players. I mean we had 12 people in the league last year and just highlighting one their path to the pros and just wanted to get that out, not only to our fan base to keep them engaged in the history and of our storied program, but also to be used for recruiting to let our recruits know you can come here and you do have a path to the NFL.

Cody Junot (04:11):
You talk about recruiting, there’s been some limitations, but it’s the one thing that certainly does not stop and is the lifeblood of any program. Speaking of that football program, you just finished a new championship, won champion center and coming off of a excellent turnaround, you know, season in which you found yourself playing for the MAC championship. Piggybacking off of that and the new emphasis on the social media, what are some of the ways that you guys are looking to keep your fans entertained, keep them interacting with you when we do return to these game days? Because things are going to be different in that new game day environment, right?

Some of your promotions may look a little differently because of social distancing or whatever, you know, measures we’re taking to stay safe. So what are some of the things that you guys are looking at doing specifically on a game day to keep your fans involved and entertained? You know, whether it’s been that media time out or you know, the instant replay that’s maybe taking a little bit too long.

Michael Alford (05:05):
That’s my background, right, is a lot of sponsorship driven elements, but we’ve really talked to our sponsors about how they can conduct promotional campaigns that provide unique offers to their constituents through our social platforms.

One example, we did an Instagram campaign with Pepsi where fans entered a contest when free product. Then we have it delivered to their home for a whole month. We call it the ultimate Pepsi CMU experience. They can thread their brand messaging. We’ve made sure that through all of our social posts that we’re doing, we’ve made sure that we’ve allowed our sponsors to brand that content, whether it’s performance commitment, rising more that showcase the important values content segment.

One thing we did was a content segment presented by Meijer, which is grocery chain up here where CMU talks about how this partner is serving the community and we’re getting that content out. So it’s really with them to find out what their message is. Meijer was a community message. They wanted to get out what they were doing. So we came up with elements to showcase that using our brand. So it’s, it’s been very successful in just using the elements they have and, and maybe a different way they haven’t thought of to get their message out during these times.

Cody Junot (06:17):
Is that something that you guys were already doing? You mentioned your background on the marketing and promotion side in addition to the, the fundraising. Is that something different? Is that something you’re leaning more into now as we’ve entered this age of social distancing?

Michael Alford (06:30):
A little bit of both. To be honest with you. We, we had started some of those campaigns and tying them and trying to, I call it nontraditional advertising outside the stadium, but with the quarantine that we’re under now and the close businesses is something that we’ve gone to our sponsors and really brought them ideas saying we need to drive your business to whatever element you have. How can we do that? And brought them campaigns to help supplement what they were already doing with us. So it’s really been successful. They were very appreciative and it’s been able for us to maintain our sponsorship dollars at that same level by bringing them these supplemental campaigns.

Cody Junot (07:07):
Yeah. And that’s incredibly important because you know, as we’ve entered this lockdown phase and you mentioned businesses shutting down, so you have some ad revenue maybe falling off the table in that sense. Of course, the NCAA canceled the basketball tournament, which means you had distributions that were cut by almost two thirds. And so as departments across the countries are looking at their financials and many are having to make many, many tough decisions, whether it’s furloughs or pay cuts, try to restructure savings revenue is going to be incredibly important.

One of the things I think we’re maybe not speaking enough about is the startup cost, right? When we get back to playing and what do those plans look like and when you bring students back to campus and athletes and be a quarantine on what is the stadium look like, all of those things.

So revenue’s going to be incredibly important. What are some of the maybe revenue opportunities that you see today in a new gameday environment that maybe weren’t there a season ago or 10 seasons ago? Whatever it may be, right? That you’re going to have to take advantage of. How can you continue to incorporate your partners to make sure that you keep that revenue level where it needs to be?

Michael Alford (08:10):
Great question and one thing we’re taking a real hard look at is our experiential difference that we can make by providing experiences to not only our fans, our season ticket holders, but also to their customers, to our sponsors and their customers. Whether it’s through these contest or just get people behind the curtain a little bit better than what we have or a little bit more than we have because let’s, let’s say we can’t have everyone that we’re, we’re expected to come to a game day with the social distancing. If that’s still going on in the fall and we’re having to play even into a part stadium or no fans in the stadium or hopefully we’re in a full stadium but afforded a partial stadium, what can we do to entertain? Can we do something? Throw a tailgate party. We can still come enjoy the gameday environment but maybe in a different light with boards or, so we’re, we’ve got about six proformas on depending on what comes down on how can we keep our fans entertained but also provide a different experience than what they’ve had in the past

Cody Junot (09:05):
And from the revenue since that comes along with that, those new opportunities, how vital are those to you and your department?

Michael Alford (09:12):
Very at any department, whether you’re a mid-major or a power five, you’re always constantly looking for new revenue streams. And that’s something we’ve had success here is since I got here is, is just looking at different ways to engage our donor base, our corporate sponsors, our season ticket holders and to having them come and experience what we’re now about. We have that new building you mentioned coming online this fall comes online in August and you know we have three different clubs within that building and is making sure okay coming up with plans cause that’s an our perform of the revenue to build it. We self-funded that building. So coming up with different areas depending on what comes down from the government on how do we continue those three clubs but keep our revenues the same by providing that entertainment option. So it’s very vital to all of our programs. For sure.

Cody Junot (10:02):
What has the feedback from the fan base there in Mount Pleasant been? When you look at how you guys have taken the path to the pro series or the different opportunities through your local partners and sponsors. What’s the feedback from the fans been? Is there still a hunger and a desire to be a part of Chippewa athletics?

Michael Alford (10:21):
Well we have and our fans have really stepped up. Season tickets are still going as strong as they ever have. You know, people were calling us wanting to know what we’re going to do this fall. We’re right now, we’re doing everything we can to play and I want to give credit to our coaches because you know, engaging them is, they have really stepped up. Coach McElwain does a podcast. So our football coach has started a podcast just to engage our women’s basketball coach. Heather also does a zoom call once a week with all of her season ticket holders. Our volleyball coach is doing the same. So we’re doing some different things that I think that we’ve learned during this quarantine is going to transfer over and we’ll continue doing when everybody comes back to a more normalcy way of life. But that’s something our coaches, I’ve been really proud of them saying, Hey, I’ve got to keep our fan base engaged. How can I help and how can I help continue to drive that needle moving forward?

Cody Junot (11:15):
And when you look at some of those new things that your coaches have done, are there programs maybe now in place that you can piggyback off of those and add to that new gameday experience and feel

Michael Alford (11:24):
There is no doubt looking at what they’ve nominated to take. Mike Gawlik, our volleyball coach. He does some unbelievable things in educating his kids called adulting one Oh one more looking at how can we promote our volleyball program one, he’s done it for a couple years, but how do we bring that to other elements in our game day experience and other sports and looking at tying those in and there’s some sponsorship opportunities for that. So our coaches have really stepped up and gotten really creative in what they’re doing with their programs. And to be honest with you, it provided us good opportunities to showcase what they’re doing with their student athletes and then to go out and make it even revenue opportunities.

Cody Junot (12:00):
You talk about having to adapt. Right now I believe innovation is going to eventually get us out of this current pandemic that we find ourselves right? And whether it’s the testing or its vaccine, whatever that may be, innovation is going to, as it has gotten us out of many other situations in this country, past innovation is going to get us out of there. You know, this pandemics kind of forced you guys to innovate a little bit as well. But it seems like that those innovations that you’ve been able to rely upon, I have maybe turned in some strengths to something that you can carry on moving forward.

Michael Alford (12:28):
There’s no doubt, you know, it’s really allowed us a great opportunity to, to look back and do some things that maybe you were uncomfortable doing early on with these webcast and zoom calls and even some of the social media that our marketing staff is doing. I’ve really challenged them to be creative, to create content not only just increased, but has been accelerated to tell our story and get that out there. Cause content drives everything and people right now are dying for content.

They’re dying to know what’s going on in the program is getting interviews with our coaches out. Real quick little quick hitters on Twitter, on Instagram, and telling our student athletes stories. So it’s allowed us to come back and maybe get more into telling our story probably a little better than what we were maybe took it for granted a little bit before and has allowed us to step back and go, you know, we’ve got some 485 great stories of student athletes here. Let’s highlight them more during this time to remind our fan base of who they’re supporting and why they come to game day and what a difference they can make. So it’s really allowed us to just work with our coaches on their general messaging and get that out of the vision for their programs.

Cody Junot (13:36):
No, I think that that brings us to to the final question, which it leads right into that. So we’ve talked about how your department as a whole is messaging and some of the things, the new content things that you’re doing and how your coaches are being more involved in the community right now that they’ve got a little bit of time doing it differently, right? Maybe it’s not out of the event because we can’t because of social distinct, but you know, having those calls with season ticket holders and different members of the fan base. What’s the one thing though that you’re driving home to fans and alumni, constituents whenever you talk with them? As we gear up for a season with so many unknowns.

Michael Alford (14:08):
Oh there, there’s no doubt when I’m driving home right now is one, we need to be back on this fall and I need their support more than ever. We go out and really share the vision of where we’re heading. We had so much momentum going in before this pandemic hit us in our athletic program. So one thing I drive home to our staff and to our fundraising group, the Chippewa athletic fund members is we don’t want to lose that momentum of the what we had going on. I mean, you and I were talking, we had four coaches of the year and the conference going into spring ball. Probably would have had a couple more knowing where our programs were heading this spring. We’re really excited about where everybody is going and here in CMU we’ve got a great president, Bob Davies who supports us, is excited and the things he’s doing on campus.

Michael Alford (14:55):
We’re just trying to piggyback on that vision because there’s so much excitement about everything on campus. We got to do our part and just bring excitement to the students, the community and our lumps about winning some games and doing it the right way. My biggest message is go out and to share stories. I always tell everyone if I can talk about the vision we have for the program, but more importantly if I could just talk about the type of quality student athletes we have. People want to partner with us and be a part of this program and so far it’s been great success.

Cody Junot (15:27):
Yeah. Michael, we really appreciate you taking the time to join us and continue to drive home that message to folks that you’re going to need their support because new administrators like yourself across the country now more than ever, are going to need supportive of their fan bases as we get set to return to these new game day and this new environment that we’re going to thrive in, right? That we’re going to thrive in here in this post-collegiate world. So Michael, really appreciate you taking the time, giving us some real valuable insights into how your athletic department there at central Michigan is preparing for a new game day. Again, thanks for taking the opportunity this afternoon.

Michael Alford (15:57):
Well, I appreciate you. Appreciate everything you do for the industry.