Episode 21: Mark Ingram, Director of Athletics, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Cody Junot 00:00
Welcome to a 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, I talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a new gameday, as we work around COVID-19. We’ll discuss what that new game day is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, and how athletic administrators are adapting to our new world and surroundings. Pleased to be joined today by our guest who’s now in his sixth year leading the Blazers of UAB. Mark Ingram, kind enough to join me. Mark, Appreciate the time. How’s everybody in Birmingham?

Mark Ingram 00:51
Yeah, doing great. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it very much. Things are good here. We’re playing good football and we’ve got fall sports going here and volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer and cross country, everybody’s competing and we’re just trying to provide a world class experience for these young people that they deserve. So, everything’s going great things.

Cody Junot 01:12
Everything’s better when footballs rocking and rolling in the fall. There’s no doubt about that. You go back to March and questions about would we even be here and playing football? Let’s go back to march for a little bit. You know, here we are in late October. And it seems those seven months, so long ago. But let’s go back and talk about the communication. And as things were changing daily and hourly, how you and your department were able to keep not just your fans, but your staff, your student athletes, everybody up to date with the latest happenings?

Mark Ingram 01:45
Yeah, great question. Gosh, March seems so long ago done it, and I remember it was March the 12th. I was in Frisco, Texas at our basketball tournament when we ended our tournament and sent everybody home. And there were two teams, Conference USA hosts its men’s and women’s tournament in the same location. And two of our women’s teams were playing, warming up, I should say, getting ready for a game, we had to pull them off the court, and then explain what was going on that the tournament had ended. And that was upsetting in and of itself, you know. And so then when we got back to campus, what we believed, we actually started our spring break the following week. And so, what we believed was we were going to go to spring break, and perhaps be at Spring break an extra week or two, maybe. We were going to go home for a couple of weeks. So, at that exact moment, it was explaining that out and saying, ‘Hey, here’s how we’ll deal with this.’ But it didn’t take much longer before baseball got canceled and softball got canceled and all this for the rest of the season. And then this thing really started to sit in like, ‘Man, I don’t know how long this is going to be. And if we’re not finishing the semester, in-person, what does this mean?’ And so that’s when you started to develop, like a long term strategy for okay, what is it going to be we need to develop how we’re going to communicate for the next three, four or five months because we were going to go into the summer and you could almost feel we’re probably not coming back for the whole summer. And then of course that is what happened. And so yeah, we met as a senior staff. We always meet once a week; we continue to meet once a week. Our conference office, we met twice a week, all through Zoom calls. I was having our sport administrators call their coaches every single day. I was calling our coaches at least once a week, we had head coaches meetings once a month, and then we met as an entire staff once a month, which was something we do anyway. We normally take the summer off on that, but we did it through the summer, because it was virtual, and we felt like everybody needed to stay plugged in. Then of course, the coaches, it filtered down to the coaches communicating with their teams. We had a few everybody, all student athlete groups, and that was not mandatory, so we had a couple hundred of them, maybe half of them participate. Because we also layered in a lot of the social justice things that we started seeing after the George Floyd murder. So we were doing things that were not COVID related. We were having large group conversations, again, having to do it virtually, but with our staff and our student athletes related to that and just unrelated to our day-to-day business and addressing a new issue of concern altogether. We’ve all done more Zoom calls than we ever cared to do. But it’s been a great tool to have. I’m glad we had it and have had it to be able to continue working

Cody Junot 04:58
Everybody adapting to the virtual environment. Talk to me a little bit if you would about reaching your fans and keeping them engaged and up to date on what’s going on and how you guys were able to deliver that message through various social platforms, and then what kind of change that’s been for your department?

Mark Ingram 05:17
Yeah, we hosted, in fact, I hosted these little Zoom events. We did two different things. We had one with our new basketball coach, Andy Kennedy, where we picked out select groups, donor groups, to try to keep the groups to be not too big, we wanted them to be interactive and let our fans ask me questions or ask him questions. So basically, I interviewed him through Zoom, he answered the questions, everybody got to watch., and then we open the floor up for anybody that wanted to ask a question. That was fun. We did that with Coach Kennedy several times. We did a few of those with Coach Clark, our football coach, with different donor groups. And then we picked out, every single week, we picked out we called it the Blazer Insider, a couple of staff members and another coach from an Olympic sport or a different sport, and I interviewed them, and it wasn’t about their sports so much as, ‘Hey, tell everybody what you’ve been doing, how do you communicate with your team? What is your team doing?’ There was that component, but then it was, you know, have you developed any passion for cooking or yard work or something that you forgot you enjoyed? And what are you doing to keep herself busy? And then we had some fun, okay, tell the truth, who’s watched the Tiger King? And almost everybody would raise their hand on that, which was just funny. But we just had a fun conversation, they lasted about 30 minutes. And we would blast that out to all of our fans. And so we were doing that, just to remind people we were here and to keep them engaged, as you said. And we would have various levels of information that I could provide every week, just different developments, rules that have changed, or things that we thought were happening: ‘Hey, it looks like we’ve got our student athletes back now,’ and things like that as it occurred over the summer. So it was actually a lot of fun. From a development standpoint, we did not stop asking for money, but we did implement a strategy to call our donors and just say hello, to not call them and ask. Call them and just check on them. We have a great development staff here, and they did a terrific job with that. Ultimately, what it yielded was, we’ve been able to maintain our giving level from last year to the current year. We’re not ahead of where we were, but we’re at least where we were. And I consider that a big win.

Cody Junot 07:52
Yeah, I think that is a big win considering all the financial aspects and everything that’s going on, you know, we talked about March being a long time ago, it seems like Tiger King, the fact that was just this Summer, it’s kind of unbelievable. But here we are now in October, and you’ve now played four home football games. And so what I want to talk about is getting back on the field, and when you go back to that opener against Central Arkansas, to your latest game that happened last Friday, what are the things that you and your team have learned from an operations standpoint? And maybe some things that changed from maybe the first game of the second game to now, game four?

Mark Ingram 08:33
Yeah, well, we’ve got a world class medical research institution here at UAB. So that puts us in a very fortunate position to have terrific advice and counsel right here on our campus. And I’m not suggesting others don’t have great guidance and counsel where they are, but just pointing out that we do and so the Dean of our medical school, the Dean of our school for public health, the director of our local health department, we have a person who’s an infectious disease specialist here on campus, those people helped considerably. We would go to them and say, ‘Here’s what our plan is. What do you think?’ And they would make suggestions and revisions to that plan or they’d ask, ‘Hey, are you going to put dots on the ground for social distancing at the entrance and concessions or what’s your mask wearing policy going to be this sort of thing? Are you going to tailgate? Yes or no?’ We just went through all those things before the first game. And then, what I would tell you we learned from game one to game two is that you cannot over communicate your basics, which for us, the basics are no tailgating and our fans were great about it. I want to make clear to say you know, the very first game we usually have a very good tailgate scene at our stadium. I may have seen five people tailgating and I’m not talking about big tents and grills and all that. I’m just saying, me and my wife eating a ham sandwich behind the car. I’m not talking about anything extravagant. So we probably saw five or six people do that in game one. So I really felt like we were great there. But remind people no tailgating. Number two, you have to wear your mask at all times. And the third thing, which we just did not anticipate as much as we should have, which is, you know, forever and ever, if you go to a concert or a game, somebody who’s sitting on the top row of the stadium sees a row of seats or a group of seats that, ‘Wow, hey, man, look, those seats, they’ve been the entire first quarter, nobody has sat there, let’s move down.’ And they upgrade themselves if they can, if they can get past the usher, right, and hope to not get kicked out. Well, now we have intentionally created all these empty seats that are really good seats. So we just did not anticipate how many people would try to upgrade their own seat. And we had some of that, didn’t have a ton of it, but we had it at the first game. And so we just had to continually message please don’t upgrade your own seat. So wear your mask, no tailgating, and you’re in a seat, that you were assigned for a reason, please stay there and help us keep our distancing and safe. We’re trying to keep our players and coaches safe, and we’re trying to keep you safe. And then we’re also trying to continue allowing you to come and watch us. So this is all an effort that we got to be in together.

Cody Junot 11:28
So now that you’ve got them in into the games, and they’ve done a good job of following those rules and understanding the empty seats and the reason that they’re there and mask and no tailgating aside from the product that you’ve got on the football field, you know, incredibly good product there. How have you had to change or have you had to change the way in which you’re entertaining those fans via the video board, and also keeping up with your sponsors and making sure that they get the level of care that they’re accustomed to getting?

Mark Ingram 11:58
Again, we’re really lucky that we were able to put together a full home schedule. So from a fan standpoint or a sponsor standpoint, we’ve been able to maintain that the same as in the past. We’ve been able to do some sponsor recognition out on the field. Conference USA permits that in one end zone. We walk out into the endzone, we don’t ever get near anybody else. We wear are masks and all that. And it’s just a sponsor the game. It’s not, you know anything extravagant. We lost some opportunities when we eliminated tailgating. We’ve got a kind of a we call it Blazer Village. It’s an interactive area with inflatables for kids and vendors and things we lost that, that was a pretty good blow to us. and our operations and the way we entertain people, and the way we provide sponsor opportunities. But, otherwise, because we’ve had fans in the stands in all six games, we’ve been able to accommodate things. We’ve made some adjustments, and it’s really more like mask type messaging on the on the video board, but our in game production is about the same as it always was. Unfortunately, we do not have our band on the field at halftime. But other than that, it’s pretty well the same production that we had before.

Cody Junot 13:19
So it sounds like you’ve been able to keep a majority of the same revenue cost or revenue opportunities that you had. Have you found new ways to incorporate new revenue opportunities through maybe going more digital? Have there been any opportunities that have presented themselves?

Mark Ingram 13:38
Well, good ideas, you know, nothing that we’ve been able to really capitalize on quite yet. But talking about if we have, let’s call it those stickers on the ground that the social distance stickers or things on a seat, that you could do that, that would provide opportunity for a sponsor. You’ve seen a lot of teams in the NFL and other schools do these fan cutouts that they sell. We’re going to do that in basketball. We’ve not done that in football, but in basketball, we have chairback seats, we think we can actually execute it. And again, there’s no weather, we can put it in there and we can we can leave your cut out there. So we just launched that this week that fans can get cutouts for themselves in the endzone or on the sidelines and that’ll help the atmosphere and just really recreate some fun. It’s not like it’s a huge revenue driver, but it’s something to do and hopefully fun for the fans.

Cody Junot 14:30
Last one for you here as we wrap up. We’ve talked about how you messaged throughout this pandemic. What is the one message that you have been driving when you talk to your coaches, your student athletes, your fans, as we are now midway through a football season and we get prepared for a basketball season, but still a lot of unknowns?

Mark Ingram 14:48
Well, over the summer it was constant telling our staff and our coaches please be positive. You got to be positive, you know, and it was easy to get down. You got friends and neighbors losing their jobs. We sadly had to furlough 22 people for about two and a half months through the summer. That’s hard. It’s hard on the people that are furloughed. It’s hard on everybody around them, because you become friends with these people, you spend more time with your co-workers, in athletics, you spend more time with your co-workers than you do with your family. And so you really care about them as people, it’s not a personal decision: I don’t like you so I’m going to furlough you, you’re not valuable, I’m going to furlough you. It’s not that at all. And so it’s easy to get down, easy to get depressed. And so constantly saying, you’ve got to stay positive, you got to stay positive. We’re coming out of this thing. And anytime I could find any positive messaging, I was on it felt like five to 10 Zoom calls a week that had involvement from people at the hospital, or on campus. And anytime I heard any news that I thought could be helpful related to a vaccine or numbers going down, or whatever it was, I get it right out to people and say, ‘Hey, look, I just heard this.’ I’m talking about our staff, I’m talking about Conference USA staff, and you know, I’d say, ‘Hey, I just heard this, this is important, this could be helpful to us in getting back to the field,’ and anytime I could get something like that, I shared that to try to keep people’s spirits lifted. That was difficult. And then now, it’s that you cannot let your guard down. That’s our message to our staff and student athletes now is it’s easy to get your guard down when you’re testing three times a week, you know? You can get this sense of, I’m clean, and everybody around me is clean, we’re good, and we’re all safe and fine. Well, you know, you can take the test at 10 a.m. this morning, and then go to the grocery store and get it, and then get a negative test later on in the afternoon, consider yourself good, when actually now you’ve just contracted it and you just don’t know it, you’ll find out in the next test or two tests down the road. So you just can’t let your guard down. And for our students, you know, a big part of college is the social scene and meeting people and growing as a person. And it’s just really hard to convince them to not do that the way they’d like to and at the same time, it’s unrealistic of us to think that they’re not going to do some of it. And so that’s when you come back to like, I know, you don’t want to wear your mask when you’re at that person’s apartment, but we really want you to play next week and we don’t want you to infect your team. And then we tried to reiterate like, look at how far we’ve come, look at what we’ve been able to do. You know, I can tell you at this point since August the First, we’ve run about 9000 tests, and we’ve only had 25 positives. And I’m not talking about football, I’m talking about our entire staff in athletics, all of our student athletes. So we’ve done a great job, we can always be better. But if we want that to continue, it’s going to take everybody working together and continuing these protocols.

Cody Junot 18:02
You make great points on how far we’ve come and still a ways to go. Mark, I appreciate your time here this this afternoon taking us inside how you guys at UAB have come from March to where we are here in October.

Mark Ingram 18:15
Yeah, thanks very much. Appreciate you having me.

18:25
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