Episode 4: Leon Costello, Montana State University

Cody Junot (00:03):
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, we’re going to talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about a New Gameday, as we get set to thrive in this post COVID-19 world. We’ll discuss what that new gameday is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how administrators are already adapting to our new world. Our guests today, after spending some time in the athletic departments at Northern Iowa and South Dakota state, getting set to wrap up his fourth season as a director of athletics at Montana State, I’m pleased to be joined by Bobcats athletic director, Leon Costello, Leon, appreciate you joining us today. How is everybody at Montana State doing?

Leon Costello (00:45):
First of all, thanks for having me. It’s good to meet you and good to talk to you. We’re doing well, all things considered with everything going on. You know, we’re doing well, people are getting back into the office, so it’s starting to feel a little bit more like normal, but you know, the main thing is people are healthy and people are safe and the state is doing really, really well. And you know, we’re thankful that where we live and how the state is doing, because we feel fortunate to be in that position, basically.

Cody Junot (01:12):
Yeah. You talk about just feeling normal. You and I were chatting a little bit earlier and just being able to get out and again, the family time has been fantastic. Right, but to interact with different people in a different setting outside of the house, or the neighborhood has kind of been somewhat therapeutic in some ways.

Leon Costello (01:28):
For sure. And, you know, I think if it’s, you know, whether it was just a phone call here or there, but now being here in Montana, getting to go to a golf course and getting to see some of our donors playing golf and just in their own environment and, having the kids go outside and play. And you know, maybe in some of the smaller groups with me starting to see some of their friends, it is, it’s very therapeutic. And I think if you combine that with our lust for sports and what sports can do for a society, I really think that next step, when we’re able to start to see a few of the sporting events come back, that’s just going to be another layer onto, you know, getting everybody mentally back to, okay, look, this is going to be okay. And we’re going to get through this here. Eventually and sports is going to help lead the way I believe.

Cody Junot (02:15):
No, I think you’re a hundred percent correct. And that’s why I think you see so many questions about what’s next for sports, right? When are we going to kick off football? When are we going to know when we’re going to be able to return to campuses. You mentioned you guys are back in the office, you’re staggering, so not everybody’s there together. So it’s a little bit different, but it is the same and back in the office, you know, when you look at where we are two plus months into this, into this pandemic where we’ve been, you know, isolated and in social distancing, one of the things that I’ve been having, a lot of conversations with leaders like yourself, about is messaging from clearly explaining ticket procedures, updating fans on a potential return, to a constant stream, you know, on social and digital media of team related content. You know, once we get the all clear to return to the activities, will folks feel safe as I think one of the big questions, I think a lot of that has to do with the way we message it. So what are you guys at Montana State, how have you taken the last eight, nine weeks to really deliver a message to your fans and provide them some different content to keep them engaged with the Bobcats?

Leon Costello (03:19):
Yeah, we’ve been very intentional in all of our messaging and we have a creative team that helps us with that and it’s in house. You know, they do all of our video, they do our graphics, things like that. And we have a member of our sports information team whose title is specifically social media director and social media engagement. And we felt it was important before, but now more than ever getting our messages out in a clear and concise fashion is so important. And you, you hit the nail on the head. What are we doing about tickets? Because we’re currently in a renewal process, which includes donations and things like that. And you know, what are those dates and how are we handling certain situations are all important. We’ve also taken the next step and we’ve become a lot more organized in creating a social media calendar and what are we going to put out and when?

Leon Costello (04:07):
First of all, so we’re not putting 18 things out on Monday, but to make sure that we have content and meaningful content that our fans are kind of thriving for, and we can stagger those in stage though. So everyday they can get something about the Bobcat’s. And I think what’s interesting about the social media aspect of that is instead of just going to an in person event, which is great because our donors and our fans like to touch and feel and shake hands and hug and do all of those things. But I think with social media, you almost get more of a behind the scenes look at what’s going on. And I think you can engage a whole lot bigger audience because one either can be recorded and played on demand, or, you know, you can do something and put it out there and it can reach tens of millions of people because it goes worldwide.

Leon Costello (04:56):
And so it gives us a lot more flexibility to be able to put things out there. And to be honest with you, this is the time of year where our coaches and us would have been out on the road going to different communities throughout the state of Montana. I mean, it takes a lot of time to drive across this very large state. And now we’re able to go into, you know, an office or a studio and do something we really can maximize our time and our efficiency and getting to a lot of people, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of time to be able to do that. And so, yeah, I think we’ve become just more intentional about what we put out there, we’ve done a lot of special interest stories about our student athletes, about our coaches, about their backgrounds, where they come from, what’s important to them that I think they’re learning a lot more about it because as you know, every day in a normal type of world, you know, it’s a press release here, or it’s a, it’s a game story here. There’s not a whole lot of depth to some of these things. And we’ve been able to provide more depth to the personalities in our department.

Cody Junot (05:50):
It sounds like the pandemic has almost caused you to master your craft a little bit more when it comes to that social media, it’s forced you to get better at something that you are already doing, something that a lot of people are doing, but a lot of folks have taken this time to, again, not maybe stay where they were, but continue to do better search for new techniques or, you know, ideas it’s really, I think kind of created a lot of innovation. I believe innovation is going to get us out of this, you know, pandemic and environment, where hopefully we’re back on Saturdays playing football and, you know, soccer and volleyball and all of the things that we enjoy in the fall. But it sounds like you guys have become a little bit more innovative on the social front.

Leon Costello (06:27):
Yeah. I, you know, we have, and we’ve tried to think of, you know, what are they kind of the easy things to do? Like what can we do that we can provide content and then how can we incorporate, you know, maybe some new ideas. So even tonight we’re starting one tonight where I’m sitting down, I’m actually hosting. I get to be you for a little bit, and we have two coaches. It’s going to be five o’clock here mountain time. And it’s just kind of a round table, you know, kind of a happy hour type deal where ask a few questions, you know, ask them what they’re doing, how they’re handling things, how they’re interacting with our student athletes, but it’s going to be live. And we’re going to be able to take questions live, you know, as they come in, instead of just recording something and putting out content, this is going to be kind of a spin to some of the, maybe the other things we’ve been doing previously.

Leon Costello (07:09):
And so you said it, I think is we’re taking the next step. I think in all the things that we’re doing. So, Hey, we did this maybe in week one and we’ve kind of learned and crafted it. And recrafted now we’re doing this in week four and we’re doing this in week eight. And all these things are evolving for us. And I think this will be kind of a roadmap for us in the future on how we organize and engage our fans and have an organized calendar if you will, on the content that we put out each and every week. And it brings our external team together. And what I’ve seen is, you know, from sports information directors, to marketing directors, to development officers, all the people that sit around an external table that producing content, they’re all sitting around the table talking now, and they have time to talk and discuss what’s going to have the biggest impact. And they’re all working together to create these media experiences, if you will. And so I’ve really enjoyed watching that kind of evolve and they know that they can do a heck of a lot more by working together instead of working in silos.

Cody Junot (08:10):
I think you’re right, it’s having the time, right? Because some other things are maybe not pressing to get together. And so I think part of the puzzle is going to be, how do you keep that moving forward? Right. Once the full slate of job duties are, you know, the other duties as assigned pop up, right? Those famous words, but you hit on something there engaging and entertaining. And so we were seeing some of this before the pandemic, but how can you take the things that you’ve learned on social and digital media and incorporate those into the new gameday? Right? So as fans are coming back to your facilities and your stadiums, and whether it’s at a full capacity or, you know, 25%, 50%, whatever it is, following the social distance and guidelines, how can you make them feel safe, and incorporate more of a digital aspect and interactions, you know, during timeouts or the longest in that replay and in football and maybe ways that you weren’t doing before?

Leon Costello (09:04):
Yeah. I think social media and the digital aspect allows us to be more personable. You know, we’ve even taken maybe a step back from even the gameday experience being in the stadium, but also as they’re driving to the stadium, you know, obviously there’s radio and there’s radio pregame shows and things like that. But what are we doing the morning of a game where we can maybe put something out on a Facebook live or YouTube live, or put something out on Twitter and how can we engage with the fans as they’re driving to the stadium and maybe who knows, you know, we live in places where there could be weather delays and things like that. And we can provide them with real time content that might affect their gameday could be parking. It could be, you know, there is an accident as they’re pulling into town, but we can go online and be able to tell them what is going on.

Leon Costello (09:51):
So maybe, and hopefully we can make their transportation needs a little bit easier and more efficient when they’re coming to the stadium. And then I think the same thing applies for in-game is, you know, putting more of a personable aspect to it, not just flashing up a 32nd commercial, you know, one of the sponsors, but having the sponsor with you and maybe there’s a conversation and you’re engaging that sponsor in a way that you maybe that sponsor sitting down with the president or the sitting down with the football coach. And it’s kind of a dual message. I think this is allowing us to put that along with our personalities, maybe to show a little bit more and everything that we do. And I think that is what is going to catch the attention of our fans is they want to know about our student athletes. They want to know about our coaches. Our president is a dynamic woman and being able to incorporate those personalities into those things that we’re doing, I think is going to be kind of a new focus for us here in the near future.

Cody Junot (10:45):
Yeah. How much of a change is that from what you’ve done traditionally on gameday, you know, maybe game week, right? How big of a pivot or you guys going to look at doing as you incorporate more distancing measures and whether that’s through digital and social media or whether it’s through radio, whatever medium fits. So whatever way you find collectively creatively, innovatively to engage folks, how big of a pivot is that going to be for you and your staff?

Leon Costello (11:09):
Yeah, I think as far as messaging, it’s not going to be a big change. You know, we probably will do a lot more volume of the messaging and how we do it, but the nuances of especially right away of getting fans back into the stadium and how we do that will be a big pivot. You know, luckily I was talking about this the other day, we instituted metal detectors as people are entering our stadium last year. And so as people are coming into our stadium, they’re already, you know, I think the entrance points are great because they have to walk through a metal detector, have to do these things. And if we need to incorporate other things, like, I don’t know, like let’s say temperature checks or other things that, you know, maybe some of the pro sports teams are doing. We have a natural mechanism now because of the way people enter our stadium, you know, going to a grocery store nowadays is different because you’re going down one way down, one aisle, and it’s one way coming back at different aisle.

Leon Costello (12:01):
Are we going to be doing that through our vomitorium and our concourses? Those are all things that we are of course looking at. And then, you know, getting down to the details of how are we serving food, where the eating food, you know, how are people seeing each other in a premium section, whether it be a suite or a club room, how are they interacting that way? Are we going to require face mass, you know, in the press box, maybe in those, in those premium areas, those are all things that we are discussing right now. And being able to message that is going to be vital. But, you know, I think it starts from the moment they leave their house to the moment they get back after the game. And all those things that we can do in between social media provides an Avenue for us to be able to do that. And I think we’re going to, you know, continue to create creative ways in order to reach those people, especially as we have new procedures coming in and going to be in place here for the near future.

Cody Junot (12:54):
I think one of the things that for most fans is, hope, right. And maybe the light’s getting to the end of the tunnel. We can go out in town a little bit, which means we, maybe we’re getting closer to having a season. One of the things though that you guys are doing is construction is getting underway. You’re building a brand new $18 million Bobcat, athletic complex. How can you use that kind of milestone building going up and use it as inspiration when you’re talking with fans about, look, we’re continuing to get better. You make sure that you’re getting better, right? You make sure that you’re ready to cheer us on. How important is it that those things are able to keep going and you’re able to tell that message?

Leon Costello (13:29):
I think you hit the nail on the head and we’ve talked about this a lot about how sports can be kind of a beacon, be the kind of shining glimmer of hope for people to bring us out of this pandemic. And, you know, construction for us is one of the ways we can do that. And it’s, we’ve been using it with our ticket campaign saying, look, we are not stopping. We are moving forward as though we are going to have a full football season here in the fall. And Oh, by the way, look at our football stadium. We are continuing to do the things to improve the gameday experience, to improve the experience of our student athletes and our coaches. That construction project is not going on hold. We are going to make sure that we are doing things safely in regards to the construction zone and the construction site to make sure that that project can continue going.

Leon Costello (14:14):
But we have used that as kind of the beacon of hope. If you will, that, Hey, things around here, aren’t stopping. We are continuing the momentum that we are continuing to progress, and we are going to get there together. And we are going to work together to make sure that we can get there. And when we do, when we come out of this, it’s going to be better for everybody. And you hit the nail on the head. It’s exactly how we’re using that facility. We’re thankful that here in the state of Montana, that construction has been deemed an essential business. And so it hasn’t delayed us at all. And I think when the people are driving by it and they see it, I think, you know, just kind of the sheer, you know, kind of the, the sigh relief, like, okay, everything is going to be okay, that facility is doing that for us.

Cody Junot (14:59):
I think the other thing, other major question that has come across a lot to administrators, right? And it’s been in the news a bunch and it’s budget it’s furloughs, it’s, you know, the NCAA tournament did not happen. So it’s those distribution shares were cut by almost, or by almost two thirds. Right? Basically they’re gonna distribute about a third of what you normally do, which means athletic departments across the country are looking to ways to save, you know, really staring budgets down and trying to figure things out. And the startup costs of returning, right? Bringing your student-athletes back on campus and, you know, quarantine tests, what does all of that stuff look like? All the costs associated almost a barrier of entry, if you will, right. To get back into the marketplace, that’s there and it’s real. And it’s something that you’re going to have to fund along with everything else that continues scholarship salaries, you know, everything that goes along with college athletics. So once we returned to that new gameday, how can you, and we talked about this a little bit before, but those revenue opportunities, how can you incorporate, you know, your partners and sponsors and making sure that, you know, you’re delivering a return to them, but that they’re, you know, obviously also at the end of the day, helping attribute to that bottom line.

Leon Costello (16:11):
Yeah. Again, I think it goes back to being as creative and innovative as we possibly can. And we’ve started a few of those things here. Tonight’s event that we’re talking about is actually sponsored by one of our sports bars. That’s here in town, the rock and our bar. And we, we’ve also done a segment that we record. It’s kind of a video podcast and Conoco has sponsored that one where we sit down and talk to a staff member or a coach and just talk about, Hey, what’s going on right now? And so again, I, what we talked about is adding the personality. So adding the personal side of what’s going on in our department and adding the sponsor element to that has been a key way that we’ve been able to do that. And I think through this whole thing, there are going to be other things that pop up and other ways that we’re going to be able to do it.

Leon Costello (16:59):
And we’re going to have to, because if for some reason we’re going, you know, we have to start in an order to start. We have to limit the amount of fans in the stands. Well, if you’re a sponsor and you have a sign in the football stadium where you have a video board message, or you’re doing things like that, and you don’t have as many fans in your stands, you have to do things that are going to reach the same number of fans that they do on a regular Saturday, let’s say for a home football game. And then how can you provide more value to them? So they don’t think about, you know, what, this isn’t worth my advertising dollar. We need to do more and work with them on how else can we help you reach the audience that you’re trying to reach? Social media is a huge platform for us to be able to do that.

Leon Costello (17:43):
You know, everything that we do right now is growing our social media basis. You know, we have more people following us, all of our platforms, and that is going to help a sponsor that is going to help our Learfield IMG College reps be able to go and continue selling vital inventory for us that will come back in the form of sponsorship dollars that will help us drive the revenue and to be able to do all the things that you talked about to get student athletes back on campus, to do maybe the things, you know, the precautionary steps, as far as testing and things like that, to get us back to playing, we’re going to need revenue to help us fund those activities and being creative and innovative in the social media realm is going to help us do that.

Cody Junot (18:25):
Yeah, it sounds like, you know, your sponsors have been very receptive to operating in this new gameday and understanding that this is going to be a change, you know, all the way around. And so it sounds like you’ve had good conversations with them. The last thing that I want to touch base with you on, we talked about phase one’s underway and, and getting out and having the ability to connect to more people and reaching out to donors and doing that even through phone calls and conversations prior to that, and what’s the one message that you’ve been preaching to them or the theme, right. That you’re continuously driving home to those fans and alumni as we gear up for a season with so many unknowns.

Leon Costello (19:03):
Yeah. I think the biggest thing has been, we hear you, we understand we’re all in this together. And I, in everything that I put out, it’s talking about, we can’t do what we do when things were normal without our donors and without our fans, right. They drive the revenues and, and the, the private support for us to be able to build the facility like we were talking about or give and provide scholarships to our student athletes. And so we can’t do without them now. And we, we can’t move forward without them. And so it’s, it’s been about, we’re going to do these things, but we’re going to do it together. And I’m fortunate to be at a place where our fan base is loyal. It’s a very large passionate fan base. And they’ve, you know, they’ve seen us through a lot of different things and this is, you know, going to be, when we look back on it, hopefully one of those things, again, that we’re going to look back on and say, wow, how did we ever do it?

Leon Costello (19:53):
But I’m going to know, because we did it because we have great fans. And we have fans where, you know, they came to Montana State university, they got their degree in this place, means the world to them. Maybe they met their wife here, or their spouse. Maybe their kids are going to school here, but it means something to them. And here, you know, even the president says that we are the front porch not just sports fans, but also for the university. And we know that people come to a football game or they watch a football game. They want to know how our athletic teams are doing, because it’s a piece of the university. And we know that together that our entire campus community and our entire Bobcat community is working really hard. So we can get back to some sort of normal quicker maybe than we would have hoped or maybe even perceived. And so I would just say our big thing is, let’s do these things, you know, let’s push the envelope, but let’s push it together and just know that we’re sitting here and understand it because we’re going through it with you.

Cody Junot (20:49):
Yeah, no, I think that’s dynamite message there. And hopefully sooner, rather than later, we’ll be we back watching games, kickoff and matches in soccer and volleyball and cross country and all that the fall has to offer. So Leon, I really appreciate you taking the time today to join us and give us some real valuable insight to how your team is preparing for A New Gameday. Really appreciate it.