Episode 5: Wren Baker, University of North Texas
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 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 A New Gameday is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like and how athletic administrators are getting set to adapt to our new world. Our guest today has spent time working in athletic departments at Memphis and Missouri among other places and is now wrapping up his fourth year as the director of athletics at North Texas. I’m pleased to be joined this afternoon by Wren Baker. Wren really appreciates you taking the time. How’s everybody at North Texas and in the metroplex generally?
Wren Baker (00:48):
We’re doing great. Listen, this has been difficult times and a lot of people are hurting and certainly, a lot of people have lost lives and lost their financial, you know, sustainability and much more but, you know, we’re going through a lot as a university and then certainly as an athletic department, but we’re also very, very blessed, you know, we’re healthy. I’ve got to spend a little more time with family. Some of that’s been very enjoyable. Some of it not as much, I’ve spent more time with my kids and I’m used to, so I’ve really had to work on my patience, but now it’s, we’re doing good, family’s good, the athletic department’s good. And you know, we’re just like everybody else trying to figure out how we’re going to move forward and making sure that we’re making prudent decisions and keeping health and safety in mind and financial sustainability in mind.
Cody Junot (01:33):
I’m sure some of the team there at North Texas will enjoy that little extra patience. You’re going to come back to the office with, right.
Wren Baker (01:38):
I’m sure they will. You know, my eight-year-old, she’s pretty independent and quiet and stays herself my five year old, she’s something, she’s teaching me a lot that may help me back at the office.
Cody Junot (01:49):
There you go. You know, you talk about getting back into the office and as things are starting to open up across the country, we’re seeing athletic departments, you know, get back. And, but over the last, several months, one of the big things that I’ve really picked up from, and when talking with, with leaders like yourself, is messaging and how you continuously message your fan base, how you keep, you know, the Mean Green faithful engaged, right? So that you have everybody excited when ticket sales return. And, you know, you get the all-clear to return, hopefully, this fall to football and soccer and all of the fall sports. So what have you and your team there at North Texas try to do as you try to consistently keep, you know, the Mean Green message in your fan base is mine.
Wren Baker (02:36):
Well, I think for ADs and campus leaders, right now, it’s tough because everybody wants the answers and, you know, were working through like everybody else, a variety of things that could happen in solutions. But you know, at this point, you know, that a lot of the data and information that’s available could change before September. But what we’ve tried to do is stay in communication with our fans. You know, it’s important to let them know that there’s going to be options, right? And, you know, we have a responsibility to keep dialogue communication going around those. We’re modeling several scenarios for stadium capacity, socially distance sections, prepackaged foods, all of that. We may not need all of those, but we’re trying to let our fans know that we’re looking through those. We’ve sent out a survey and just to see, you know, behaviors and you know, it’s interesting.
Wren Baker (03:24):
We have some people that would be less likely to come if their section had those preventative measures in place, some people that’d be more likely to come. And so, you know, we’re, we’re even starting to talk about, can we section off areas of the stadium and have different rules for different sections? Is that a possibility? Is it feasible for us to do that? So, you know, we know there’s a lot of time between now and September. So it’s hard to say where we’re going to be as a country, as a state, but what we want our fans and supporters to know. And what we keep emphasizing is we are working on all the possibilities, stand up to date with the data. And if they do feel like that their experience will be diminished, they’re going to have options ranging from refunds to rolling it forward, to converting those gifts to donation.
Wren Baker (04:10):
And so, you know, a lot of times we kind of take a no refund policy just because if you allow somebody to buy season tickets, you’re losing the opportunity to sell somebody else but I think most of us right now are kind of fighting to keep renewals and keeping those loyal customers. And so it’s important. We’re rolling out this week. Another round of communication that just kind of says, “Hey, you know, you’re going to have options and there’s, we’re going to guarantee that you’re going to be happy with where we up, or you can get your money back.”
Cody Junot (04:40):
You mentioned rolling out communications. And you’ve seen a lot of programs and departments and teams really take to social media here over the last several weeks and really become, you know, more engaged. For your team at North Texas, is that something that you guys were already heavily leaning into? Have you guys had to ramp that up? How has that process been?
Wren Baker (05:01):
Yeah, so you follow everybody. So you probably won’t be news to you, but, you know, I think what’s helped us is we started making moves three to four years ago to move a lot more of our budget and resources into the digital and social media space. So we’ve exponentially increased our expenditures in graphic design, video staffing, other areas. So we’d be in a lot worse position for sure, if we had not made that transition.
Wren Baker (05:26):
We don’t have everything finalized for the fall, but we’re definitely working on a way to drive attendance and use our social and digital media assets to drive that attendance whenever possible. But for people who don’t want to come to drive their interest and engagement and keep them connected, knowing that we need to pick them back up the following year. And so I’m grateful for our leadership team in the athletic department, who, has helped implement our strategic plan, which called for us to move into, into the space and pull some resources out other areas to do it because it’s certainly very, very helpful now. And you know, it’s going to be helpful really for the foreseeable future and especially, you know, and I know we’ll probably talk about this, but when you go to your, budget’s going to be limited and maybe some other traditional forms of advertising and promotions, so that social media and the digital video is going to be so, so critical over the course of the next year to two years.
Cody Junot (06:22):
Yeah. Well, we can talk about it now because I think as we open up our stadiums again and we welcome fans back into it, there’s going to be different ways of keeping those fans engaged right during contest. And so, you know, maybe you’re not running around and picking someone out of the stands and bringing them on the, on the basketball floor to shoot free throws. You know, what are some of the ways that your team is discussing to use the digital social media that you have invested in over the course of the last couple of years, and maybe you’ve already been doing this at some of your games, but how do you lean on that more to keep your fans engaged and also keep some of your sponsors involved?
Wren Baker (06:58):
Well, we’re still working through our budget possibilities, but there’s no question there’s going to be widespread cuts. Right. And you know, one of the areas that always sticks out is what you spend in marketing, like are these expenses required and what’s the return. And you know, for us, you know, we’re pulling back a little bit on some of those traditional advertising.
Wren Baker (07:19):
I just questioned with all the uncertainty, even with your loyal fans, how much good does it do to have a billboard selling tickets, you know, on the highway somewhere or a newspaper ad that may or may not even be touching the majority of your folks. And so I think it’s much more important to utilize those assets that really they’re not free because we pay graphic design artists, we pay video people, but there are, it’s not an additional cost where those are already built in our budget, we use those to, to engage with and hopefully rally the people that we know are interested.
Wren Baker (07:53):
And so we’re going to probably have to cut out some of our promotions, they’ll be more limited, maybe more limited numbers than what we would have had previously. We’re going to lose out on my favorite, we’ve done it for two or three years now, pro wrestling night. I had a big wrestling match in conjunction with football. And so that was one of the first cuts that I offered up. That’s been my baby. So, you know, but it’s just, we’ve been able to, in the past we use a special code. We promote that. So we could kind of guess how much the return was, but it’s just hard to imagine that that’s going to really drive that same kind of return on investment this year. So I think everybody’s having to go through and really look at, Hey, we can’t spend what we spent last year. So where do we get the most bang for our buck and how can we utilize the assets that we already have already in our budget to drive those revenue opportunities?
Cody Junot (08:43):
Well, maybe you can use that, you know, other duties as assigned and you get out there and do the wrestling yourself.
Wren Baker (08:48):
Hey, I’ve got a lifetime of practice. I mean, my brother and I used to every Saturday morning we had twin beds and we would put them together to make a wrestling ring and mimic all of the moves. So I probably still have some of those in memory.
Cody Junot (09:02):
There you go. And see, I’m sure you could sell plenty of tickets and maybe put that out on social media. Speaking of selling tickets and revenue, you’ve touched upon some of it. There, there’s no doubt between NCAA tournament and the lack of distributions coming out between, you know, something that I’ve done, kind of just a barrier to start a barrier to return of bringing your student-athletes back and testing them. And you know, all of the costs that are going to be associated with getting back up and running and opening up these venues for new game day, right? What are some of those revenue opportunities that maybe weren’t always traditional that now your team is looking at that way, you can still incorporate some of those partners of yours and drive some of those ad dollars, you know, as you mentioned, we’ve been talking about right. Budgets being slashed and other places.
Wren Baker (09:47):
I mean, you know, you’ve obviously lost some elements that you sold the sponsors and you definitely need to create more. We work in tandem with Mean Green Sports Properties, it’s our division of Learfield and our GM Joe Domingos. So he can bring value to those current sponsors and also introduce new elements as well. So we had a contest, you know, a lot of people have done this best team of all time and create a bracket cause they lost out on the March madness brackets and, and went through that. Hank Dickenson, who’s our longtime employee and color commentator he’s been doing at home with Hank. And he picks out one of the great games in UNT history and play some highlights from it and also brings in one or two of the more recognizable players and lets them comment.
Wren Baker (10:34):
That’s being sponsored. I mean, you’re going to be creating a lot of content for engagement anyway, just because you’re normal, you’ve lost those games that people would normally be at and that normal engagement. And so it makes a lot of sense to reward those loyal sponsors and partners. Who’ve been with you through this, with those. And so sometimes maybe it’s a bonus or sometimes maybe it’s in place of some other element that they would have had. So I think for us, you know, that’s been a conversation that we’ve continued to have and that there’s a great synergy between our external unit and Mean Green Sports Properties and making sure that we’re monetizing those elements and providing that benefit for those sponsors when we can.
Cody Junot (11:18):
How eager have your partners been to embrace the creative, the new ideas, the effort that you’re showing to help them continue to get their brand out there?
Wren Baker (11:26):
I think they’ve been great. You know, I think different people in the spring have, have lost different levels of sponsorship or have more at risk, but by and large are, I think have been loyal. I’ve talked to Joe our GM and we’ve got some at risk, but I think it’s much less than probably what a lot of other institutions have at risk. And you know, that people, a lot of people’s businesses are down, but we also have partnerships. Businesses are up, you know, we’ve a donor who makes a lot of aloe products and aloe is one of the key ingredients and most hand sanitizers. And so he didn’t make hand sanitizer before this. And last time I talked to him, I think he had sold 10 million bottles. So, you know, we, you have some people who are up and some people who are down and you just hope that at the end of the day, it all balances and that you can provide enough of a benefit show, partnership show that you care show that you’re trying to provide those opportunities for them to engage in meaningful ways with your supporters, which are customers of theirs and hopefully at the end of the day, you retain most of those sponsors.
Cody Junot (12:31):
You know as we wrap things up here around, we talked about how you’re messaging, right? The way that you’re continuing to have conversations with your donors and you know, your sponsors and your partners and helping continue grow their business when we returned to a new game day. But what’s the one message that you specifically that you’re driving home when you’re engaging with fans, donors, student-athletes, coaches, as we gear up for a season with so many unknowns?
Wren Baker (13:00):
I’ve just tried to express to everybody, particularly our supporters, that we appreciate you more grateful for their support, the support they’ve always given us. We know some may not be in a position to support us at the same level this year because they suffered personal or financial setbacks due to COVID. But those that can support us, we need you now more than ever. Our student-athletes need you, our coaches and staff needs you, the university needs you and together we are going to get through this. We’re resilient. You know, Americans have time after time rebounded from crisis, and we’re going to emerge from this. We’re going to be stronger, smarter, more efficient, and ready to make a lot more lasting memories together. I mean, sports is popular with people because it gives a release from their daily reality, right? I mean, work is stressful. You can come out there and yell at the referee because you can’t yell at your boss or you know, or other people during the week at work.
Wren Baker (13:55):
And so it’s just a, it’s a great release for people. And I think we’ve seen consistently over time that when there’s times of stress or tragedy or, you know, whatever, we went through that sports has been a big part of the healing process. And so I don’t want us to return players nor fans until we feel like we have a plan to do that safely. But I can’t wait until we can get back together because it’s going to be a healing process, we’re going to make great memories together. And so my message to our fans is basically been that we love you. We appreciate you. We know many of you are hurting. We need your support. And if you’re in a position to support us and we’re going to get through this together and we’re going to continue to make a lot of great memories, watching young people grow and mature academically, socially, and athletically.
Cody Junot (14:43):
Yeah. I think that’s a great point that you hit on is it’s not just the support of cheering in the stands or dollars for facilities. You guys just opened up a new indoor facility and you know, some of the athletic facilities that you’re building there on campus, but the student-athlete part of things, right. And how supporting them goes a long way off the field as well.
Wren Baker (15:04):
Yeah, there’s no doubt. I mean, we, we hammer home at the end of every communication that I send out to our donors. I always think them for their role in helping us build champions and prepare leaders. And we really are a, that’s the great thing about college athletics is we take young people and we give them a chance to grow and mature athletically, but more importantly, academically and socially. And those all go together and that resilience and fighting through adversity and learning to come back. When you get knocked down, that they learn athletically ties directly into how we’re preparing them for life. And, and so that’s our mission. It’s a greater calling than, than just the sports piece. And you know, I think our staff does a really good job of driving that home with donors and we’re going to continue to do that because it’s very, very critical
Cody Junot (15:57):
Wren, we really appreciate you taking the time to join us and giving us some valuable insight into how your team there at North Texas preparing for A New Gameday. We wish you guys nothing but the best and hope that everyone continues to stay safe during these uncertain times.
Wren Baker (16:11):
Yes, same here. I appreciate you having me on and I always love the content you guys provide. We all help each other get through this and get better, steal each other’s ideas. And I hope everybody out, out there stay safe and we look forward to many more great games and moments together.