Episode 6: Gerald Harrison, Austin Peay 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 ready to thrive in a post COVID-19 world. Where going to discuss what the new gameday is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, how administrators are already adapting to our new world and surroundings. Our guest today has spent time at power five programs, including Duke and Tennessee, and is now wrapping up his second year as an AD and in fact was just recently rewarded with a contract extension, that’ll keep him at the helm of Austin Peay athletics through at least 2024. I’m pleased to be joined by the Governors Director of Athletics, Gerald Harrison. Gerald, really appreciate you hanging out with us today. How’s everybody at Austin Peay doing?

Gerald Harrison (00:50):
Everybody’s doing great. Everybody’s doing great. Just as you said, adjusting to our, not just new gameday, our new lifestyle and the COVID era, but we’re doing really well.

Cody Junot (01:02):
Yeah. Glad to hear that. A lot of things have certainly changed over the last, you know, what was weeks is now turned into months and, you know, even more change here recently, considering some of the events that have happened across the country. And we’ll dive into some of that as well. But first let’s start there. Let’s start with COVID in the messaging throughout this entire pandemic, right. Which is now extended into many months and we still don’t know what tomorrow’s going to look like. But one of the things that’s really struck me as I’ve talked with leaders like yourself in the industry is messaging right from ticket procedures that you guys were coming off of, you know, first conference championships since the late 1970s. So a lot of momentum happening with football potential return, a constant stream of team related content. How is your messaging? How has Austin Peay message to its fans during this pandemic?

Gerald Harrison (01:55):
Well, you know, one of the things we wanted to focus on was reminding folks of the great times and the good things that happened last year in Austin Peay athletics, with our championships in football and indoor track, 20 wins in basketball. So our messaging plan was just to remind folks of all those good points, because really there’s enough of you turn on the news that depressed people, you know, you had your covert ticker on one side and all this other stuff going, and we didn’t want to focus on that. And then what I talked to our staff about was how can remind our fan base that despite all of this, it remains a great time to be a Gov? And that’s kind of been our tagline and we are taking it. And we’re going to continue with that throughout this process.

Cody Junot (02:38):
So what are some of the ways in which you’ve spread that message, right? Have you guys put a greater emphasis on social media are you finding ways to do creative Hangouts via zoom or, Google chat? What are the ways in which you’re reaching your fan base?

Gerald Harrison (02:52):
We firmly believe in embracing the free as I call it. And so, the social media aspect has been a huge piece of it. We’re fortunate to get a new video director here about six months ago or so, right before the end of toward the end of the season, who’s done a great job and Robyn’s done awesome. So we’ve done more video content than we ever have. And it’s been really exciting and our fans have been engaged. We’ve done the historical top five, top 10, for which people are debated and emailed the athletic director when their favorite Gov didn’t get put into that. We’ve done Sunday, crossword puzzles, like the New York Times and those famous crossword puzzles. But we’ve done that. Some of our sports have done zooms with their fan base, the devoted ones that show up for every game. Women’s basketball did a great one, just a couple of weeks ago, where they had, if you were a women’s basketball season ticket holder you got invited to come in and talk to the players and the coaches, and it was a great thing. So we’ve, we’ve done a lot of different things, but our whole thing is innovative and aggressive. And that’s what we want to be in the field of social media and messaging.

Cody Junot (04:03):
Talk about innovation. I’m a firm believer, folks of have heard me say before, innovation is going to get us out of this COVID mess. And as we move forward and being innovative in the digital space is something that’s incredibly important too, in the world of college athletics. You know, as we sit here in 2020, and it sounds like it’s something that you guys had started investing in. You mentioned six months ago, bringing on a new position. So it seemed like it was already starting to play a larger role in your overall strategy of reaching fans, but how much more important is it going to be to incorporate fans and engage them through those digital and social platforms? You know, whether it’s as we sit here in a ramp up to a season, or once you get to those games, when we get to September, you know, how are you going to be able to incorporate social and digital media into that new gameday?

Gerald Harrison (04:51):
Well, you know, you’re right, it’s paramount to get fans engaged and stay engaged. And that’s a challenge for college athletics. And it was before the COVID, you’re competing with the man caves and the bigger televisions and the 92 ESPNs, you know, so we get people in our stadium and keep people energized. And so we did, we started that a while ago. I have to give Marcus Hilliard credit as our external person, working with our external team, with sports information and digital and all that stuff that put together things, I rely on them to be creative. I hire people more creative than myself and you know, who can come up with these types of things and they’ve done a good job. This is what we started when I got here. And we’ve been pushing it through now as what we will do as the, as we transition from downtime to active, it doesn’t change.

Gerald Harrison (05:45):
That’s the thing. We just press the gas, we put more content on it, more gas on the fire. How can people instead of a traditional trip in the stadium or the hat game going on the video board, how do we get it in their hands, in their palms and, and make them want to play a game? I was in church on Sunday and they did and they did a thing where the preacher was talking about buckets. And he said the buckets were going to be used a lot in it. So everybody who counted, you had to keep up with a number of times bucket, we’ll say it. And if you tweet, if you tweeted it in at of the service, the church gave the family who had to got a number of buckets, right. A big thing of candy as it may be. So what did everybody do? Everybody’s listening for bucket. Okay. So for us, it may be first down Govs. It may be whatever, and people are thinking, how many times did this happen? You tweeting, you get a neat paraphernalia . You never know what you might get for participating. So we have to be creative. And I think we’ve got the team in place to do so.

Cody Junot (06:48):
You talk about the creativity and involving fans, right through, you know, a simple game like that, where it’s just paying attention, but it’s being engaged. Right? One of the things that you guys launched a season ago was Stache Street, right? A pregame kind of festival, tailgate, block party atmosphere. Well, that may look very different here in 2020, but what are some of the things that you can incorporate from maybe, you know, the environment, right? The way in which that was put together and the fans interacted, what are the, some of the characteristics of an event like that, that you can then carry over into gameday? Whether, you know, we’re playing at a 100% capacity, 50% capacity or no capacity, and everybody’s tuning in digitally.

Gerald Harrison (07:35):
And you know, the first thing is you have to tie the sense of community, and you mentioned zoom calls and things like that. You know, we’re looking at the opportunity to have fans on this, on a zoom. They’re used to doing it by now on their car, at the stadium, in their cars. You know, so the fraternity is having a party at their place and there’s parking lot by their building. And then we have the alumni or the Monocle Society people doing something, how do we zoom all these people together and show these interactions? Because what we want to do say, despite the changes, the experience of Austin Peay athletics will still be the same. The passion that you have is still there. So the band may need to do a pep rally like we would do in Stache Street. But instead of everybody having to come and be around, you know, the band’s doing a concert right outside the stadium, but we encourage people to put it on their phones or on their iPads and listen to it at their parking spaces on their cars or in their homes, in their living rooms.

Gerald Harrison (08:38):
You know, as the band plays the fight song, sing along wherever you are. We’ll capture some of those, you know, with our tagline, you know, whatever we come up with, they haven’t really told me yet, but we all tag at that time, you know, whatever it is to Stacheville gameday, we’re not really sure what it will be yet. And so everybody can go back and see, and we’ll capture some of those videos. And we can show that inside of the stadium, if we’re at 50% capacity, folks could see it there. You know, now everybody feels like they’re watching together and I’m motivated by the draft. If you watched the NFL Draft and Roger Goodell was communicating with all these fans that would normally be a draft booing him or whatever they do, but he can get booed from his living room. So, let’s use the technology that are out there, whether it’s zoom, or you know, whatever we going to use to do that with gameday.

Cody Junot (09:34):
Yeah. Creativity, right? Innovation, something you touched upon a little bit earlier, and you know that then I think leads in perfectly to the next question. And it’s a big one, right? Because whether you want to look at it as a barrier to start up or whatnot, but costs, revenues, money. You had the NCAA distribution from college basketball, get cut by nearly two thirds. So you’ve got revenues down there we’ve seen across the country, furloughs pay cuts of some folks unfortunately, having to downsize departments, you’ve seen, you know, budget cuts and tightening happening at every single athletic department at every level. So what are some of the revenue opportunities that you guys are looking at? You know, as we talk about returning, and it’s finding a way to incorporate, you know, Stache Street or, you know, some other elements, what are some of the revenue opportunities that you are examining as you get ready for this new gameday?

Gerald Harrison (10:30):
Well, you know, we’re always on the hunt for some cash to make. And really we’re looking for new revenue opportunities to basically maintain the way of living that we have right now. Right? Because like you said, we lost a 75% of our NCAA money, which at FCS level is huge. I mean, it’s huge for everybody, but for us, it’s really, really huge. And one of the things that we talked about is in challenging our sponsors and our corporate sponsors do let us look at different ways of reaching out to people. And they have been doing that. You know, everybody’s got bank sponsors and stuff. So now, you know, for a while, you couldn’t even go into a bank, you had to do it all through the ATM and things like that. So why not the games that we put in all those crossword puzzles that we talked about?

Gerald Harrison (11:15):
It, it was interactive games instead of paying a sponsor, paying for a banner in the stadium that may be seen by 50% less people. Create these different games or these different things, graphics that are going to your phone. Or going to be shown on your ESPN plus broadcast. You’re going to have, because we get so many elements that we can sell them that nontraditional. Usually don’t get those. So then those people usually not interested in it because the viewership was always the highest. But if you go to 50% capacity, the viewership goes up, those things are more valuable. And so we can get a great sponsor to look into things or look to our first down marker sponsored by somebody that usually he’s in the stadium, you know, it’s like, Hey, this is a whoever first down, well now what can we create and use our graphic design person to create that, that shows up on every fan that logs in as following the game, they get an update and it says, you know, Fortera Stadium announcement first down or whatever it is.

Cody Junot (12:28):
How receptive have your current sponsors been to those conversations and has it been a two way street? Are they approaching you with ideas? You know, as you guys work together to kind of think outside the box

Gerald Harrison (12:43):
Some have, they’ve been very receptive going into this. I was really worried about how many corporate sponsors and could we lose, not just because of the, what we got going on in the stadium, but because of their businesses. You know, we all got these restaurants that are struggling and other businesses that may be going back and pulling back. But we haven’t seen that at this point in Clarksville, we’ve actually picked up some additional sponsors out of Nashville. So people are trying to reach and expand their brand. So I feel good about where we’re going and some of them have brought ideas that we didn’t see, that they’re very interested in not just for the new gameday or the new normal, but they want to continue this, you know, in perpetuity because the day of watching games, just being in the stadium are long gone. We’re all on our iPhones and, and whatever device that you have. So they know there’s two ways to reach and I don’t have to be on a video board to do it. And that’s what we’re talking to our people about.

Cody Junot (13:38):
Was this something that you guys were already exploring maybe before, right? You mentioned that, you know, the cell phone, it’s not new, right. The fact that, you know, maybe it’s someday evolution, our eyes will actually be on the top of our head because we’re always looking down. Right. So is that something that you guys were, were, were conversating with your sponsors and partners with before?

Gerald Harrison (13:56):
Yes. I have to give credit to our folks that work with us on our corporate sponsors. Justin does a great job from the Peak Sports side, working with Marcus and those guys. And they’ve been talking to folks a while ago about different ways to do things and do more because you know, our elements, we can’t do everything in the stadium they may be able to do over at Nissan Stadium in Nashville for the Titans. You know, they got more things, they got more tricks and stuff. We were relying heavily on, you know, passing kicks and all this other stuff. And they started doing elements outside of the stadium and started doing things leading into the stadium. So we’ve been hitting it a little bit the Let’s Go Peay app has gotten more advertisements on it and things like that. So we started this early, I think, which got us a great start. Now we’re just accelerating. Like I said, we’re going to be positive and aggressive

Cody Junot (14:49):
Last thing here that I want touch upon. We’ve talked about how you’re messaging, right? And some of the ways through increased social media and zoom calls that you’re communicating with fans. But when you specifically, you know, when Gerald Harrison, athletic director is chatting with fans, family, your coaches, right? What’s the message that you’re driving home. As we continue to move closer, what we hope is a normal, regular football season and the September kickoff. But what’s the one thing that you’re continuously driving home?

Gerald Harrison (15:20):
You know, it’s something I said in the beginning, my tagline has been, it remains a great time to be a Gov. We’ve got to stay positive. Things are going to be different. It’s going to take all of us together to make this thing work out, to get us back to where we want to be, but there’s nothing to stop in our progress. We’re still moving forward. And I tell our folks that every day we are going to do new things, we’re going to be innovative. We’re not going to sit and wait to see what this world looks like. When we’ve figured out how to handle COVID-19, we’re going in. I call it cautiously daring. We’re going to be smart about what we know. We’re going to be safe about what we’re doing, but we’re going to move forward and do some great things and prepared for long term because it remains a great time to be a Gov.

Gerald Harrison (16:07):
And we got some trophies behind us and we were winning and we’re going to keep doing our student athletes are doing well in school and we’re going to keep doing it. And the more I talk and I speak as a leader with a positive attitude and the more our student athletes see it and our coaches see it and our fans and everybody sees it. That’s what they’re going to carry. If I come in every day and go, we’re going to be at 50%, we’re going to have to sit six feet apart. Where’s your mask? If I do that every day, I’m going to drain the energy that I spent 19, 20 months trying to build with this team trying to build. And I can’t do that. I’m not going to douse water on this flame. Let’s go. And like I said, we’ll be cautiously, daring, but always remind them is a great time to be a gov

Cody Junot (16:51):
Cautiously, daring. I liked that like that a lot. And it makes a lot of sense in this time of uncertainty. But to your point, you can’t stay still, right? Cause you’re either moving forward or you’re moving backwards. I firmly believe that you don’t stay in the same spot. Gerald really, really appreciate you taking some time here, giving us some insights on some of the things that you guys are doing there at Austin Peay as you prepare for this new gameday. Thanks again for joining us.

Gerald Harrison (17:16):
Thank you for having me.