Episode 9: Jennifer Williams, Alabama State

Cody Junot (00:17):
Welcome to A New Gameday, powered by Nevco, changing the game with scoreboards, video displays and scoring solutions. I’m your host, Cody Junot. In this podcast series, we’re going to talk with college athletic administrators and leaders about A New Gameday as we get set to thrive in a post COVID-19 world. We’ll discuss what the 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 guest today is a former student-athlete at the University of North Carolina, a member of the NCAA Division I Council, and nearing the completion of her second year, leading the athletic department at Alabama State, I’m pleased to be joined by Jennifer Lynne Williams. Jennifer, appreciate you taking the time this afternoon. How is everybody in Montgomery doing?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (01:00):
We are trying to stay safe, making sure that we are abiding by our rules and wearing our mask, but we’re making it and we’re optimistic. We want to play in the fall. We want to play football. I mean, down here football is king so we’re trying to make sure that we implement the safety measures so that we can come back and come back safely.

Cody Junot (01:21):
Yeah. You know, where we sit here in the middle of July, things have certainly changed from where they were back in June and you go back a little bit further and you know, hard to believe that we’ve been in this kind of wait and see, not sure what’s going to happen world since the middle of March, which, you know, I guess for some folks that either feels like it’s been an eternity or it’s just been a warp speed scenario, depending on how much planning and how much things can change. And so to your point, yes, I think everybody hoping for a normal fall season when we get to September.

Cody Junot (01:56):
So again, really appreciate you joining me. You know, one of the things that we talk about a lot with, leaders like yourself and the focus of this podcast is communication and messaging and how you’ve been able to reach your constituents, your student-athletes your coaches, your fans. And so, you know, when we go back to March, right, and our world changes and all of a sudden, you know, the inability to meet with people on a regular basis. From a communication standpoint, how has your team been messaging? You recently released your return to play plan. You’ve got your three W’s, all those things happening. So how has your team messaged throughout this COVID crisis?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (02:43):
So I want to say that I am an avid user of Zoom and Google meet you know, Microsoft teams. We have just implemented a lot of the virtual space. I’ve always been a big on better to over communicate. So we talk a lot, we’ve worked to be as transparent as possible, and it’s even been even more at the forefront now that we’re in a pandemic. And so between Zoom, Google meet Microsoft teams, those have been the ways that we’ve been able to effectively communicate to our staff, as well as our coaches and student-athletes. I know that our coaches are using Zoom a lot. We have an account specific to our department and Group Me, I mean, our coaches, are big on Group Me with their teams, but even more, “I’m like, hey, drop this in your team, Group Me drop this,” just so that we’re letting them know. I’ve also been more active on Twitter because a lot of our student-athletes are really big on Twitter. They follow me and so I want them to know that their safety and how we return is our main focus and not just for the student-athletes for all of the students at Alabama State.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (03:55):
And so really making sure I have a presence on those different social media channels for our student-athletes so that they know and understand we’re working for them and that they know that we are putting in resources to make sure that not only do they come back physically as safe as possible but mentally, they stay strong and that they’re able to come back because mental health has really been extreme focus amongst student-athletes across the nation. And now with the pandemic on top of some of the social injustices we’ve seen its even heightened. So making sure that they know they have a safe space to return to, that there are services available and it’s okay to not feel okay. So it’s all planned into that plan of how we communicate and a lot of touch points, you know, while our coach may have met every other day or two out of days out of the week, we’re touching every day, whether it’s a text, an email, a Zoom, something to say connected,

Cody Junot (04:53):
How are you staying connected with your fans, keeping them abreast of what’s happening, the changes, whether it’s season tickets and, you know, the reassurance that you have for those folks as universities are in the spot where you have to go out and continue to push that, hey, we’re going to play football at some time, but let me put you at ease just in case we don’t, here’s how we’re going to take care of you. Here’s our return to play plans. So how have you guys been able to communicate that with, with your fans and constituents?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (05:22):
Right. So at our institution, we rely heavily on a lot of different external units in the campus community. So working with auxiliary services our institutional advancement and our PR team to really engage our alarms. We send blast out to our season ticket holders, as well as using our Facebook page. A lot of our fans, Hornet nation follow our institution page as well as our athletic page. So making sure our messaging is is up there and that it’s consistent and it’s current. We just released our COVID-19 season ticket, a refund plan. And just letting them know that the goal is to play football. But if something happens, we’re going to work to accommodate them and that, you know, we’re here, we don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to make sure that they’re good and that we take care of them because we know that our fan base is anxious.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (06:16):
And we know that this is a time of uncertainty, but I always tell them, you know, continue to remain patient, be flexible and make sure that you are following those channels. Because a lot of times, you know, it’s hard, we still have paper mail, but everything has gone pretty much digital. And it’s really kind of training some of our seasoned Hornets. They have to be online and I think they’re getting to that point. The pandemic has pretty much kind of forced you to be more visible online. So making sure our social media is up to par, our SID and his team have done a phenomenal job with keeping information flowing, but we’re just constantly feeding people, you know, email blast, you know different electronic communications. And just trying to get the word out.

Cody Junot (07:03):
Is that a change, or kind of a pivot from the communication strategy, relying so heavily on social media is that something that you guys were, were leaning into before?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (07:15):
We were actually leaning into it before, it’s just ramped up a lot more. You know, at our institution, because we’re a limited resource institution, we just can’t send a lot of monye on paper, that is not conducive to our budget. So we use so social media, we use those platforms heavily, but its just been ramped up another notch and working with university partners because their reach is also farther and this is greater amongst corporate and just other people that can touch. So we’re sending our information, our content to everyone and making sure they share on their channels, which is something that’s been a little different. But again, my motto has always been, it’s better to over-communicate than to not, or under communicate. During this time

Cody Junot (08:01):
Talk about the social media and when we return to play, whenever it’s going to be in a limited capacity type situation, a very different situation from which we left you know, last fall. And so sticking with the social media, how can you incorporate some of that social media into gameday into the gameday environment in the stadium? You know, as you look to keep folks entertained while there may be a pause in the action on the field.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (08:36):
We were already using our social media with our corporate sponsors, but again, everything is going to be heightened this year. Especially in our in-game experience using our jumbotron, you know, doing more of the dance games to really engage our fans as were going through the games, because it will be limited capacity within our stadium, which is kind of the norm, what everyone’s putting out there in terms of stadiums using our jumbotron, using our social media and funneling our fans and our key constituents to our sponsors through social media. It’s going to be the most effective way for us to continue to engage that right.

Cody Junot (09:19):
Well, let’s stay with the sponsors. Beacause one of the main concerns is revenue. Revenue is a concern, whether we’re in a normal situation, but it’s much more of a concern today, whether it’s the start to get your student athletes and staff back on campus and the testing and all of the costs associated there, or dealing with the loss distributions of NCAA revenue and, and budgetary shortfalls. So when you look at in-game promotions, dealing with your partners and sponsors how can you leverage that to create new revenue opportunities that maybe weren’t there or weren’t utilized prior to COVID?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (09:59):
So what we’re doing right now, we’ve been having those conversations because as you said, this isn’t just affecting athletics. This is a trickle down effect. You know, it’s affecting your corporations, your businesses, small and large. So talking to our current sponsors and then any potential sponsors of new initiatives, you know, students are actively engaged on social media. So we have a great student following, how do we get our corporate sponsors immersed with our student population? So that’s through social media. So looking at different spins that we can take to really continue to engage our corporate sponsors, because again, they’re hurting as well. And so we have to show them how they can have a return on their investment and talking through different strategies, different things that we had not done before putting logos on our digital tickets, because we’re looking at going digital in terms of ticketing.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (10:59):
So it’s different ways that we’re looking to really to get our corporate sponsors, their brands out to our population, but still keeping safety first and recognizing that resources are going to be limited, but showing them how they can still have that return on investment, because they eventually want people to come back and patronize. People have been hesitant, so you still have to step out there. I would say, it takes money to make money. So, you know, you have to put that investment up there and we just have to show how we’re changing our way of how we project to our fan base.

Cody Junot (11:35):
How involved have your sponsors been in that process? Is it a two way street or are they bringing you ideas of ways in which they can reach and you can share their message? How much of a collaborative effort has it been?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (11:50):
It has been, I think some of them are still in shock and some of them have just come off their new quarter. You know, a lot of the fiscal year started over July 1. So a lot of our sponsors were just waiting to see what those marketing dollars, they had ideas as we started the conversations. But again, it’s been confirmed now that we’re in this new fiscal year, but yes, some of them have been more, you know, open and vocal about ways than others, but we still have to make sure that it works for Alabama State, what may work for other institutions around us may not necessarily be able to work for our fan base. So looking at ways to really make the most out of what our sponsors can offer and how it works for our Hornet nation.

Cody Junot (12:34):
Well, so we’ve talked about the social interaction aspect of the gameday. We’ve talked about potential new revenue opportunities that this new gameday is going to provide as we draw closer to the September date. And of course that may change and it may get pushed back. How much from when you go back to March to where we sit here today in the middle of July, has the actual process of getting fans in the game of, you know, having folks shuffled in the stadium and social distancing and ticketing. And are we going to have to be six feet apart and can your family sit together? How much planning has gone on there and how much have those plans changed? As we’ve evolved, you know, back from March to where we are today,

Jennifer Lynne Williams (13:20):
Cody, I feel like I have a third degree in COVIDology,I’m creating words now. I’ve been planning and re-planning and reassessing, and just, it’s been a really long process because you know the climate has just, it’s been changing so drastically in regards to cases and spikes and every state is different. And you know, right now, when we talk about some of the gameday environment, of course social distancing is going to be enforced, you know, limited capacity in our stadium. These are things that we can speak on because we know that’s going to have to be our new normal, you know, temperature checks, wearing masks. Our campus is a mask mandatory campus as our people return to campus. So those are things that we can guarantee, like you said, the spacing of seats, that’s what we’re working on now.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (14:16):
Our event management team, as well as auxiliary services, we’re looking at the stadium and spacing out the seats. Again, you talked about families, families can sit together, but then you need to be that six feet radius from someone else. So these are all things were taken into consideration sideline access. You don’t want anyone down there without masks, because again, our student-athletes are on the sideline and our coaches. We talk a lot about helmets, you know, they have the new,shields out. What does that look like? That’s another cost were working to figure out too. So there has been a lot of going into returning our student-athletes to play and now into our gameday experience, because again, safety is going to always be our number one priority. And I tell people all the time is that, you know, we are never going to put people in danger and that’s just going to change our landscape because you know, our football season, I feel as if it can happen, but it’s just going to be a lot different than what we’ve had in the past.

Cody Junot (15:18):
You’ve talked a lot about working with your campus partners which I think is great and often, and undervalued part of collegiate athletics working with the university side. One of the things that makes Alabama State, the SWAC, HBCUs so, so very special is that game day environment, right? Having had the opportunity to see the bands perform and it’s what makes the gameday environment so special, right? So how can you incorporate at least aspects of that, pieces of that, in maybe different ways to create safety, social distancing, but still deliver much of that experience as possible?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (15:58):
Cody, I’m not going to sit here and tell a fib to you, it’s going to be hard. You know, when you look at our culture at HBCUs tailgating, the band, that’s a huge part of it. And right now, I don’t think it can properly be done due to the, virus. It’s like a big picnic or you know, a family reunion in the tailgating area, and I don’t realistically see it being able to be something that you can manage and properly manage social distancing in that environment. So we’re still working on how to create those elements. Again, our technology is going to have to be at another level, but, you know, looking at how we record our game, it’s going to have to be a really great production so that we can get that content into the living rooms.

Speaker 3 (16:48):
I went to the computers of our fans who are weary to come back because I’m on social media. I see the posts, a lot of our fans aren’t coming back there, you know, at an HBCU, you know, a lot of the demographic is African-American, when you look at the disparity of cases amongst Coronavirus, is it affects African-Americans at a very high rate. And so people are paying attention. I’m looking at different surveys and different content. And a lot of them aren’t wanting to come back, they’re sitting 2020 out and are going to wait to 2021. So how do we bring that experience into their home?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (17:29):
That’s what we’re looking at now. So when you talk about your gameday production, how you air and shoot your, your games and your contests, it’s going to have to be at a high level. Making sure our folks know how to access our website and access the games that’s going to be another educational piece, which we would have to communicate digitally. So we are taking all of it into consideration. We’re going to have to limit the amount of people in our stadium. I’m already hearing it. Some teams in the SWAC, aren’t allowing bands to travel to opposing teams, which I understand, you know, I definitely understand the why it is going to be different. I tell people, it’s going to be like no football season you’ve ever seen, but we have to stay positive. And again, always keep safety at our forefront because that is the number one priority.

Cody Junot (18:22):
I think it’s a great point, you bring up in the education aspect of it. Reminding your fans who are used to going to the games and tailgating and being there, and may not be familiar with how to log into ESPN+ or pull up the website and watch the games streamed on Facebook or Twitter or whatever that may be. I think that’s a great point that you bring up the educational piece. That’s going to be very important.

Cody Junot (18:51):
The last thing Jennifer, I want to talk with you about is we’ve talked about how you’re communicating, right? And we’ve talked about the ways in which you’re looking at, trying to bring back as much as that traditional game day and give it to your fans. But what’s the message that you are delivering, what’s the one thing that you’re driving home. When you talk to your coaches, your players, your fans, your family? When they ask you about what I’m about, what this fall could look like, what’s the one message that that you’re constantly driving home?

Jennifer Lynne Williams (19:21):
Well, my staff will tell you that I constantly touch on two words and that’s patience and flexibility. Those are kind of the two words because we have to, everyone has to be patient. We’ve never lived through a pandemic. And so leading through a pandemic is going to require you to have to flex and pivot. And I’m grateful for my experience as a student athlete, because it’s definitely helped me to be able to lead during this time, because when you’re a student-athlete, things change and come up all the time and you have to flex. And so what I tell my staff is that we need to make sure we’re bringing solutions to the table and that we’re looking at the big picture with safety and the same with our fans. They’re not going to agree with all the changes we put in, in place. They want to play football.

Jennifer Lynne Williams (20:06):
But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s about making sure not only our student athletes are safe, but our fans are safe. And so again, safety, patience, and flexibility. That’s been my phrase since March, it has not changed. It will continue to be my mantra as we move into this new normal, but we want to play we all under, we, everybody wants to see sports back. I mean, it’s raw, I’m a competitor. I miss having, you know, sports on TV and seeing my student-athletes, but we also want to make sure that they’re safe so that we can have some type of normal normalcy as we go into 202, but that’s really my thing Cody, patience and flexibility.

Cody Junot (20:48):
Jennifer, it’s been a joy to chat with you here this afternoon, providing some great insight and the things that you guys are doing there at at Alabama State. I really do appreciate the time. Thanks again. Stay safe.