By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt began his Monday press conference by praising Rebel fans and the atmosphere at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for last week’s game against Auburn.
Recruits couldn’t stop talking about the atmosphere, Nutt said.
Michael Thompson had been talking about it – and planning for it – long before kickoff.
The game was the first opportunity for Thompson, hired in the summer as the senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing, to respond to a recent survey of football season ticket-holders about the game-day experience inside the stadium.
“From the video boards to everything else when you walked in there, the place was rocking,” Nutt said. “We had a lot of outstanding recruits and families here this weekend and they kept commenting on it. They kept talking about the atmosphere. It was a big-time collegiate atmosphere. I hate that we couldn’t hand them a victory.”
Ole Miss was competitive early before falling behind and losing 51-31.
While the Rebels didn’t hand fans a victory, Thompson was able to hand them something else. He hopes this is the beginning of what fans will see as an improved experience.
“We’ve shifted some things around, and next year you should see a sea of change,” he says. “We want to make sure that anything that goes on our video board or ribbon board has fans first. We have to think fans first. If it’s not fans first, we’re not doing it right.”
Earlier this season comments by former Ole Miss quarterback Romaro Miller, in which he challenged fans to become more active at home football games, brought the stadium experience to the forefront of discussion.
Another former player, offensive lineman Todd Wade, has visited a handful of times with Thompson, who these meetings to be sort of an unofficial advisory group that helps him keep up with the pulse of fans.
Thompson was uncertain of the response his survey might receive. He wasn’t sure it would generate enough feed back to be considered statistically valid. Had it not, the survey would have been made available to all ticket buyers and fans, not just season ticket holders.
The survey needed 908 responses to be valid and generated 3,400.
Sometimes the smallest change generates to largest response. Thompson called the response “record-breaking.”
“Our fans clearly wanted to talk,” he said. “They had lots of opinions, and they wanted to put them out there.”
One of the comments Thompson heard most from the survey was fans’ desire to see score updates from other games more frequently. So, for the Auburn game, the ends of the video “ribbon” boards on the stadium sides were devoted to a continues rotation of score updates.
Other changes included different music selection that Thompson believes has a broader appeal, different use of videos on the big board and a 3-D video at halftime, a production of University Brand Services.
Some of these things were what Thompson considered quick fixes amid mountains of survey data.
“It was one of those, ‘Hey, we’re listening and working on this.’ We couldn’t fix the bathrooms in three weeks,” he said.
One of the biggest complaints received was the use of commercials on the video board – a “buzz kill” Thompson called it. It creates a ticklish situation of pitting a revenue source against game-day atmosphere.
“What we are working on for next year is replacing the commercials but giving sponsors, in my opinion, more value than what they’ve been getting. It’s doing what sponsorship is designed to do, and that’s tie the brand with something that adds specific value to the fan,” Thompson said.
He used the example of tying a sponsor’s name to highlights and updates of former Ole Miss players now in the NFL.
“Most people think it’s all about promotion, but product is critical. I’m not saying we have a bad product. We have a product that needs improvement.”
Like the product, the atmosphere is in a state of development, Thompson says.
“If we’re getting 60,000 customers interacting with our brand inside the stadium seven or eight times a year, we better nail it. People realize we’re not going to win every game, but that doesn’t mean that for the money they pay they shouldn’t receive a first-class winning kind of environment and entertainment.”