Attracting Attendance

Stillman College is a small school that treats its fans to a big-time football experience. It’s been rewarded with record-breaking attendance.

By Dr. Donald Staffo

Donald Staffo, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Stillman College. He served as Interim Athletic Director at Stillman for the two years that included the implementation of football, which he wrote about in the Feb./March 2001 issue of Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1604/gpattendance.htm

Stillman College has played football for only five years, but has already reached the top in one category: attendance. Having restarted the football program in 1999 after a hiatus of more than 50 years, Stillman averaged 7,250 fans per game during the 2003 season, leading NCAA Division III in this statistic. (Although Stillman has been a provisional Division II member since last year, the NCAA still lists the college in Division III in most categories.)

Stillman has been among the leaders in Division III attendance since football was re-instated. In 2000, the average attendance for five home games was 4,167, ninth highest in the nation. In 2001, it dipped slightly to 3,952 for six games, still good enough to be ranked 13th. In 2002, Stillman recorded the third highest average in the country, with 4,760 for five home games. And the four-game average of 7,250 this past fall was the highest for any Division III team since 1991.

What’s the secret of our success? Having a pretty good product helps, of course. Under Head Coach Theo Danzy, the Tigers have compiled a 29-18 record in five years. But we’ve also focused on making football an important part of the Stillman College community. To do this, we’ve zeroed in on three areas—atmosphere, marketing, and promotions—for our specific audience.

Atmosphere
When planning our first football season, we knew it was important to start the program off with a bang, and we did so by making the homecoming game a huge event. We put a lot of effort into making this a fun, special weekend that all in attendance would remember.

Prior to the game, a skydiver parachuted onto the field and presented the game ball to Stillman President Dr. Ernest McNealey. During an extended halftime ceremony, players from Stillman’s last football team in the 1950s were honored, and bands from several surrounding high schools performed. Following the game, there was a concert featuring nationally known country and western singer Regina Bell.

"There was so much going on at that first homecoming. There were several class reunions and all kinds of organized activities. There was so much excitement," says Moses Prewitt, our Alumni Affairs Director. "People were everywhere. It was probably our largest crowd that year."

A great atmosphere also requires first-class facilities. Stillman Stadium has a capacity of 9,000, with extra bleachers brought in for homecoming, which annually attracts close to 10,000 people. The stadium has more than 500 theater-type executive seats near the 50-yard line, the same kind that can be found in Adelphi Stadium, home of the NFL Tennessee Titans. Ticket prices for these premium seats vary, depending on the promotional package selected. The concept is similar to the executive suites common in Division I and professional sports, but on a much smaller scale.

The atmosphere at Stillman home games is also enhanced because the school encourages and accommodates tailgating, with some alumni pulling RVs into their designated campus spots as early as Thursday for Saturday football games. Parking spaces with electrical outlets are reserved for tailgaters on a game-by-game basis.

As at most historically black colleges, the marching band plays a big part in the Stillman festivities. Beyond the moving halftime shows, the Stillman Blue Pride marching band entertains fans by playing at pep rallies on Friday nights, and band practices leading up to the game also attract a large audience among the tailgaters.

Marketing
Of course, people need to know about your product to enjoy the great atmosphere, and we spread the word by being very visible in our community. People driving up and down 15th Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Tuscaloosa, see a large billboard near the school with pictures and the football schedule. A second billboard on 15th Street is added to promote special games.

We also have worked with our local newspaper, The Tuscaloosa News, to produce a front-page, wrap-around Stillman campus edition for each home game, which is uncommon at the Division III or even the Division II level. A Stillman alum working at The Tuscaloosa News approached the college with the wrap-around idea and coordinated the project. The sports information department provides the information and the paper designs the wrap-around.

Promotions
Like many other schools, we also do our share of promotions. Many are family-friendly, including a "Fun Day," with small carnival rides and games and activities for children. Pee wee football games have also been played on the school’s practice field prior to the college game. On occasion, bands have put on evening concerts and car shows have been held on game weekends.

We have also found success by designating some games as "classics." For example, Stillman has played rival Lincoln University in a contest called the Druid City Classic, which featured a morning parade and annually attracts a crowd in excess of 8,000. For the past three years, we have played another rival, Miles College, in the "Steel City Classic" at Legion Field in Birmingham, former home of the Auburn-Alabama game. This stadium offers our fans a chance to purchase sky boxes for the game, which seat 28 people and allow the host to decorate the room and reserve catered food. For classic games, we run advertisements in local newspapers, on the radio, and on the coach’s local television show. Elementary and high school honor students are admitted free and the school offers two tickets for the price of one.

For all our games at Stillman Stadium, we offer an Executive Seat package, a ticket package that includes a parking decal, T-shirt, and a baseball cap. We encourage current students to attend games by admitting them free of charge as long as they sign up in advance to receive tickets.

New Traditions
Sharing a city with the University of Alabama could be seen as a drawback to attracting fans. Some of our home games do conflict with Alabama home games played only four miles away at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But we have simply tried to find our own niche and appeal to our own audience.

By mixing together a great atmosphere, sufficient marketing, and specific promotions, we feel we provide a game-day atmosphere similar to that at some large universities, albeit on a smaller scale. From promoting family fun to catering to our alumni, our plans have paid off.