Influencing College Sports Fans to Get into the Game, Literally

According to #GamedayInsider, Rob Roselli, when building rapport with fans, it’s not just about the message that’s delivered — it’s how it’s delivered — and by whom.


What’s a hype video without fan buy-in? This athletics marketer wouldn’t know, because he got it right the first time. In our third installment of #GamedayInsider, Rob Roselli, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Rutgers University, give us his insights on how to get college sports fans to engage and participate in athletics marketing.

Creating an attendance-worthy experience

RR: This year, at the NBA Finals when they played the Canadian national anthem at Scotiabank Arena, I watched a really special moment unravel on live TV. The entire arena was singing “Oh, Canada!” in unison and the singer actually took a few verses off to let the crowd do the rest. And really for me, that signifies what it is that the venue has to offer when it comes to the fan experience. This idea of a shared communal experience that you can’t get on your couch. 

That’s really the big thing we face today as sports marketers: the idea of the couch vs the stadium. When we think about fans that have interest in experiencing sporting events live, really there are two options: Experience it from their couch or be in the venue. Our challenge as athletic directors, every single day - no matter what team we are working for - is how do we continue to create ways to make sure that fans want to experience our events inside our stadium? 

Rob Roselli is Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Rutgers University

Rob Roselli is Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Rutgers University

Promoting the experience of gameday

RR: Social media, at this point, is probably the biggest marketing tool we have. In our promotions, we’re mindful of the different audiences, and we are always trying to convey a specific message to them. We understand that in 2019, through Facebook and Google’s targeting mechanisms, we have the opportunity to reach a very specific audience with a very specific message in exactly the moment we feel is right.

For us here at Rutgers Football, single game tickets go on sale in July. So that’s 7 home games -- 7 products -- that we’re going to be actively selling. So we ask ourselves, what are those audiences, right? For our Ohio State game, for example, we’ll pull lists of people who have attended Rutgers vs Ohio State in the past. And through Facebook, we can create an ad that targets those specific lists with a specific message that reminds them, “Hey, you went to Ohio State and the Buckeyes come back to town November 16th…Be there to experience it.”

Tapping into popularity and influence on campus

RR: This being our 150th anniversary year for Rutgers Football and college football as a whole, we wanted to do something new and outside the box. Our goal was to create awareness that Rutgers is the Birthplace of College Football. So we identified 30 or 40 students on campus who we considered Rutgers influencers in the student body. These were people in fraternities, sororities, club presidents, athletes, anybody who had a decent following on Instagram that we felt like — if you’re a Rutgers student, you’re probably following one of these folks. And we felt that if we could deliver the message that Rutgers is the Birthplace of College Football through them, then it would make a splash.

The NBA I think does a really great job in utilizing its athletes in this way. The league marketers understand that their product is so successful because of the individual personalities that really form the storyline of their league. So when they’re delivering the NBA messaging — through a Lebron James, through a Kyrie Irving, whatever it may be — they understand that while that benefits the individual’s brand, at the end of the day, it benefits the NBA, and it benefits basketball. I agree with that mindset entirely, and we tapped into this strategy for our celebration of the 150th anniversary.


Making fans part of something bigger than themselves

RR: With the Birthplace of College Football campaign, our team did a great job in identifying those on-campus influencers and creating value for them. We pitched it to them in a way that made them feel that they were a part of something big — a campaign that would have an impact for Rutgers on a larger scale. The idea that people like to be a part of something bigger than themselves was valuable because had we just contacted one “student influencer” and asked them to help us promote something, they probably would say, “what’s in it for me?” 

The fact that this was such a grand campaign involving a lot of people helped because they understood that this might actually be really cool. And wow, they’re asking me to be a part of it. Everyone has a little ego, right? I think that was crucial in helping the campaign be a success. At the end of the day, the message was really well received by our fans. In fact, we saw google searches for “the birthplace of college football” skyrocket during the social media activation — over 130 that night, up from an average 3-5 previously on a random weeknight — and we’re convinced that it had a lot to do with who delivered the message. 

Creating a tradition with video (and some help from the media)

RR: When I started at Rutgers, I tapped into my past (Penn State undergrad) and explored the songs that could potentially become our game day tradition. I knew the song had to have an element of epicness, if you will, that would be recognizable in a stadium environment, and soon enough, after listening to a bunch of crazy techno music, I settled on The Hum, by Dimitri Vega. In this song, they do the old chant where they pound their chests in unison. This was something I could picture the crowd doing when I listened to the song. We knew that we couldn’t just press play and hope that the fans figured it out, so naturally, we turned to video.  

We created the promo and dubbed it The Knight Pulse. Then, we pitched it to the local media outlets… because of course if you want something to catch steam, you have to pull a few strings behind the scenes to give it a little nudge, and APP published an article that helped deliver it to the fan base. We had our head coach at the time mention it in a press conference as well. We checked off all the boxes in terms of how do we make this feel like a thing and sure enough, 4 or 5 years later, we are still playing it at football games. 

Catching the momentum of the crowd

RR: We’re big believers here in our gameday production, and we are of the mindset that what happens on the football field dictates what we do from a gameday production standpoint. If the mood calls for something intense, we’re going to do something intense. If the mood calls for something happy, we’re going to call for something that makes the crowd happy. So the Knight Pulse tends to be the perfect thing for that intense moment. 

For us, that’s how we view The Hum. If it’s a big moment for Rutgers, we’re going to play that song. Our fans know exactly what to do and we’re hopeful that it revs up the crowd, fuels our team to victory and makes it tough for the opponent to operate in that environment. Our fans have embraced it. They share videos of themselves doing the Knight Pulse on Snapchat, Instagram… I see that as a success.

Finding that diamond influencer

RR: The other thing that is important when trying to leverage others to spread your message is finding that person or persons who really means something to your program. People who have an emotional connection because maybe they attended your school and played on the team and therefore are more willing to help. I can’t say that we’re there yet, but I can say that we do have something planned for later this summer where we’ll work with our Rutgers alums in the NFL to promote the Birthplace of College Football campaign. It will be exciting, for sure.

Outside of my sphere here at Rutgers, there are a lot of great examples of this. I think the Philadelphia Eagles do a good job with it. I think about what the Eagles have done with Bradley Cooper, with Meek Mill…  They’re tapping into people who mean something to their brand, tapping into people that mean something to their audience, in order to deliver a message. And that message is being delivered by the Philadelphia Eagles — but via another channel, via Bradley Cooper. That’s really powerful, and I do think that college sports will get there. It’s just a matter of time.

Generating revenue regardless of venue

RR: So while I believe it is important for us to continue to promote the idea that fans need to be in the stadium to experience that communal effect that I touched on, I’ll also say this. I think TV and digital is only going to get better and better. So we may reach a tipping point where people are simply not going to see the value anymore or it’s just going to get really tough to get them to attend the live event. I believe that teams and leagues are going to have to figure out how to continue to drive per cap revenue when the fan is at home.

We know when the fan is on site, we can drive revenue through beer, parking, concessions, merch — anything it may be… a ticket to get in. But if that same fan has the same interest in our product, still cares about Rutgers Football; they still want to see the game, but they have no interest in coming to the stadium — how can we still turn that interest into revenue? I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know anybody in this industry who has figured it out yet, but 15 years from now, a main source of revenue for a team — that adds to their per cap — might be fans buying premium content from their couch. Who knows, right?


Amie Sheridan (@amie_sheridan) is a content strategist serving sports tech startups.