For UGA, fan experience is No. 1

Athletic Assoc.'s staff delving into new ways to keep Bulldog Nation in seats

Updated: May 31, 2012, 12:11 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

Georgia student sectionRadi Nabulsi/ESPN.comThe athletic association envisions potential 'all you can eat' fan seating at Stegeman Coliseum, as well as event tickets that include prepaid amounts for concessions and souvenirs.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Ask Greg McGarity about his responsibilities as Georgia's athletic director and it won't be long before one of his favorite catchphrases -- "customer service" -- enters the conversation.

Since he took over as AD just before the 2010-11 school year, McGarity has regularly emphasized that he is extremely serious about offering fans a game-day experience that is enjoyable to the point that they are willing to abandon the comforts of home.

"We'll probably never be able to match what it's like at home, but there's certain things we can do," McGarity said. "Can we show more replays? Can we make sure that we have Wi-Fi available? What can we do to replicate the home experience? It sounds kind of a backward way, but that's what every athletic director and every owner, every general manager is basically going through, the same exercise. What can we do to convince people that, 'Hey, it's worth the trip to come to Athens?' "

More than 500 Georgia fans used the 'bypass lane' smartphone application to place concessions orders in the last year at Stegeman Coliseum, more than 100 orders greater than the total at the next closest college facility that uses the program, North Carolina's Dean Smith Center.

The skeptical Georgia fan might reply that McGarity could beef up the home football schedule, but there is obviously more to fans' and families' game-day experience than the actual on-field competition. That is where extra amenities can make the overall event more enjoyable for the average spectator.

"His attitude is: Don't be afraid to try something," the UGA Athletic Association's director of marketing John Bateman said of McGarity. "He is big on giving something a chance, and if it works, great -- and if it doesn't, well at least we tried it and then we'll move on and try something else."

It's not just a talking point. Georgia's frequent facilities upgrades -- like the full-screen high-definition capability of the scoreboard installed last year at Sanford Stadium and the recently approved scoreboards for baseball, softball and soccer -- are almost always geared toward an improved fan experience. The UGA Athletic Association staff welcomes feedback and will attempt to make changes if it can solve a problem.

For example, the staff believed more fans would be able to hear the Redcoat Marching Band at football games if the band moved to Sanford Stadium's East end zone, where band members' backs would be to the open end of the stadium. While the band might have been more audible in the far reaches of the stadium during last season's trial run, the move created as many problems as it solved -- and so the Redcoats will return this fall to their traditional spot in Section 112, at the center of the student section.

Some changes are obvious, such as the vastly improved fašade, concessions and fan corridors that accompanied a $13 million renovation of Stegeman Coliseum, completed in 2011. But most changes are more subtle, whether it is a program that makes staff "ambassadors" responsible in caring for individual restrooms on Saturdays at Sanford Stadium or adjustments that make athletic venues nestled within the campus' rolling hills more accessible to handicapped spectators.

"We never take that for granted," said Josh Brooks, Georgia's assistant athletic director for internal operations, "whether that's improving the in-game experience or making the stadium as ADA-accessible as possible. That's a big deal and something we won't brag about a lot. It's not something we announce, but it's something we're always trying to do better at -- not just making it handicapped-accessible, but handicapped-friendly. This is a unique campus and a unique town with the way the hills are. It's not an easy place if you are wheelchair-bound to wheel up a hill and get here."

Getting technological

As McGarity mentioned, UGA staffers recognize the growing importance of offering technological amenities at the various stadiums. In the next few years, that will be one of the main battles they fight in luring fans to attend games instead of watching them from their living room on a big-screen HD television.

Fan interactivity will be at the center of Georgia's efforts, whether with improved cellular service within the stadium -- multiple wireless carriers beefed up their services in recent years with new boosters and antennas atop Sanford Stadium -- eventually adding stadium-wide wireless Internet access or other in-game services with which fans can view real-time statistics on their smartphones.

In keeping with that trend, UGA already introduced the "bypass lane" at events at Stegeman Coliseum, where fans place concessions orders with their smartphones and receive a text message notifying them when their orders are ready so they can quickly grab a hot dog and drink without missing any game action.

More than 500 Georgia fans used the application to place concessions orders in the last year, more than 100 orders greater than the total at the next closest college facility that uses the program -- North Carolina's Dean Smith Center.

Bateman believes Georgia will also adopt the program at its baseball stadium, Foley Field, and perhaps one day at Sanford Stadium. He also sees Georgia adding "All You Can Eat" seats at Stegeman Coliseum for select basketball games next season, and possibly tickets that are pre-loaded with set dollar amounts for concessions or souvenir purchases so fans won't have to bring cash.

Customer service is far from a new concept, but it might never before have been a more important concept for professional franchises and college sports programs. Because of the ever-expanding array of available entertainment options and the vastly improved in-home viewing experience allowed with HD technology, sports venues must provide special experiences to convince fans to pay the often substantial cost of attendance.

McGarity and company understand the reality -- thus their prevailing emphasis on serving the fans' needs.

"I think customer service is being stressed big-time," Bateman said. "It should always be important, but I think given the sacrifices and commitment that a lot of fans are making, even in these economic times, I think it's vital you let them know how appreciative you are of their support and try to do all you can to make their experience as good as it can be so they want to come back."