Friday, June 24, 2011
BC knows it's in a pro market
By Jack McCluskey Special to ESPNBoston.com
Gene DeFilippo suffers no delusions. The longtime Boston College athletic director knows his school's place in the Boston sports scene: securely in the middle ground, behind the city's popular and productive professional teams but ahead of the smaller college squads.
"When you have the Bruins playing for the Stanley Cup, and the Celtics have just won a championship several years ago, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and the Red Sox have won two world championships in '04 and '07, there's no question that we take a backseat to the professional sports," DeFilippo said the day before the Bruins won Game 7 of the Cup finals. "We don't ever try to replace one of those teams. We know our place, and we want to be right in the mix."
Sitting in his office overlooking the field at Alumni Stadium, DeFilippo stressed that "nothing is all good or all bad."
So, no, the Eagles aren't likely to be the hottest ticket in town. But although the folks in Chestnut Hill might have to work harder to sell their seats, having other hot tickets in town can help during recruiting. In 2011, he said, BC had roughly 33,000 applicants for the 2,150 spots in its freshman class.
A large part of that, no doubt, is due to academics -- BC was ranked in a tie for 31st by U.S. News & World Report in 2010-11 -- but having winning sports teams probably doesn't hurt.
Boston College drew an average of 38,369 fans to its games in 2010.
Those who do enroll at BC will see a better product on the field than they would've had they matriculated before DeFilippo took over in 1997. Prior to his hiring, the football team had endured a gambling scandal and had produced just three winning seasons in the previous 10 years.
In the 14 years since, the football team has posted 12 consecutive winning seasons -- including 10 seasons of eight or more wins, six seasons of nine or more wins, one season with 10 wins and one season with 11 wins.
"We've done a pretty consistent job here of winning," DeFilippo said. "Our coaches and athletes have done a real, real good job here."
Yet because of the success of the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots, the Eagles have never felt the full focus of the microscope produced by the sixth-largest media market in the country -- which, as DeFilippo knows from his experiences under the microscope at Tennessee and Kentucky, isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"When we won 11 games a couple of years ago, being in a media market like we were was absolutely incredible," DeFilippo said. "Having a quarterback like Matt Ryan, who was the third selection in the [NFL] draft, we had a tremendous amount of media coverage.
"We were overshadowed in some ways because the Red Sox were playing in the World Series, so that certainly did cut down on the amount of publicity that we got. But you know what, we got more than enough. We got a lot nationally, too."
The Eagles were ranked as high as No. 2 in the country during that 11-win season in 2007, and the national exposure that Ryan & Co. earned may have helped revive a brand established largely on the strength of Flutie to Phelan more than two decades earlier.
BC has hired Fenway Sports Management -- the marketing arm of John W. Henry's Red Sox -- to cultivate that brand. FSM also handles much of BC's marketing, corporate sponsorships and promotions.
"Each year you have to get better and more creative," DeFilippo said. "Fenway Sports Management has helped us do that. To help publicize ourselves, better market ourselves, to better brand ourselves."
The athletic director also has hired a staff -- headed by a former employee of the Detroit Lions, Greg Lynch -- dedicated to selling season, group and single-game tickets. That move was in direct response to declines in attendance despite the team's continued success.
Average attendance at Alumni Stadium, 2006-2010
Some of the decline, DeFilippo said, is because Boston is a pro town first and foremost. Some of the decline is due to high unemployment rates and difficult economic conditions, which make people think harder about how they spend their entertainment dollars.
And part of it, he said, is in more and more living rooms.
"You know what, the thing that's hurt all of us -- pro sports, college sports, everything -- is that 52-inch, high-definition television screen. That has hurt us as much as anything," DeFilippo said. "I watch the Patriots games on television and in high definition; I feel like I'm in the huddle with Dan Koppen and Tom Brady and Wes Welker. You're right there, you can see the sweat on their faces under their face masks!"
Add it all up, and the Eagles are spending more on advertising than they ever have in an effort to fill the stands at Alumni Stadium. They're also trying to seize any opportunity to publicize their football team, like the recent mini minicamp the locked-out Patriots players held in Chestnut Hill.
Koppen, the Patriots' center and a BC alumnus, called the Eagles and asked whether the pros could practice at BC. For DeFilippo, that's a no-brainer.
"For Dan Koppen? Absolutely," he said. "He's a great, great guy, he's a wonderful representative of Boston College, he loves the school. That's the least we can do. And the other thing is, we want the Patriots to be successful, just like they want us to be successful."
There was also the ancillary benefit of the free exposure the practices would give the school.
"Just talk about branding, just in the city alone," DeFilippo said. "When the Patriots are gonna come to Boston College to practice and we have helicopters hovering above the stadium, taking pictures because no media's allowed in, and all the media waiting on the outside and the interviews with the players here, it can't do anything but help you. Both from a local standpoint and a national standpoint."
There's no doubt that being in a pro market has pluses and minuses for Boston College. But given the option to pick up the institution and move it anywhere else in the country, DeFilippo said he would keep it right where it is.
"We never, ever, ever make excuses," he said. "We say we have a lot of great opportunities from being in a professional town. And we have to work harder and we have to work smarter to be able to sell tickets and to create excitement."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.