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Sunday, June 16, 2024

How Ohio State Dominates the Fan Experience Game

It all starts with Director of Fan Experience and Promotions, Caleb Clark.

A look at Ohio State’s stadium on gameday. (Photo via ohiostatebuckeyes.com)

Ever wonder what goes into creating a fantastic experience for fans and crushing attendance records? I sat down with Caleb Clark, Director of Fan Experience and Promotions for Ohio State Athletics, to see just what it looks like.

Ohio State is a school with a strong fan base, so it is important to take advantage of the high fan volume and get fans involved during, before, and after events. With the athletic department sitting at the forefront of fan experience, Clark and his team view each day as another opportunity to stay at the top.

A double alumnus of University of Akron, Clark completed his undergraduate study in Public Relations & Media Production and then continued on to receive his Master’s degree in Sport Administration.

While in school, Clark worked as an athletics marketing intern, an athletics communication intern, and then a graduate assistant in athletic marketing and promotions. His experience combined with a tenacious work ethic allowed him to graduate a semester earlier, something he doesn’t recommend if you are looking to work in college sports.

“My job search was a little difficult due to the timeline. If you know anything about college sports, December is not when they are looking to hire, its more towards the end of the school year in the spring,” explains Clark.

Timing is of utmost importance and staying a little extra time to continue to gain experience can be vital. However, after some searching, Clark landed a position with UC Irvine as the Associate Director of Marketing.

“I got the offer from UC Irvine, and I got in my car and drove 2300 miles across the country to what was probably the most beautiful place I’ll ever live,” Clark reminisced.

Clark’s first full time gig via UC Irvine Athletics

Clark was able to keep an open mind when venturing to California, and it paid off after he was able to land a job back in his home state of Ohio as an Assistant Director of Fan Experience and Promotions at Ohio State. Another 2300-mile drive, but this time back home.

Clark, recently promoted to Director of Fan Experience and Promotions, will now have a hand in Men’s Basketball at Ohio State. In his spare time, he is also an Adjunct Professor at Ohio Dominican University.

Prior to his time at OSU, his experience at two different institutions has proved to be invaluable in his new role.

“At UC Irvine, we didn’t have a very big budget, so I had to learn to be really efficient with spending. It created a challenge to try to be cutting edge but also really effective.”

One may think with a bigger budget at Ohio State there is a ton of wiggle room for Clark, however, the situation has turned out to be the opposite.

“Ohio State is a much bigger school with a much bigger budget, but you also have to keep in mind that we have 36 different sports. With a larger size, comes a larger fan base, and a need for more promotions.”

With there being so many sports, many times there are multiple sporting events on the same night, which can create challenges as well.

“You learn to deal with potentially being two places at once,” said Clark. “While driving attendance at a smaller level is hard, it is a different sort of challenge to drive attendance at a larger level in multiple sports on the same night.”

Fortunately for the Fan Experience and Promotions Department at Ohio State, team members are well versed in setting attendance records. With staff members from places like Eastern Michigan and Miami of Ohio, they have mastered driving attendance at a smaller level.

“It helps to have that experience,” said Clark. “It allows us to work together and really maximize our attendance and enhance the quality of our fan experience here because increasing attendance at a smaller institution is certainly more of a challenge.” Those experiences have allowed them to really maximize the larger budget at Ohio State.

One of the ways they have been able to maximize their budget is by using social media for inspiration. However, depending on the sport, it can be tricky.

“You have more freedom to do what you want in smaller sports. If it is a promotion for football or basketball, more media has their eyes on it, so naturally there are more people who must touch and approve that idea,” Clark explains.

Clark has gotten creative with some of his promotional designs for smaller sports, including an infamous dabbing Brutus “dad” hat.

When asked where the inspiration for the hat came from, Clark explained it stemmed from the Kermit hat LeBron James wore when stepping off the plane after winning the title in 2016.

LeBron sporting his “dad” Kermit tea sipping hat while hoisting the trophy for the public via USA Today

“The hats were blowing up, so I really asked myself, ‘How can we do something with this trend and incorporate Brutus?’ Our design team went through a couple designs before coming up with the Brutus dabbing design, and right when I saw it I knew it was money.”

With the help of the hat’s popularity on social media, students turned out in droves to the game and turned it into a record-setting affair.

Clark and his team crushed the previous attendance record of 1000 students by reeling in over 1600 total students to show up for the night of the dabbing dad hat, over double the normal attendance.

The hat was so popular that it will be making a comeback at a women’s volleyball game this year against Michigan on Sunday, October 22, 2017.

“One of the things that I try to do is produce promotional items that people really want — not small choppy items. Quality is greater than quantity when it comes to getting people’s interest in the items,” Clark explains.

The customized Yeti cooler put together by the Promotions department to be given out

A little bit of investment goes a long way. Recently, a Yeti cooler was decorated with Ohio State football helmet stickers to be given away. Additionally, matte black can holders that resemble the Yeti Colsters were created for a giveaway as well. The can holders were designed to resemble Ohio State’s matte black helmets from the 2015 season.

The colsters designed to mock the black Ohio State football helmets

Clark tapped into the strong football pride at Ohio State when designing this tumbler promotion for women’s volleyball.

“It is no secret that Ohio State’s most popular sport is football. The interest is huge here, so anytime we can tie that interest into promotions for our other sports, we definitely try to capitalize on that.”

Clark mentions that every school has that one, popular sport. For him, at Akron, it was men’s soccer, and at UC Irvine it was men’s basketball.

“Students create the atmosphere, and we need to do whatever we can to get them to the games,” Clark says.

The innovative ideas that tie into popular trends on social media and popular sports at the university get those students to the games. With this in mind, the Fan Experience Department at Ohio State just hired a recent college graduate.

“Even in his interview, he had fresh new ideas that we had not thought of that he was implementing at his previous institution. We wanted those innovative ideas in our assistant position.”

Not only are fresh ideas in the department a must, but keeping in contact with connections within other schools fan experience departments are valuable as well. Clark explains that he and a fellow department colleague are representatives in NACMA, the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators, where he is on the programming committee and is now the Big Ten Conference Representative.

“The interactions can be formal discussions at conferences, or it can be as informal as me following them on Snapchat to see what ideas they are using. If I am interested, I’ll reach out to them and we will bounce ideas off one another.”

As for other advice for success, Clark explains having some design experience in the field of marketing will really set you apart. Any experience with Photoshop, Indesign, Illustrator, or other adobe products is useful. Some universities have creative services, but if the marketing department can jump on some designing, it makes for efficient operation.

“Another thing that helped me early on is my Twitter account because it is centered on the position that I have. Connect with professionals on Twitter, build a network, and then when you do meet in a conference setting, there is a frame of reference,” Clark advises.

Finally, Clark advises to always try to out-do yourself.

“Ohio State has really rich tradition, so we really want to set ourselves apart. Coaches who have gone on to be head coaches at other universities will tell their marketing departments to call us about our fan experience practices. They will say things like ‘So tell me about the student practice you all put on’, and that is what we really pride ourselves on.”

Clark, and the entire Fan Experience and Promotions Department, go above and beyond to be at the forefront of their field. Sharing ideas and practices with other schools help to mutually improve all organizations involved. The same goes for a little friendly competition within the departments.

It is all about taking pride in the Ohio State tradition and believing in what they are working towards together. Creating experiences that make students and fans Buckeyes for life, and giving them stories to tell their kids about — that is what it is all about. To be a great marketing professional, you’ve simply got to make your fans love and believe in the organization together and be as excited as you are about what you are putting together.

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

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