It’s difficult to envision an American university closing the doors on its football program. For Mark Ingram, that impossibility became reality when he was named director of athletics at The University of Alabama at Birmingham in May 2015.
With UAB suspending its football operations during the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to financial mismanagement, Ingram had to strategize how to bring the sport back to one of college football’s best TV markets – Birmingham, Ala.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Blazers are approaching the third season of their return to Legion Field. For Ingram, it’s been a long, arduous road, but with a dedicated local fanbase, it’s made the road to redemption that much sweeter.
“People in Birmingham, Alabama, love college football – at this point of the year, this community is salivating over football,” said Ingram. “They cannot wait for practice to start, which for us [was July 31]. They can’t wait for the team to get back on the field. Game one is always a big game because people are so ready and so hungry for it.”
Since coming back in 2017, Ingram has helped UAB experience tremendous growth in its attendance and ticket sales numbers. When they played host to Alabama A&M on Sep. 2, 2017, the Blazers drew a record crowd of 45,212. It was not only the most of any home attendance in Conference USA that season, but the only contest to draw a crowd of at least 30,000.
For the Blazers, their success is rare given the declining nature of Conference USA’s attendance numbers. According to the NCAA’s annual college football attendance report, the average home attendance across the 14-team conference in 2018 dropped 1.9% year-over-year. It not only marked an eighth consecutive season in which attendance numbers decreased, it was also the lowest average attendance in its 22-year history, at 18,874. It ranked eighth out of 10 conferences.
While the draw was great for UAB-Alabama A&M, Ingram is quick to point out the outlier nature of that home opener. Football hadn’t been played at Legion Field in over two seasons, so according to him, the buzz around UAB football only intensified as the season got closer.
As the 2017 season continued however, more was done by Ingram and his staff to ensure that the Alabama A&M encounter wasn’t an anomaly. For starters, UAB added more customer-service workers to help with parking and traffic while also maintaining a light-hearted demeanor to keep the festival-like atmosphere intact.
Given college football’s popularity in Birmingham, Ingram wanted his department to use social media to promote this relevant information for visitors. Through its Twitter account @BlazerGameDay and website, fans visit these pages to find real-time updates about parking, traffic, and navigating to and from Legion Field.
With these investments in fan engagement, UAB began seeing sustained off-the-field success. In their seven home games, the Blazers ended 2017 with league-highs in total (153,252) and average (25,542) attendance and posted 20,000+ crowds in all but one of its contests.
Coupled with an undefeated record at home that year, and Ingram knew that UAB could seamlessly reassert itself back into the college football landscape.
“We’re undefeated at home since we reinstated football in 2017,” said Ingram. “That’s in large part due of course – beyond our team and coaches, to the great crowds that we’re getting that have created a home field advantage. The more you win, the more people want to be a part of it.”
“We hope that when they come, they’ve had a good time and had a good experience and, of course, seeing a great game and seeing the Blazers win and then they want to come back.”
To make sure its 2017 attendance figures weren’t a fluke, UAB began driving fan engagement with unique tailgating opportunities during the 2018 campaign. With its “Tailgate Wars” challenge sponsored by Buffalo Wild Wings, fans would compete against each other over their tailgate presentation.
During the pregame festivities, judges would visit these tailgates and critique them based on visual presence, food, entertainment, enthusiasm, number of fans involved and overall presentation.
Another popular promotion that worked well with Blazers faithful was UAB’s “Food Truck Rally.” Unveiled during the UAB-Savannah State season opener on August 30, 2018, UAB athletics worked with the Birmingham Food Truck Coalition to display 10 local food trucks and a craft-beer vendor at Legion Field.
Utilizing the @UAB_FB Twitter account and the athletic department website, fans would receive notifications every gameday that announced what food trucks will be appearing at a given home game.
According to John Roberson, chief executive officer at Advent, it’s highly personalized fan experiences such as UAB’s that college football needs more of to entice fans to games.
With creative promotions and sponsorships, Roberson said that universities can leverage these to expand their football programs’ social media followings. From his standpoint, college football and its traditionalist mindset is inhibiting this potential for growth. Instead of being revenue-driven, Roberson believes that athletic departments need to think more about the fans and develop “experience maps” that will attract both them and potential sponsors.
“You can’t be on autopilot,” said Roberson. “The traditional mode of, ‘okay, lights are going to come on at this time, we’ll have a band play the national anthem and then we’re going to have two teams battle it out’ – we’ve got to rethink that.”
“What is it like for the fan to park and get into the door to walk through the concourses and to get into their seat? How can [athletic departments] elevate those moments where they can engage something powerful and meaningful with their fan that’s tweetable, that’s shareable, and that deepens the experience,” he said.
The Blazers are weeks away from their season open on August 29 at home versus Alabama State. Despite dropping to second in the conference for total and average home attendance for 2018 respectively, Ingram predicts that this dip will be short-lived.
According to Ingram, UAB is on pace to surpass last season’s ticket sales numbers and reach 11,000 season tickets sold for 2019.
Whether it’s increased involvement from alumni or current students, Ingram thinks that the Blazers’ brief absence in their lives made others more appreciative of their football program, and that is what connects them with the team.
“There’s a lot of people who were fans of UAB, but maybe they didn’t come to the games as frequently as we would have liked – I think they understood through the elimination of the program that showing up is important,” he said.
“Building our attendance is important and it is a physical, visible way that you can show the team that you are there for them,” said Ingram. “All of our student athletes do work really hard perfecting their craft to try to be the very best they can be. We need to show our appreciation for all that hard work by being in the stands and cheering loudly to support them.”