How does demographic change impact college sports? I asked some ADs in fast-growing cities.
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One of my absolute favorite podcasts is Split Zone Duo, run by several of my old SB Nation colleagues. It's a college football show, but it's also one (and I say this with love) that's unquestionably produced by nerds.
Earlier this month, they raised a question that I've been thinking about a lot. We now data, thanks to the 2020 US Census, that shows just how population in this country is shifting. We know what cities are growing, what cities are shrinking, and how the demographic makeup of various regions is changing.
What does that mean for college football?
I reckon that question is too meaty for a single newsletter...it's probably a book. But you don't need to be Robert Putnam to realize that very broadly speaking, many Americans are moving away from my native Rust Belt and heading to cities in the South and West.
I was curious...what happens when you're an athletic director at a school in a boom market? Does that change how things operate? How you recruit? How you market?
So I asked Nevada athletic director Doug Kluth, and Dixie State athletic director Jason Boothe. Nevada sits in Reno, and Dixie State in St. George, Utah, two metros that have experienced substantial growth over the last decade.
Knuth told me that demographic change hadn't really changed Nevada football's recruiting strategy. The team saw a lot of success over the last two decades heavily recruiting southern and central California, and Knuth expected that trend to continue. The team's 2021 recruiting class, for example, had just two commits from Nevada, but six from California. In 2020, the team signed 12 Californians, without a single Silver State resident.
The men's basketball team has followed a similar recruiting strategy. The Wolfpack haven't signed a Nevada-based high school player since 2017, instead recruiting heavily out of California, Arizona, and the transfer portal.
Demographic change might grow Nevada's talent pool enough to where recruiting more local talent becomes possible, but that's no sure thing. For the 2022 recruiting class, 247Sports has graded 26 Nevada high school athletes, with eight of them earning a four-star grade. But only one of those eight blue-chippers plays in the Reno area.
What has changed? The marketing strategy.
Knuth told me that of the department's largest goals is to find ways to covert "likes" into "loves." It's one thing to go after and cultivate casual fans, after all, but ideally, you want them to become lifelong Nevada supporters, the kinds of people that raise their kids to be Nevada supporters.
Reno's population boom, after all, stems from the fact that folks are moving to Reno from somewhere else, particularly California. Those families, if they're fans of college sports at all, might bring their old fandom with them to Reno, so Knuth's athletic department tries to start working on them early. The school has worked with local Realtors to give out free tickets to families who move in from out of state. Here's your welcome to the neighborhood packet, here's how to register your kids for school...and oh yeah, here's four free tickets to a Nevada football game.
The department does the same thing with businesses. When a new business moves to the area, you'll see the mayor at the press conference, the head of the local chamber of commerce, maybe even the governor...and then Knuth, offering free tickets to all employees of the relocating firm. "Once, we had a company tell me...'you know we have like, 600 employees, right?'" Knuth told me. "So we ended up giving away over 1,000 tickets that night. They loved it."
Dixie State, over in St. George, Utah, isn't quite there yet. The Southern Utah area has exploded, population-wise, more than almost anywhere else in the country, creating a similar dynamic. But the Pioneers are still in the process of completing a reclassification process to D-I. "A decade ago, we didn't really have much of a marketing budget," AD Jason Boothe told me, although they anticipate doing a similar program with local real estate companies and builders in the near future. "In the past, not everybody who moved to St. George knew who we were. We weren't on the Sportscenter ticker, we weren't D-I...we're working to change that."
Being in a growing market certainly helps. But athletic department problems are still athletic director problems.
Boothe has reason to be bullish about Dixie State's long-term trajectory. He mentioned St. George is in the process of developing a technology corridor similar to Salt Lake, their neighbors to the north ("Silicon Sands", he called it), a development which could make not just future student recruitment easier, but bodes well for the long-term health of a donor and ticket base. Long-term growth in metro Reno could bode well for Nevada's financial fortunes as well.
But that's the future, and the present is still the present. Boothe told me that one of the biggest challenges, despite the rapid growth of the region, his athletic department, and the university at large, is still funding, trying to secure enough money to do everything they want to do. Nevada has dipped into licensed consumables (like New Mexico State) and recently saw substantial increases in ticket sale revenue, but without fat TV contracts, both schools still need to rely on student fees and finding dimes in proverbial couch cushions to fund department priorities.
There's also no guarantee that increased population growth will lead to better recruiting, more ticket sales, or more donations. Without decades of tradition and institutional memory, both schools will not only need to be competitive, but build connections to new residents beyond wins and losses. A person becomes a college booster, a season-ticket holder, an actual part of a university community for reasons much deeper than "we won the WAC", after all.
So that's a hard battle. Giving people free tickets might help. Making sure they have a great experience at the actual game will help. Additional targeted marketing strategies might help. But it's a challenge.
But everybody agreed. Better to face this challenge in a growing city than one that's shrinking.
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