The morning after Eastern Washington University beat Southern Illinois, Scott Barnes was in his office plotting.
It was around 9 a.m. Sunday, and the school’s athletic director knew he had just a week to fill 10,000 seats for today’s NCAA Division I-AA playoff game, the first at home in the Eagles’ history. Delivering a packed house for the NCAA would be pure gold in exposure, especially with ESPN broadcasting the game as a pay-per-view event and Fox 28 showing it for free.
The phone rang and it was Doug Kelley, the alumni association president. They agreed Kelley would put out the call to area chambers of commerce, asking them to spread the news in an e-mail flash to hundreds of members. Kelley also planned to visit businesses and ask them to put “Go Eags!” signs in their windows and on their reader boards.
After a 10:30 a.m. meeting with his staff to set strategy and logistics, Barnes headed across the Cheney campus to university President Stephen Jordan’s house. Jordan agreed to call executives at Avista Corp., Itron and Providence Health Care, requesting support in ticket sales. Some of the companies agreed to buy blocks of 150 and 200 tickets for distribution to employees and clients.
“Things like this or the Big Sky tournament championship are opportunities you grab hold of and pay extra attention to because the benefit there and the reward is so much greater than a regular event,” Barnes said. “Really, it’s to showcase our university, even though it’s under about 12 inches of snow.”
The administrators also made a plan to buy down the price of 2,000 tickets for students, who quickly snatched them up at $5 apiece, instantly filling a fifth of the stadium. At day’s end Friday, 7,500 tickets had been sold for today’s game against Sam Houston State University with 2,500 still available.
Barnes is fond of saying that athletics is the “front porch” to the university. It’s the most accessible and visible marketing tool a school has. And if people like what they see, they may step inside the house, where they learn about everything else going on at Eastern, from the new electrical engineering degree to the new regional crime lab. That translates to higher enrollment, more donations and easier recruitment of quality employees. Barnes said an alumni donor called him Monday morning, so excited about the win over Southern Illinois that he planned to increase his gift.
“This is heavy recruitment season for admissions,” said Angela Brown, director of alumni relations. “As we’re looking for the best and brightest, there’s so many things those students are looking at. (Recruiters) can say: ‘And, our football team’s in the playoffs. And our basketball team made the NCAA tournament.’ There’s more energy behind what we’re doing.”
As frantic as the university was to get exposure fast, the Spokane media almost matched that pace. “As much as we reached out to the media to bring stories to them, the media has reached out to us in droves. It’s difficult to fulfill all of the requests,” Barnes said. “There’s been so much attention to this we sort of held back on some of the money we spend on marketing because there’s so much going on anyway.”
With The Spokesman-Review doing front page and sports stories every day this week, and additional coverage in The Inlander and on TV, the university limited media buying to radio, Barnes said. The university targeted the 26,000 Eastern alums in Spokane County with hopes of drawing back people who haven’t been to the school in a while. That may add up to additional tickets sales for next year or even for basketball season, Barnes said.
School pride alone is spreading the university’s name across the country. Barnes heard from an Illinois high school coach alumni who delighted in bragging up his Eagles after they beat Southern Illinois. And Kelley, who works for Avista, has been trash-talking with an outside sales rep for an Avista subsidiary. The man lives in Texas and went to Sam Houston State. They bet six-packs of Washington versus Texas beer on the game’s outcome.
“He wanted to do wine, but the thought of Texas wine scared the hell out of me,” Kelley said.
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