In January 2013 then Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti looked east to hire someone who could help give not just Rutgers, but college athletics business a new twist in promotion and brand activation. He brought in Lakewood BlueClaws General Manager Geoff Brown, naming him Senior Associate Athletic Director in charge of marketing. Brown, a Manasquan, NJ native, spent the past 13 years with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Single A affiliate three times earning South Atlantic League General Manager of the Year, as the Blue Claws become known as best in class for fan engagement, brand partnerships and professionalism throughout minor league baseball.
Of course lots has changed since Brown came on board; with a new boss, a change to the Big 10, the enlargement of High Point Solutions Stadium just a few of the moves in New Brunswick. Still in just a short time, Brown has excelled in helping craft a new, proactive and successful business and promotional platform not just for the marquee sports at Rutgers, but for most if not all of the events in and around campus.
We caught up with him to talk about his time in and around the college game, what has worked, and what’s on the horizon for the Scarlet Knights, their brand partners, and most importantly their fans.
What has been the biggest adjustment from a work standpoint going from Lakewood to Piscataway?
The biggest thing is the schedule. In baseball we had 70 games and matched up the dates with the promotions. In college athletes we have fall sports blending with winter schedules as we try to fond effective ways to promote not just the nine sports we sell tickets for, but for all 24 sports on campus. It takes a lot of juggling and a lot of advance planning to make sure we can find the best ways to enhance the experience each and every time for those coming out to see our student-athletes play.
What are the biggest lessons college marketing can learn from effective work done in minor league baseball?
In the MiLB world you have a great deal of freedom to invent and try new things to enhance the fan experience. It’s like a giant Petri dish, and you try and learn from your mistakes and grow what works. College athletics has similar opportunities in many respects, although the traditions that our fans love also have to be respected especially at events like football and men’s and women’s basketball. You can try some new promotions and engagement platforms but you have to be a little more respectful. However with that being said there is great room for innovation, and we try to bring something new to every game to get people engaged and have fun.
What’s the program or promotion you are most proud of thus far?
In baseball after many games we would have kids come down and run the bases. It seemed simple but it was a fun experience for all. Last year we decided to have kids come down and shoot a basket on the floor after the games. It was simple but it really took off, and we will continue to use that as a way to create memories for the kids at the RAC. We have also gone to some lengths to improve the show, working with our partners at IMG College to add new LED boards to the arena that will give us more ways to engage the fans without taking away from the action on the court. Those boards go a long way in helping us get people involved in a fun experience.
You have started to do more work creating promotional platforms away from basketball and football, how much value for partners are there in those other sports?
It is really huge for us. Our Big 10 wrestling schedule for one is second to nine, with our biggest matches against schools like Iowa and Penn State taking place in the RAC this year. However even away from the marquee matches, our sponsors are seeing huge value in brand exposure not just for Rutgers events, but for the hundreds of other events we host in places like the aquatic center and the soccer venues. Thousands of kids and their families use those facilities year-round, and the brands who have taken the time to sponsor those venues have seen added exposure way beyond the meets and matches we host with our athletes. That type of added exposure is a great intangible we can bring to the table, and makes all of our ticketed, and non-ticketed events so much more important now than they ever have been before. World class facilities combined with a great amount of activities have really helped elevate the offerings we can bring sponsors, and that is a huge plus.
The first football season in the Big 10 has brought some great moments. Did having higher profile Universities coming to Rutgers make a big difference in terms of sponsor activation programs at games?
It did as we sold out three of our four Big 10 home games, all of which were accompanied with some great sponsor activation. Most importantly those three sellouts helped us drive sales in the other home games where we focused our group efforts. Factor in the Big 10 Network going live with their first-ever studio show on one of our Saturday night games, and we had a fall full of excitement that we know will help us for years to come.
What do you have on tap for the first Big 10 hoops season for men and women?
One of the best promotions we built into games last year and will continue this year is bringing back prominent alumni from other sports to do some meet and greets and sign autographs. Whether it was Todd Frazier in baseball or someone like Alexi Lalas in soccer, everyone was excited to participate and that cross-promotion of sports really helped lift the events and joined the sports together under a unified front. It was really well received and we are lining up others to bring back this year.
With the Blue Claws very little work was based on winning or losing on the field. How much of a factor is on field performance at the college level?
In college at this level the wins and losses definitely factor in much more. In Lakewood by the sixth inning all our fans wanted were the postgame fireworks. Here we have to have the right mix. We have to promote and engage but also be understanding and respectful of what is going on on the field. Our fans are so devoted and passionate they appreciate the entertainment factor we have brought in, but they also want to see success on the field, so that mix is really important to the overall experience. Now of course we don’t have control over what goes on on a field or a court, but we are mindful of the results as we take care of everything we have control over.
Looking ahead, what are the biggest areas of fan improvement for football next season?
This year for football we worked on all the improved signage, expanding the bathrooms and the concourse and added in close captioning at the stadium (as well as at the RAC), and next year with some added dates we will be looking to continue to make the experience for our fans second to nine from when they arrive and park to when they leave. We think the in-stadium amenities took a big step forward, and we are meeting in the next few weeks to start the planning for next fall. The cycle never really stops and that’s both a challenge and an opportunity, and we are constantly looking for feedback to make sure what we are doing is first class, fun and effective for all.