(As will appear in June/July issue of Coaching Volleyball Magazine)
“I’m very convinced the more fans that understand the game, the more they’ll fall in love with it.”
– Becky Schmidt, Hope College Head Coach
We hear this all of the time from coaches and administrators, but how we go about actually educating the fans and media varies from school-to-school and program-to-program. Some coaches rely more heavily on the sports information directors and communications staff, some do it themselves and others claim they don’t have the time and neglect to do any education, marketing or promotions of their team. At the end of the day, regardless of the size of the school, it is time every head coach plays a significant role in promoting their team and student-athletes.
Dave Shondell (@DaveShondell), head volleyball coach for the nationally-ranked Purdue Boilermakers, puts marketing and promotions as one of his primary job responsibilities. However, many coaches don’t prioritize it, so it falls by the wayside.
“If you as a coach think having people watch your team play is important, then marketing and promotions is a big part of your job,” he said. “Certainly at our school and our mind-set, we want to have a sellout crowd. We want to make volleyball a big deal.”
How do you make volleyball a big deal? You must constantly be engaging and educating your fan base about your program and sport. It’s about creating a culture of volleyball by interacting with the very people that facilitate the culture resulting in packed gyms and screaming crowds. Obviously the players play a significant role as the faces of the program, but the head coach needs to help as one of the more steady faces.
“If you’re looking at the longevity part of it, the coach is hopefully around longer,” said Becky Schmidt (@HopeVolleyball), head coach of nationally-ranked NCAA Division III Hope College. “As a natural consequence, the coach does become the face of the program. I do think the coach needs to embrace the responsibility, and I’ve certainly tried to do my best as the coach at Hope to represent my student-athletes to the best of my ability.”
The key point both Schmidt and Shondell shared is they view themselves as vehicles to celebrate their players. As I write this, Shondell has nearly 2,300 Twitter followers, but he doesn’t use social media to simply promote himself as coach. He uses his followers to help create the culture that saw the Boilermakers average 2,500 fans per home match. Is it a coincidence the average fan attendance is so close to his Twitter followers? Maybe, but maybe not.
“If I’m only tweeting, ‘Tonight at 7pm we’re playing Minnesota,’ they don’t need me for that,” said Shondell. “I need you to give reasons to come watch. I need to do more than just provide information. I need to motivate, encourage and educate while you do that.”
“I would say the aspect of marketing our program is about the opportunity to educate fans,” Schmidt agreed. “It’s about finding ways to connect fans with our student-athletes and who they are. Not just as volleyball players, but as people. To celebrate the kinds of things we’re doing on and off the courts, there might be no better way than social media to accomplish those goals.”
While social media might be the most effective method to get the word out, that’s not the only way. How each staff decides to put their best foot forward is up to the programs, but ultimately each head coach must be doing something. Shondell and Schmidt are constantly working with their administrations to develop themed nights, charity events and autograph signings to drum up interest in what they’re doing. Generating exposure for your program used to be almost exclusively convincing the media to cover what you’re doing, but times have changed. You, as the head coach, have the power with your staff to make a difference.
If you don’t think you have the personality, and this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, that’s okay. Just stick your toe in the water and see where it takes you.
“If you’re out there celebrating your kids, celebrating the experiences they’re having, celebrating the successes they’ve made, it becomes about the student-athletes and not about you,” Schmidt says. “If you’re simply the person that’s allowing all of that to happen then all of that goes back to serving the student-athlete. There are many reasons this can be in our self-interest. Having a lot of fans in the stands make it easy to recruit. Having fans be engaged, wanting to come and paying attention helps the players feel more valued. If that comes at the expense of getting out of your comfort zone a little bit to more effectively showcase the great work their student-athletes are doing, I think that’s worth it.
If you’re ready to put yourself out there, here’s one final piece of advice from Dave Shondell:
“Start slow, be humble, be kind, be yourself, and you can promote the players and your program in your own way. You don’t have to be funny or creative, but you can get on there and start slow. Over time, you’ll grow.”
(image courtesy AVCA)