Texas’ Chris Beard battles marketing challenge with laser focus on students, season ticket holders
Beard lights a fire under new basketball marketing push; ‘He gets the fact that marketing matters. Your relationship with your fans matter.’
Chris Beard could be orchestrating a Texas basketball renaissance. But the same stubborn question remains in any marketing discussion of UT basketball itself: Will anyone come and watch?
Beard has recruited plenty of athletic players, good enough for the Longhorns to be ranked fifth nationally this preseason. He’s hellbent on recruiting loud, energetic Texas basketball fans, too. More students, the better.
Just buying the ticket isn’t good enough. Beard is all about “butts in seats,” program insiders said. If that means calling up ticket holders directly and asking why their seats are empty, like he did at Texas Tech, Beard will do that, too.
“We’re not blaming any of the perceived problems — from parking, to Austin, the distractions, the building. Let’s charge ahead. It’s a new day,” Beard’s managing director Chris Odgen said. “We have to develop the home-court advantage. It starts with our team and our product that we put on the floor.”
Fans gave up on former coach Shaka Smart when he couldn’t deliver a winning product. The apathy hardened like plaque. Beard must blast off the buildup.
Early indications show people are intrigued. As of midday Thursday, Texas had sold 8,824 season tickets. That’s 58 shy of tying the all-time record of 8,882 sold going into the 2004-05 season when coach Rick Barnes pulled together the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, highlighted by LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson.
For years, Texas reported two attendance figures — actual number of tickets sold and the actual turnstile count. Former athletic director Steve Patterson pulled the plug on turnstile count numbers early in Smart’s tenure. UT reported an average of 9,779 tickets sold for the 2019-20 season before the pandemic. Some nights, the real attendance could be dramatically lower.
The most embarrassing moment? A total of 1,591 fans showed up to see Texas beat Xavier in the second round of the NIT on March 24, 2019. The number of tickets sold was 3,204.
This will be UT’s 45th and final season in the Erwin Center. Texas officials made clear that anyone who wants seating priority in the new Moody Center for the 2022-23 season must buy tickets this season. Season ticket prices range from $99-$750.
“Coach’s big deal is just because we’re getting the Moody, that’s not good enough,” Ogden said. “Our mindset is right now. We’re trying to build this right now.”
The Erwin Center basketball capacity is 16,540. Moody Center basketball capacity is projected to be about 10,000. There’s a strong possibility the new arena will be “sold out” before next season even starts, from UT’s normal season ticket sales, student and band seating and seats reserved for the opposing school.
No Texas coach in recent memory gets into marketing minutiae like Beard. Let’s be honest: the UT football coach doesn’t have to do anything in that department. Baseball draws well on its own, too. Other sports need a marketing push, something women’s coach Vic Schaefer recognized when he arrived.
Smart just wasn’t into the marketing component. Beard looks straight into the TV cameras with a straight-forward sales pitch.
“Tuesday, we’re going to hope to get the season off to a start we can all be proud of,” Beard said. “It’s $10 tickets, it’s a doubleheader, us and the women. It’s going to be awesome. Encourage everybody to come in. General admission seating. Season ticket holders, you’ve got to get here really early to get your seat. Support the women’s team.”
Beard desperately wants a huge student turnout. There are 1,041 seats reserved for students in the Erwin Center’s lower bowl and 586 more upstairs. The doors open at 4:30 p.m. The women’s game begins at 5:30 p.m.; the men’s game starts at about 8 p.m.
“If we sell out the student section in the lower bowl, we’re going to throw the students a party at the Tower,” Beard said. “That’s going to be fun. That’s Tuesday.”
This was so important to him, Beard pleaded with reporters to spread his message. “I’d consider it a personal favor, and I’ll pay you back,” he said with a smile.
Learning at Fort Scott
Beard has been hyper-focused on marketing ever since his first head coaching job at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College in 1999.
At the time, former Fort Scott coach Bob Eshelbrenner pushed Beard to meet with Dave Brown, who was coaching at Seward County (Kan.) Community College. Brown had some good marketing ideas that might help, Eshelbrenner thought.
“I drove to Fort Scott and met with him,” Brown said in an interview last week. He’s now semi-retired and living in Topeka, Kan. “I think all he did was get me drunk and talk about basketball and stuff. He’s a hell of a guy.”
The idea was simple, really. Seward County had 185 chairback seats “right in the middle of the court,” Brown said. The school convinced local businesses to pay $1,000 for all the tickets for eight conference games and $500 for nonconference matchups.
Fans would have to go to the local businesses — and spend some money while they were there, theoretically — to get the tickets. With mass ticket sales and sponsorships, Seward could generate about $50,000, Brown said. That's big money to a community college.
“You want to get people to the games,” Brown said. “You didn’t want them to have to pay $5 for the parents, then $3 for each kid. You got a family of four, that’s $16 for each game. So we just said, hey, let’s take that away and get people interested in the game itself.”
Beard coached Fort Scott only one season, but it left an impact. Brown and Beard became close friends. Beard later recruited and signed one of Brown’s players when he became an assistant at Texas Tech.
“Fort Scott was a business model,” Beard said. “What I learned back in those days was each job is different. You have to have a model, it’s not good enough for just the team to be good. It’s not good enough for the atmosphere to be good. It’s both, right?”
Beard saw firsthand how celebrity alone goosed ticket sales. When Beard first went to Texas Tech as an assistant, Bob Knight’s star power alone drew people to the arena. Tech’s model at the time was all Knight, all the time.
When Beard went back to being a head coach at smaller schools, he was more focused on winning games. Arkansas-Little Rock athletic director George Lee said the school didn’t really do anything different from a marketing standpoint for the 2015-16 season, Beard’s lone year there. That team went 30-5.
“We did not have a great attendance in the first part of the year,” Lee said. “But by the time we got to be 21-2, the crowds did turn out for us. The last five or six home games, we had great home crowds, but that’s mostly because of winning.”
Start with UT students
Beard is fully intent on building a winner at Texas. “I know we have enough talent,” he said. So what’s the business model for Texas basketball?
Everything starts with luring Texas students, new assistant marketing director Lauren Pinter said. She was hired about two months ago away from Florida to focus exclusively on UT men’s basketball.
“He is by far the most involved coach I’ve ever had,” Pinter said of Beard. “He understands the importance of it. He gets the fact that marketing matters. Your relationship with your fans matter. That’s as simple as that. He gets it.”
Beard was on campus the first day of the fall semester meeting students. He’s been over to the Greek side of West Campus to hit fraternity and sorority houses. Beard is banking on spirit groups like the Texas Wranglers, Silv and the Longhorn Hellraisers to get the word out, too.
Beard is also continuing his Texas Tech staple, the well-received “Fireside Chat” video series on YouTube where he talks directly to students.
A raucous student section is the only way Texas will have any sort of intimidating basketball environment. It’s also the only way the Horns can get to the “Monday night” national championship game, Pinter said.
“We need them to get to that point,” she said. “Plain and simple.”
Informational posters have been hung in each UT dorm. For Tuesday’s dual season openers, two students will be selected at random for half-court shot attempts to win $5,000. Free food from Raising Cane’s will also be distributed. Never doubt the power of free food.
DJ Mel is expected to change the musical lineup, fine-tuning the selections more in line with something the players and students want to hear.
“I would tell you my theme in life is diversity and variety,” Beard said. “I would love to hear Willie Nelson backed by Roddy Ricch.”
Beard is fully aware the music selection is a hot-button topic. “Texas fans, maybe you come to a game and learn a new song, too,” he said.
Making sure your seat is filled
Let this be a warning to lackadaisical fans: Beard takes mental notes on who’s at each game. At Tech, he would call known season ticket holders who left their seats open on a habitual basis.
“If you are a season ticket holder and you are not in your seats, expect something to be said,” Pinter said. “He pays attention. He knows. It is noticed.”
That’s not to intimidate anyone. Beard simply wants people to actually come to the game.
“The message has never been to come to every game. That’s kind of unrealistic,” Beard said. “We live in the United States of America. Lot of good stuff going on out there; people have families, church, school, kids.”
That’s why if any season ticket holder can’t make it on a given night, Beard is begging that you find someone who’ll take the tickets and come in your place. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” Beard said, “and I hope that doesn’t offend people. But that’s the message.”
All tickets are now electronically distributed. Texas season ticket holders can go into their online account portal and easily assign their tickets to someone else. The entire process takes just a few minutes. Fans also still have the option to resell their tickets on the secondary market.
Never has a Texas coach been so forceful about making sure someone is sitting in each seat.
“Hopefully we’ll earn their trust over time where we can ask them for more things over time,” Beard said. “But we start with one thing. Please make sure your seats are filled.”
Beard quickly pivots and said this is not “a one-way relationship.”
“In return, we’re going to give you a great product,” Beard said. “We’re going to play really hard, we’re going to play the right way, we’re going to represent the school. Might make a mistake from time to time. Everybody does. But our hearts are going to be in the right place as we build this team.”