Does UGA fully appreciate what a great fan base it has?

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Georgia football has become known nationally for an ardent fan base that travels in large numbers to places like Notre Dame and the Rose Bowl.

Bulldog Nation continues to be one of the best college football fan bases in the country (as rated in an ongoing Emory University study), but I sometimes wonder whether UGA’s athletics leadership fully appreciates Dawgs fans’ loyalty.

Determining which teams have the best fan bases might seem the subject of a bar room debate, but marketing professor Mike Lewis of Emory’s Goizueta Business School has been tracking fan bases, both pro and college, for years, and publishes annual rankings based on scientific metrics.

Tailgating is just one of the ways Bulldog Nation expresses its support for the Dawgs. (John Kelley/UGA)

The basic idea, as Lewis explains it, is to consider college football programs as “brands,” and use marketing analytics to determine the strongest brands, analyzing various data, including revenues, using a statistical model that includes factors such as stadium capacity, alumni base, won-loss record and other school-level attributes. A full stadium for a winning team means less than full stadium for a team that is struggling, for example.

In Lewis’ most recent findings, released in December, UGA continues to rank among the nation’s leaders, this time placing 6th nationally (behind Texas, Tennessee, Notre Dame, LSU and Oklahoma).

It’s not all about winning championships, which is why you’ll find Alabama ranked at 12th.

It boils down to this: The teams ahead of Bama in the rankings might not win as many games, but they do better in other areas, like revenues and attendance. Summing up 10 years of study in 2013, Lewis said, “when we control for team performance and other institutional factors, the Georgia fan base is just a bit more loyal and devoted” than Alabama’s.

They key question, Lewis said in this year’s report, is “what would happen if Tennessee had a run like Alabama’s? Would the Volunteer fan base be as intense as the Crimson Tide? How about LSU? Or Georgia? As someone who has lived in SEC territory for the better part of the last 20 years, I think the answer is yes.”

Texas, which routinely tops the rankings, reports the highest revenues and achieves the best return on investment, Lewis explained in releasing this year’s rankings on his blog. “Even when Texas struggles on the field, the football program delivers amazing economic results,” he said.

As for the rest of the Top 5, “Tennessee has struggled in recent years, but they deliver financial results and amazing attendance. Notre Dame is a true national brand and might still be the team that most fans associate with college football. The LSU ranking might surprise some folks outside of the SEC, but LSU is a program with crazy passionate fans. Oklahoma, like Notre Dame, is college football royalty.”

Emory University research shows UGA has one of the best fan bases in the country. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Actually, Georgia’s 2018 ranking of 6th is down a bit from 5 years ago, when the Bulldogs ranked first in the SEC and second nationally, behind only Texas. That drop seemed a little surprising to me, considering Kirby Smart’s program has been considerably improved in on-field results over the past couple of seasons, and Georgia’s fan base has drawn national raves for the way it showed up en masse on the road at places like Notre Dame and the Rose Bowl.

But, Lewis told me, it’s “not really slippage — [the UGA] fan base is still amazingly supportive. It’s because the revenue has not moved up at the same rate as the performance.”

Lewis said that is “probably due to the athletic department not rapidly increasing prices. I’m in Atlanta, so I understand the serious passion of that fan base — I suspect UGA could increase revenues pretty easily.”

So, yes, I guess fans should be grateful the UGA Athletic Association is not charging as much for tickets as Lewis thinks it could.

Despite that, I get the impression that the UGA athletic bosses take this enthusiastic fan base a bit for granted.

Rather than see Bulldog Nation as an audience to be courted and rewarded for its loyal support of the Dawgs, they seem to view the fan base as something to be milked and exploited. Whenever a new project comes along, the first inclination seems to be, “let’s get the fan base, especially the season ticket holders, to pony up more money!”

This year, those contributing to the Hartman Fund in order to buy season tickets were encouraged to increase their gift by 10 percent or more because “sustaining a premier athletics program requires a strong financial investment from our fans, alumni and friends.”

Meanwhile, UGA athletics sits on a surplus reported to be around $70 million.

Arthur Blank, a rich guy who managed to convince state and city officials to tear down a perfectly good domed stadium in order to build him a new one in downtown Atlanta that would generate him even more money, still managed to recognize that he needed to throw the fan base a bone — hence, the super-cheap concession prices at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which are a far cry from the inflated prices for food and drink offered at Sanford Stadium.

Probably the most notable area where UGA’s athletic leadership has been slow to respond to concerns fans have been expressing for years involves the game-day experience at Sanford Stadium for the non-monied crowd that isn’t in the sky boxes and club seats. Butts-Mehre points to the work done to improve the Sanford’s too-small and outmoded restrooms in recent years, but those improvements really just made them more tolerable than they were before. They’re still inadequate.

A lot of Georgia fans are unhappy with the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry against Auburn being moved earlier in the season. (Lauren Tolbert/UGA)

Another example of the disconnect between leadership and fandom was seen this past week, when word came that the SEC is going to give Auburn what it wants, in terms of scheduling, by moving the Tigers’ game against Georgia earlier in the season, starting in 2020.

UGA fans already were peeved that Georgia had to travel to Auburn two consecutive years to accommodate SEC expansion a few years ago. And, now, it appears that Auburn will get this latest concession (it wanted to avoid playing Georgia and Bama on the road in the same month every other year) without having to “pay back” the lost home game.

Dawgs-related social media came down pretty heavily against the scheduling move, with most fans objecting for two main reasons:

First, because it’s one more way college football is abandoning its traditions. Georgia and Auburn have met in November since 1937.

Secondly, Georgia fans were upset with the change because Auburn asked for it, and Dawgs fans are tired of them always getting their way. Aside from continuing to get an off-week before Florida, what has UGA gotten from the conference lately?

Plus, fans didn’t like the way UGA officials not only appeared to acquiesce without a fight, but said they were on board fully with the plan!

Alan Cason, who runs Dawg Bites, one of many UGA fan pages on Facebook, said ignoring tradition bothered him, but, “I also don’t like that we caved and went there back-to-back years and it seems we’ll never get reciprocation.”

The only plus to the change, he said, is “it will be nice to eliminate Auburn from the championship conversation earlier!”

A UGA sports insider, who asked not to be named, summed it up this way: “I just don’t see the gain for Georgia.”

Of course, in the big picture, swapping Tennessee and Auburn’s spots on Georgia’s schedule is not that big a deal. We got used to the Florida game being in October, rather than November, after that change was made in 1992, and we’ll get used to this.

UGA President Jere Morehead and athletic director Greg McGarity said the school was on board with the schedule change. (John Kelley/UGA)

It’s more the fact that Georgia’s athletic leadership appears to have been clueless about the fact that fans wouldn’t take this well.

UGA President Jere Morehead insisted that the move wasn’t foisted on UGA, maintaining that Smart is on board with the idea and athletic director Greg McGarity was consulted by conference officials.

We don’t really know what UGA’s true position on the change was, because McGarity preferred to keep a veil of secrecy over these things, saying, “The one thing we don’t do is talk about those conversations. … There are things we advocate for that nobody ever really knows about. …. You don’t talk about in public what we talk to [SEC officials] about regarding scheduling.”

Perhaps if he did talk about those things with fans, they’d be more understanding.

What really surprised me, though, was the fact that Morehead seemed unfazed by the fan response.

“I don’t have much reaction to it,” the president said. “I suppose if I was looking at the schedules, the keys for me would be asking if the head football coach is happy with the schedule and has our athletic director vetted it properly. All those things have been done.”

UGA’s athletic leadership needs to take care of the school’s fan base. (Perry McIntyre Jr./UGA)

No mention of the fan base. As the UGA insider put it: “The responses seemed callous.”

Now, I know that football is a tide that raises all boats, athletically speaking, and Smart’s recent success buys them an awful lot of good will, but Georgia’s athletic leaders need to pay more attention to the fan base, for the times when maybe the football team isn’t as successful.

Already, we’ve seen the elimination of traditions like fan picture day in August, and Smart speaks to far fewer supporters’ groups in the spring than his predecessor did. Generally, he doesn’t seem to want to do fan meet-and-greets. And, as long as he wins big, that probably won’t matter.

But, there undoubtedly will be years that aren’t as successful. Will UGA’s fan base remain as robust, no matter what the won-loss record is?

The research by Emory’s Lewis might seem to indicate it will, but it still wouldn’t be a bad idea for the folks who run UGA athletics to provide a bit more TLC for that fan base — and pay more attention to its concerns — so Bulldog Nation remains as fiercely loyal as it’s been up to now.

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