Eastern Michigan University Looks To Local Fans For Brand Reset

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Photo Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

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Located in Ypsilanti, Mich., Eastern Michigan University fields 18 varsity teams and competes in the NCAA’s Division I Mid-American Conference. The school sits just a short drive from the stadium known as “The Big House” and the University of Michigan. In other words, the competition for the attention of sports fans is steep.

The Eagles’ athletic department is led by Scott Wetherbee, who arrived on campus two years ago following highly successful stints at Mississippi State and East Carolina University. Senior Associate AD for External Affairs Andy Rowdon joined the staff a few months after Wetherbee. Upon their arrival in Ypsilanti both Wetherbee and Rowdon saw an opportunity to make EMU a bigger part of the local sports culture.

“As the head of external, I wanted to take a number of steps to try to not only broaden our reach and our brand, but drive revenue and really grow our external visibility,” Rowdon says.

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Rowdon spent his first year evaluating the culture of the external team, looking to align the department’s culture with the direction they wanted EMU Athletics to go. Once he was satisfied with the foundation they had built, Rowdon felt ready to take the next step and refine the Eagles’ brand identity. That’s when EMU decided to bring in Old Hat.

“We wanted someone who had been through the process before with other collegiate athletic departments,” Rowdon mentions of that decision. “It was their ability to research what we cannot within our department, and get honest feedback from the community at-large that were vital to us.”

Early in 2019, Old Hat began by speaking with members of Eastern’s athletic department, old and new, about what they thought of the school. The purpose of this was to define what the school did well and figure out what they could improve. This allowed Old Hat to develop a survey that would then be sent to community members in the city of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area.

When the data was collected, it pointed out several important things about EMU’s current/potential audience. For starters, 77% of respondents living in Ypsilanti have not been to an EMU athletics event in more than five years. Meanwhile, 41% of survey respondents have never attended an EMU athletics event.

“We have a really good alumni base locally, with nearly 120,000 living alumni in Washtenaw County,” Rowdon says after observing the results. “But obviously there’s a lot more people than just those 120,000 people in the local market. So getting the feedback from that side and learning how they feel towards EMU was the eye opening portion of the research. That enabled us to shape our strategy and help us achieve our goals.”

The two most important factors in purchasing tickets were game experience and price. While Washtenaw County has a median household income (MHI) of $70,000 and a 14% poverty rate, the city of Ypsilanti’s MHI is about $35,000 and has a 28% poverty rate. All these things can actually work in EMU’s favor.

“We’re working to change our messaging with the understanding it is ok for us to be in the shadow of Michigan,” Rowdon remarks. “Each time I tell people our ticket prices, they think our season ticket prices are our single game prices because they’re used to Michigan prices. We can position ourselves as the family-centric place you can go for good family fun and great entertainment at a much lower price point. The research showed us that it makes the most sense for us to take our brand in that direction.”

Another of Old Hat’s recommendations for EMU focused on assimilating themselves into the culture of the local community, expanding their efforts to become great partners, and helping to support the efforts of local residents. To accomplish this, the external team has plans in place to have a presence at many of the summer festivities available in Michigan in the coming months, promoting these festivals, and interacting with the community without asking for anything in return.

“Instead of being out there trying to sell ourselves as ‘this is why community members should come to our football games’, it’s our goal to go and be a good community partner,” Rowdon says. “We want to start to win people over by showing we’re part of the community. We’ve taken great strides in this area over the past two years with our student-athletes completing over 7,000 hours of service each year within the local community. But we want to find ways to join in on some of the great events in our area, stand side by side with members of the community, and help them achieve their goals.”

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In order to set themselves apart, EMU required a creative solution from fresh eyes that understand the college athletics space and that understood EMU as a local brand with room to grow. Old Hat provided that perspective that has helped set them in a new direction.

“Old Hat came and really took the time to understand who we are, what we’re trying to do, and what the makeup is of this community,” Rowdon adds. “They found our pain points, researched them, learned about them and helped us think creatively about how we can overcome them.”

Read Old Hat’s full case study on Eastern Michigan University here.

Old Hat are experts at helping athletic professionals achieve a more informed perspective on their fans’ behavior and decision-making process. To learn more, visit OldHatCreative.com.