Sandwiched between the Philadelphia Eagles to the north and Washington Redskins to the south, the Baltimore Ravens have always had to work extra hard to get and keep fans.
While studying fan research provided by the NFL, the Ravens realized they had a hole in their fan base, according to Brad Downs, the team’s vice president of marketing.
Growing up, kids in the Baltimore area are avid Ravens fans. But some lose interest when they get to college, according to Downs. That’s a concern for a club that wants them to buy season tickets after they graduate and start their careers. And a problem for the NFL, which is trying to figure out how to reach Generation Z.
To keep these young customers from flying away, the franchise is testing a new fan engagement program with Stevenson University.
The Ravens call their fan groups around the country “flocks.” But the franchise doesn’t see their first college “flock” as the typical fan group.
Students at Stevenson who sign up will also get an education in sports business, said Downs. Some will intern at Ravens headquarters in nearby Owings Mill, Md. Team executives from various departments will visit the campus in Stevenson, Md. to teach them the ins and outs of the pro sports industry.
“Essentially, we’re putting together a template for college students to engage with a sports team, run a fan group, and get some real-time experience and interact with the team. That’s the model,” Downs said. “We wanted to create an opportunity to have a meaningful impact on these students in college, whether they’re Ravens fans or not. We want it to be a great experience for them – and a good taste of what the sports world is like.”
And no, the students don’t have to bleed the team’s purple and black colors to belong.
“We’d certainly love for them to be Ravens fans. But if there are students from different areas, and they’re fans of different teams, that’s OK too,” said Downs.
The Stevenson students themselves are organizing and running the club, he added. If the pilot program is successful, the Ravens hope to roll out similar flocks at two dozen other colleges in the state such as the University of Maryland.
Future flocks “will have to be different at every school we implement this at,” said Downs. “We want it to be organic. We don’t want them to just be influencers or ambassadors for us. We want them to take it – and do with it what they want.”
Stevenson is a natural for the Ravens’ first college flock. The private university is only 10 minutes from Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills. The team has held public practices on campus. Head coach John Harbaugh delivered the keynote commencement address to graduating Stevenson seniors in 2015. The coach was awarded the school’s highest academic degree: a doctorate in Humane Letters.
The Ravens were hoping to get 50 Stevenson students this season. But more than 100 interested students stopped by the Ravens’ Flock table at a recent activity fair to express interest. They were greeted by team mascot “Poe,” and cheerleaders.
“The students are extremely excited. We’ve had a lot of response already,” said Dr. Takisha Toler, associate professor of marketing.
Toler serves as the faculty lead for digital marketing at Stevenson. She plans to incorporate the flock into some of her classes, with students creating marketing strategies for their “client.”
“We’ll also have people from the Ravens come out. Not just players but also professionals in the accounting department, the law department,” she said. “They can talk about how to combine your passion with your career. That’s what our students are excited about.”
Every fan counts for the Ravens. Although the franchise can boast two Super Bowl Trophies, the expansion brand has only been around since 1996 when owner Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Compare that to the long history of the Redskins and Eagles, which were founded in 1932 and 1933, respectively.
The state of Maryland only has 6 million residents. Based on ticket demand, the rival Eagles are still the No. 1 team in neighboring Delaware, according to Vivid Seats.
From a pure research standpoint, the Ravens think they’ll learn more about how today’s 18- to 22-year old college students engage with the NFL. That’s important as pro football’s TV viewership gets older and Gen Z embraces eSports and more digital platforms.
The median age of NFL TV viewers is 50 years old, according to a study by Sports Business Journal and Magna Global in 2017. Meanwhile, the average age of eSports fans is only 31 years old, according to a separate study by Nielsen.
The Ravens are hoping College Flocks inspire some of these younger, hard-to-reach fans to dig out their old Ravens jerseys and re-engage with their brand.
“We’ve always had a philosophy that if we can get any kind of physical engagement, whether it’s events or programs, that it will create a deeper level of avidity among our fan base,” said Downs. “So that’s the goal. The early response to this makes it clear that we’re not losing these kids as fans. But we want to do a better job of staying with them from an engagement standpoint throughout this collegiate life stage.”