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A View From A Converted Tire Garage

   
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The Battle at Bristol was big, bold and brilliant.

By Desiree Reed-Francois, Deputy AD, Virginia Tech, 9-14-16

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"It was amazing,” said Virginia Tech junior tight end Bucky Hodges. In a game that would be one that Bucky and all of the 200 student-athletes could tell their children about, we at Virginia Tech, along with our colleagues at the University of Tennessee, Bristol Motor Speedway and countless others had the privilege to orchestrate the Battle at Bristol, now in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest game in college football history.


However, when College Athletics Clips Editor Nick Infante contacted me as the football sport administrator about writing an article on our experience, my immediate thought was that there has been a lot written by some of the most prominent writers, I am not sure what I could add. However, Nick was persistent and so as we were debriefing Monday as a staff, I thought about what lessons were learned from this experience that could apply to other neutral site games in the future, and most importantly, how this game contributed to our goals of making memories and developing leaders.


Briefly, the Battle at Bristol was a game nearly 20 years in the making. Bristol Motor Speedway CEO Bruton Smith approached our future College Football Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer, the late Mr. Jim Weaver, Virginia Tech’s former Director of Athletics and members of the University of Tennessee’s leadership team about creating the largest football game in history. Fast forward to 2013 when scheduling opportunities aligned and current Directors of Athletics Whit Babcock of Virginia Tech and Dave Hart of the University of Tennessee agreed to have their football teams play one another on a converted racetrack infield equidistant between their two campuses and the planning went full speed ahead.  Over the course of past three years, teams from Virginia Tech, UT, and Bristol Motor Speedway worked through the operations and logistics of creating an event that 200 student-athletes would participate in, in front of 156,990 orange-and-maroon-clad fans with over six million people watching on ESPN.


Converting a racetrack into a world-class football venue was challenging, not to mention turning a tire garage into a locker room. Based upon this experience, here are our top five lessons learned in the hopes that they might be helpful should you contemplate future neutral site games:

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1. Over-Communicate

The most critical element for a neutral site game is communication among all entities involved – both teams and the venue, but furthermore communication within each program to ensure that departments have everything they need to be successful.  Our internal strategic communications team, lead by Pete Moris and our football operations personnel worked very hard to ensure all of our external groups had a clear understanding of what was to occur. Further, our communication with the University of Tennessee, which in the weeks leading up was almost hourly, was critical and this teamwork was one of the highlights of the game. While we may compete on the field, the cooperation and collegiality we experienced was helpful, rewarding and mitigated many potential problems.


From a logistics perspective, neutral site games present an operational reality in that many of the parties involved are not familiar with football. From third-party promoters to hotel partners to police escorts, catering companies, venue colleagues, security personnel and event staff, there are many people involved and it was essential for them to understand the details that are important for any operation to run smoothly, to understand our expectations and provide them knowledge on how to meet those high expectations.

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2. Neutral Site Games = Bowl Game Experience

The Battle at Bristol was similar to a bowl game - on steroids.  Instead of 10,000 tickets to be sold for a usual bowl game, we had 40,000 tickets; instead of 60,000 people attending, we had a stadium that Neyland Stadium and Lane Stadium combine would hold. However, similar to a bowl game, having a team liaison was important to help follow up on details, translate what was important to us from a football, marketing, public relations, campus, ticketing and donor perspective versus what was critical to the third party. A good liaison, like we had, helps by providing logistical support, working knowledge of the venue, including how to maneuver around the complex, who to call in an emergency, location of various meetings, and helps fill in the gaps.  


Additionally, like we do routinely for bowl games, having a series of pre-game operations meetings, both internal to your campus and with all parties involved are important to ensure collective communication.  While not exhaustive, decision makers from the following units may be helpful:

Football Operations
Communications
Video 
Stadium authorities
Local heads of fire, police and other services
Concessions
Third-party security
Transportation/buses
Copier/Wi-fi internet providers
Title sponsor public relations representative
Representatives from both governors’ offices
Game production company 
Institutional marketing teams
Chamber of Commerce
Institutional development personnel
President’s staff
Alumni Association
Spirit Squads
Bands


One thing we missed however after our first meeting, was including representatives from the Chamber of Commerce. They had several events and we should have better coordinated. It all worked out in the end, but we should have included them on the front end.

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3. Dry-Runs, Pregame Inspections and Contract Details

NASCAR does an excellent job of public relations and marketing – and there were many lessons learned on ticket sales that we are going to implement moving forward.  However, turning a race track into a football field is a challenge and what may seemingly be an insignificant detail like adding unplanned in-game elements or chairs versus stools or how a locker room is set-up is critical and thus errors can be mitigated when you do a series of dry-runs and inspections and you have great partners like we did with Bristol Motor Speedway.

Additionally, working with your general counsel’s office throughout the contract drafting is critical.  Seemingly insignificant details that are left out can have significant impact to your fans, your team and your department’s financial success. Including the experts in your ticket office, football operations, event management staff as part of the negotiations will pay dividends. Finally, because your fans will be looking to your athletic department more often than the third party operator like the race track for answers, be prepared with the details and be a part of the negotiations, resolutions and communications.


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4. Inclusivity

One lesson I have learned from Whit Babcock is the importance of building our athletic department team.  These types of games are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for your fans to be a part of something very special – as well as your athletic department team.  If you are the sport administrator for football and leading the overall neutral site football gameday operations, I’ve found that erring on the side of including more people, even if it is not in their formal job duties, as you work through roles is helpful.  If you have a rising star in your department that may not have a specific role, if you can try and find a way for them to be included, they will not only provide a valuable service to the department, learn and increase connectivity to the department.


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5. Your Student-Athletes' Experience Makes All The Details Seem Irrelevant

I just spent the majority of this article talking about the importance of paying attention to the details to mitigate problems; however, the most important aspect of any college football game are the student-athletes. When you are working to put on a party for 156,990 guests, there will be operational details that will make you want to pull your hair out. However, if you have a chance, take a few minutes and watch your student-athletes as they experience games like these. We were down by 21 points late in the fourth quarter and one of our senior offensive linemen reminded me by his actions of the leadership lessons student-athletes learn and why this game matters.  One of this lineman’s younger teammates had a tough game and threw his helmet down on the ground on the sidelines. The senior went over to him and very calmly told him to pick up his helmet and sit down on the bench. The young man did and then the senior went over to him, put his arm around his shoulders and talked to him for several minutes telling him that he believed in him and how much he mattered. It was a beautiful example of leadership and it was a great reminder of what sports can teach.

While this game will net both Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee just over $4million, which in today’s ever-increasing costs will help pay for all of our teams’ nutritional and academic enhancements, it was the collegiality and teamwork, the collective experience of 156,990 fans singing along to Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless the USA” on a beautiful summer night - and this senior offensive lineman that I will always remember.


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Desiree Reed-Francois is the Deputy AD at Virginia Tech.  She oversees football, revenue generation and the external team, which includes corporate development, ticketing, marketing and fan engagement, HokieVision, strategic communications, graphic design/publications, and IMG, as well as having oversight of sports medicine and volleyball.  Desiree is an attorney with 20 years of progressive leadership experience in collegiate and professional sports.

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