The week began and ended in the same room, the media room tucked away in the guts of the Winthrop Coliseum.
Winthrop University’s athletic department began its marketing efforts on a Monday in that room, 11 people sipping coffee, plotting ways to get fans, particularly students, into the Coliseum for the home game against Radford later in the week. It ended Saturday evening with Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey’s postgame press conference after the Eagles struggled during the second half of an 80-61 loss to the Highlanders.
In between, the athletic department and its basketball coach hustled to convince fans to attend the game against Radford, Winthrop needed to win to keep alive its hopes of hosting the conference tournament in March.
Efforts to convince students to come to the Radford game began with the weekly Monday morning meeting. Director of marketing and fan engagement, and recent Winthrop graduate school alum, Emily Erickson reported that there would be 2,500 white rally towels placed on seats in the Coliseum ahead of Saturday’s game.
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And she gave Matt Martin (associate AD for external operations) and Brittany Lane (assistant AD for marketing and communications) some feedback on the Final Four tickets promotion that Winthrop has been running, noting that a contestant during the Gardner-Webb home game nine days earlier had gotten pretty close to beating the contest and winning the Final Four tickets. The group jokingly debated shaving a few seconds off the promotion’s allotted time.
‘Loves that golf cart’
Monday’s meeting tentatively set up public appearances by Winthrop basketball coach Pat Kelsey for Wednesday and Thursday later in the week. The group discussed giving away tickets, but wanted to avoid devaluing the event. One idea was to get Kelsey to “buy” the tickets and then give them away to preserve the perceived value.
Martin, Lane and the rest of their cohort have been relatively pleased with student turn-out this season, especially for the previous home game against Gardner-Webb, and wanted to turn their attention slightly toward the community. With a Saturday game, the thinking was get Kelsey out in public by at least Wednesday to try to get on people’s weekend calendars.
“This is the biggest game in terms of opponent,” said Martin.
Maybe Kelsey could stop by some of the program’s sponsors around lunch time? And then they would try to get Kelsey on Winthrop’s campus Thursday, maybe give away coffee and hot chocolate to students since it was supposed to be cold that day. Erickson proposes “Kelsey’s coffee cart.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Martin, “he loves that golf cart.”
A change of plans came Tuesday. Kelsey couldn’t do community outreach because he had to travel to Florida for a recruiting trip. Coordinating schedules with Kelsey can be tricky, but director of basketball operations Mitch Hill and video coordinator Zack Freesman help as go-betweens for the coach and the marketing crew.
Martin said that the biggest thing Kelsey can do to help the marketing department promote Winthrop basketball is to win games. But his personal appearances -- and willingness to do them -- help too.
“Most coaches would say, ‘I am here to coach the basketball team and you guys are here to market,’” said Martin.
Wednesday evening brought better news. Campbell beat Radford on a 35-foot Chris Clemons buzzer-beater, meaning that Saturday’s Winthrop-Radford game would technically be for first place. That’s a marketing angle that the Winthrop athletic department and Kelsey played up the rest of the week, especially with students.
“Everyone agrees that if you can get students here, there is an extra energy, a buzz in the arena that is really important,” said Martin. “No matter how many community folks get here, the students bring the energy, so that’s always a focus.”
Leah Kendall, who runs Winthrop’s Office of First year Experience, doesn’t buy into the sometimes popular notion that Winthrop’s student body doesn’t care about sports.
“How many people that go to the Carolina Panthers game can really tell you about every linebacker and how they performed?” she said. “It’s about giving them something to rally around. People go to the Panthers game and it’s about being part of that Panthers Nation. It’s the buy-in and connection. And what we do know about Winthrop students is they love to rally around their school identity.”
Shortening the mile
But students haven’t always been a factor at Winthrop home basketball games. One of the biggest deterrents to student attendance at Winthrop home games is the mile separating Winthrop Coliseum from the main campus. The Office of First Year Experience, or FYE, works closely with Kelsey to try and figuratively shorten that mile.
FYE was created in 2016 when the required class that Winthrop freshmen took to help orient them to college academic life was modified. Kendall wanted to expand that purely academic class into a more holistic experience that helped better connect the Winthrop freshman to their new school, classmates, community.
It starts each school year with the Rock The Hill event that freshmen are required to attend. Attendees receive a t-shirt, there is loud music and lots of school pride, and of course Kelsey gets some quality time with the microphone. The new students learn chants that are used at Winthrop home sports events and also the school’s alma mater.
Kendall sent out a survey each of the last two years to the students that attended the Rock The Hill event. Of the 838 that responded in 2018, 92.5 percent agreed that as a result of attending the event they had an increased sense of belonging to Winthrop. Asked if the event gave them a sense of pride in Winthrop athletics, 93.7 percent said yes. And 85.3 percent said they felt more connected to the university.
Social events have helped strengthen the Winthrop freshman’s experience, and home basketball games offered an obvious focal point for FYE. Kendall’s program connects freshmen with mentors, older Winthrop students that give the newcomers an entry into the school’s social life. Basketball games gave peer mentors an event that they could invite their FYE student to.
“This needs to be a comprehensive experience,” Kendall remembers thinking when first envisioning FYE. “That includes becoming an Eagle. Not just a Winthrop student, but buying the t-shirt, being a Winthrop Eagle, that sense of belonging and pride and buy-in.”
‘Anything, anywhere, any time’
In Kelsey, FYE and the Winthrop sports marketing department have a very willing accomplice.
“He will do anything, anywhere, any time, as long as it doesn’t interfere with practice or something,” said Martin. “But he is totally open to whatever wacky things we can come up with, or, a lot of times, wacky things he comes up with. It makes it really easy and more fun for our staff.”
The energy Kelsey brings to Winthrop’s campus isn’t fake. He has that same energy in his team’s practice, or playing football in the backyard with his son.
“His energy is contagious,” said Kendall. “He’s been incredibly student-centered since Day 1. He would come to orientation and dance with the students. He’s always said that students are the heartbeat of this campus. He has one practice left before the biggest game of the season and he’s out on campus shaking hands with students. It’s a priority.”
Kelsey’s office is at the Coliseum, but it’s not weird to see him on Winthrop’s campus. He hosts a pageant for the school’s Greek life organizations each spring, writes emails to the student body before every home game, and of course, makes multiple whacky on-campus appearances during basketball season, often piloting his beloved golf cart.
It’s all about creating a relationship with the students. One that they hopefully keep in mind when deciding whether to attend a basketball game at Winthrop Coliseum, or not.
Convincing people to do something is probably in Kelsey’s genes. His dad, Mike, who sits right behind Winthrop’s bench most home games, is a car salesman, and Pat Kelsey has the same inclinations. He’s creative -- he cuts out elaborate pop-up cards to send to recruits by hand and loves thinking up slogans and hashtags, like the very successful #RockTheHill and the (so far) less successful #HeadbuttThursday. He loves to interact with students, which was first fully seen when he was at Wake Forest and helped start that school’s student section called “Tie Dye Nation.”
And he has no shame.
“He’s totally willing to put himself out there,” Martin said.
And that’s what Kelsey did Jan. 31 after graduate assistant Andre Smith scooped him from the airport, fresh from the recruiting trip to Florida. It was quiet as the marketing group -- Martin, a few interns, two cheerleaders and an athlete or two -- milled around the golf cart parked near the DiGiorgio Campus Center and the West Center and offered hot chocolate and coffee to students walking past.
When Kelsey showed up, the energy went up a notch or two. Or eight.
One of the cheerleaders lobbed a tiny basketball to Kelsey and he slammed it through a mini basketball goal. It was 35 degrees, had to get the juices flowing.
No couple could walk past without hearing Kelsey’s sales pitch. One man and woman seemed receptive, agreeing to put the game on their calendar. Just as they were walking off, Kelsey shouted, “Hey, it’s Headbutt Thursday!” then leaned his head in, gently tapping noggins with one of them.
It was cold and there weren’t many students out on the walkways between buildings. Inside DiGiorgio, hundreds of students ate lunch or chatted with friends, waited in line at Starbucks or perused a number of tables offering information about different clubs and organizations. Kelsey offered to buy $50 worth of Valentine’s Day roses a sorority was selling if the women would come to the Radford game. And then asked them to bump heads with the person to the right.
He walked down the stairs that lead into the food court and stopped midway. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted details about the Radford game, as hundreds of students paused their lunch to see who was yelling at them. Then he made the rounds again, joking with young people he’d never met like he had known them many years, like a politician the week before an election.
Kelsey wasn’t satisfied with the amount of students he saw during those 30 minutes, so headed back to campus later Thursday night after Winthrop’s practice. He stopped at Winthrop Baptist Collegiate Ministry, stepped onto a chair in a crowded hallway and spoke to a large crowd of students. Kelsey, whose daughter, Ruthie, went with him, then fed the group pizza. If his energy didn’t coax them to the Coliseum, maybe their full stomachs would.
The marketing team and Kelsey’s efforts led to a solid student section turnout for the Radford game, though not as many as when 1,200 showed up for the UNC Asheville game earlier in the season. There was an FYE tailgate prior to the Asheville game, proof that FYE is one of the Winthrop athletic department’s biggest on-campus allies.
Winthrop tracks student attendance, though Martin admits their numbers aren’t 100 percent reliable because of intermittent issues with electronic scanners. But the trend is upward, from an average of 245 students attending home basketball games in 2014-15, up to 481 through 11 games this season.
It’s not certain that even 1,200 students would have influenced the Radford games’ outcome. Kelsey’s postgame press conference after the loss was short. The Eagles had been badly outplayed in the second half by the league’s defending champs. There have been weeks where he put even more effort into coaxing students down Eden Terrace to the Coliseum, only for his team to fall flat at the end. It’s easy to feel doubly beaten after those losses.
But, as Halpin said, winning is an often short-term and fickle source of increased attendance. Winthrop is trying to create a deeper bond with its fans, especially the students. Whether startling students with his early morning energy or hosting sorority pageants, Kelsey is a big part of that effort, even if his team doesn’t win every game at the Coliseum.
“We remove wins and losses from the equation,” he said, “and double down on making sure everybody who comes into the building feels like they belong here and that they’re a part of our brand, whether we win or lose.”