West Virginia University baseball coach Randy Mazey could feel the energy in the ballpark as the record-setting crowd of 2,535 began filing in to watch the Mountaineers play the Pitt Panthers.
West Virginia and Pitt have played many baseball games through the years, quite often doing so in front of just a handful of spectators, but on this evening the game took on an electric atmosphere usually reserved for football or men’s basketball games.
The grandstand at Hawley Field, where West Virginia currently plays its non-conference home baseball games, was built in the late 1980s to comfortably accommodate about a thousand fans when the Mountaineers were playing in the Atlantic 10 Conference, but more than twice that number showed up for the Backyard Brawl, requiring spectators to literally sit on top of each other in the bleachers until the late comers were forced to spread out on the bank next to Dick Dlesk Soccer Stadium.
“It was a great crowd; a great atmosphere, and when I was hitting infield-outfield before the game started and I was looking at our team, the way they moved around and were playing with energy and looking at the crowd with everyone wearing gold and the atmosphere we had, I really believed we’ve kind of arrived here in Big 12 baseball,” mentioned Mazey afterward.
What the Mountaineer baseball team experienced against Pitt on April 30, 2013 is precisely what Director of Athletics Oliver Luck envisioned for his alma mater when WVU became a member of the Big 12 Conference last July – large, enthusiastic crowds supporting ALL West Virginia University athletic teams, not just football and men’s basketball.
Consider what took place in Year One of West Virginia’s Big 12 affiliation:
- Volleyball shattering the school record for attendance with 3,112 showing up for WVU’s inaugural Big 12 athletic event against top-ranked Texas.
- Football’s much-talked-about Stripe the Stadium promotion against Baylor when more than 60,000 packed Milan Puskar Stadium wearing either gold or blue, depending upon their seating location.
- Men’s basketball conducting a similarly successful Stripe the Coliseum event against nationally ranked Kansas on ESPN Big Monday.
- A regular season record crowd of 2,057 showing up to see women’s soccer play nationally ranked Penn State a week after the Mountaineers knocked off top-ranked Stanford.
- Women’s basketball obliterating the school record for attendance by more than 5,000 when the Mountaineers played host to top-ranked Baylor on March 2, 2013 in front of 13,447 fans. It was the 10th-largest regular season crowd to watch a women’s college game in the country in 2013.
- Wrestling and gymnastics successfully experiencing another “Beauty and the Beast” event when more than 2,500 attended simultaneous meets on Feb. 10, 2013 at the Coliseum. Gymnastics also experienced three of its 12 best-attended home meets in school history during West Virginia’s first season of competition in the Big 12.
- Baseball tripling its yearly attendance from a year ago with more than 25,000 fans cheering on the Mountaineers in Morgantown, Charleston and Beckley.
The interest and enthusiasm the baseball program enjoyed this year – WVU producing seven of the eight most-attended home games in school history, including a school-record 3,279 that showed up for West Virginia’s game against 10th-ranked Oklahoma in Charleston – demonstrates the great potential the Mountaineers have in all sports as members of the Big 12 Conference.
“We knew we had a chance to draw crowds that had never been seen before in WVU baseball, but I’m not sure any of us would have predicted seven of the top eight crowds in school history,” said Matt Wells, WVU’s assistant athletic director in charge of sports marketing. “Obviously the excitement around being in the Big 12 and playing a different level of baseball was a big help. The fact that we were bringing Mountaineer events to fans in parts of the state that don’t always see them helped. As we got into April and May the weather improved and that helped, plus, you can’t discount the performance of the team and how that helped bring people out.”
West Virginians this year got a taste of what those who closely follow the Big 12 have been observing for many years now – great players, great teams and great competition across the board in ALL sports.
The hype and excitement began building to a crescendo last fall with football and it continued into this calendar year with the rest of West Virginia’s athletic teams. Wells said his staff came up with a plan to specifically target key games in each sport throughout the year, and then they put most of their resources into those specific events.
That is what they did with West Virginia’s first Big 12 volleyball match against Texas, the stripe the stadium events in football for Baylor and men’s basketball for Kansas, the “Beauty and the Beast” meet for gymnastics and wrestling, women’s basketball’s game against Baylor, and the Oklahoma series in baseball, just to name a few. What Wells and his staff did was basically double down on sure-fire winners – a very wise approach.
“We wanted to try and capitalize on (the excitement) by targeting certain events and really try and blow that out and make it an event that people wanted to come to,” explained Wells. “That really started with the volleyball game against Texas, which was our first Big 12 athletic event. We set out to break a record attendance wise, but we also wanted to make it a unique event and that’s where the idea to bring the entire marching band came in.”
Wells, like all good marketers, is fully cognizant of the fact that hosting enjoyable and affordable athletic events means fans are more likely to return in the future.
“It’s cheaper to buy a soccer ticket or a volleyball ticket than it is to go to the movies,” Wells said. “If we can use that lower-level pricing point as a way to get people here, and then once they get here we want them to have a good time, enjoy what they are seeing on the field and enjoy the things we are doing promotionally from a game atmosphere standpoint, then hopefully they will want to come back.”
A good approach, indeed, but what transpired this year in Mountaineer athletics was more than just prudent planning - it was an all-encompassing operation that required the entire athletic department to work in unison - from Varsity Club Director Dale Wolfley getting the word out to Varsity Club members, to Director of Sports Administration Mary Ellen Jones sending out frequent emails to WVU staff members reminding them of upcoming athletic events, to the Mountaineer Athletic Club staying in close contact with its membership, to the sports information staff informing the general public, to the coaches, their staffs and student-athletes’ willingness to help promote the Mountaineer brand throughout the region.
According to Wells, marketing the Mountaineers on a daily basis is a total team effort requiring the full cooperation of everyone, starting with the coaches.
“Your coaches are your best marketers of the program,” Wells said. “They are the face of the program and who the fans identify with and see the most. We’re lucky here at WVU because we have a great group of coaches, and I think they all understand the marketing side of it and are willing to go out, whether it’s through community appearances or through the media, to promote their program and help connect with fans to give them a reason to come to the games.”
Jill Kramer, who is still in the process of building the Mountaineer volleyball program from the ground up, says it’s encouraging for her coaching staff and players when they are facing the No. 1 team in the country and they see the entire lower ring of the Coliseum full to help support them.
“We aren’t doing this by ourselves,” she said. “Anytime you have a group like that behind you it’s not just about you and the other team – there are a lot of people fighting for you that you are representing. I think a lot of times we can talk about that and we can say, ‘OK, you are doing this for the state of West Virginia’ and then the crowds are not that big. So are they really doing that? Then when you get some people to understand (and see the support) then you can say those things and they feel it.”
When the home crowds are large, vocal and supportive, the athletes clearly take notice. West Virginia pitcher Harrison Musgrave
, a Bridgeport resident, is certainly grateful for the support the team received this year traveling to different parts of the state.
“It’s really special,” he said. “When I was growing up you never really heard about Mountaineer baseball. It maybe made the fifth page of our town paper every once in a while and to see us get support throughout the state; good crowds every time we play; good competition, it’s just tremendous. I never would have ever thought that it would be like this.”
It’s happening now, thanks to West Virginia’s decision to join the much higher-profile Big 12. Now that the newness of joining a different league is beginning to wear off, the economy, of course, is still in the process of rebounding and the yearly performance of the teams is always an uncertainty, how do the Mountaineers continue to capitalize on what was established in 2013?
“We keep the same plan in place and we look for new and unique ideas to try and enhance it,” said Wells. “I don’t think you scrap what you’re doing. You continue to evaluate the schedules and work with the coaches to figure out which games have the best chance to be successful.
“As schedules are being released we are already working on what we are planning for next year. We will try and have all of that finalized by June or July so we have a solid month leading into the season to try and begin promoting it.”
A good plan, indeed.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.