Monday, September 10, 2012

LSC Scoop Interview with Stan Wagnon

Probably the biggest challenge for NCAA D2 schools is generating publicity.  For the most part, universities are located in mid-sized or small towns and those that are located in large cities are overshadowed by larger schools.  Schools and conferences have to be very creative and sometimes take some chances in order to get the media to notice.  Some schools are involved in "classics", such as the Harvey Martin Classic, which saw Texas A&M-Commerce square off against fellow LSC schools in the Cotton Bowl, or the annual Fall Classic at Arrowhead, where Pittsburg State and Northwest Missouri have met since 2002.  These games are typically off-campus and in larger metropolitan areas, generating above average attendance and publicity outside of their normal area.

But if one game is good, how about three?  That's what the Lone Star Conference did last year.  A triple-header with five LSC teams and the GSC's North Alabama meeting at the top football venue in the world - Cowboy Stadium.  Things went so well, that the festival was expanded this year.  All nine LSC teams plus Valdosta State from the GSC will face off as well as a Friday night matchup of two of the most storied high school teams in the state.  Game one, between Texas A&M-Commerce and Midwestern State was moved up a day to Thursday and will be broadcast nationwide on the CBS Sports channel.  Friday will see Eastern New Mexico vs. Incarnate Word, followed by Southlake Carroll and Temple High School.  Saturday's triple header starts with Angelo State going against national powerhouse Valdosta State, Abilene Christian against Tarleton State, and the weekend finale, Texas A&M-Kingsville taking on West Texas A&M.

Ticket prices for this Texas-sized event are $20 for Thursday or Friday ($10 for students) and $25 for Saturday ($10 for students).  A three day pass is only $35 ($15 for students) and grants you admission for all three days.  There's not a better deal to be had in college football this year.

Stan Wagnon has spearheaded the effort to showcase the LSC, and was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to visit with us.

wagnonQ. - By any measure last year's inaugural Lone Star Football Festival was a big success.  What were your expectations?  On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate it?
My expectation for attendance was rooted in the fact that our teams typically average between 4500 and 6000 fans per home game. Since the Festival was being played at a neutral site, with fan bases from all schools having to travel to the event, I really thought it would be a success if we averaged 5000 fans over 3 games for 15,000 total attendance. Obviously we were quite pleased when Cowboys Stadium gave us the final number of 24,837. That said, it’s safe to say that I’m one of those guys who is always looking at the little things that could be improved to better capitalize on a given opportunity. And last year’s Festival was no different. I loved every minute of it and was proud of the success we enjoyed, but I knew right away there were things we could have done differently to make it even better. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, I still think you’d have to say last year was a 9. I’m probably too critical to believe in 10’s, but that is what we’re shooting for this year.

Q. - What lessons did you learn and what areas needed improvement?
The primary lesson for me was to realize that it takes a lot people working together on a number of different levels to pull off an event of this magnitude. It wasn’t enough for me to work hard or simply ask my immediate staff to join me in working hard. We literally needed the cooperation of on-campus personnel – both inside the athletic department and across campus from alumni to university relations to the presidents – the Cowboys Stadium staff, the Arlington convention and visitors bureau, and a host of others. It took high-level planning and organization, and I’m thankful for my staff as they helped to keep us straight in that regard.

Probably the things that needed improvement were related to communication and the timeliness of communication. Some of that is simply because it was the first time we’d tried an event of this nature, but either way it’s something we hope and believe has been different in the days and weeks leading up to this year’s Festival.

Q. - How did the whole idea for the Festival come about?  Were the folks at Cowboys Stadium  open to the idea immediately, or did they have to be convinced that it could be a success?
The idea came from conversations between myself and Nate Salant, commissioner of the Gulf South Conference. We learned in August 2010 that five Oklahoma schools were leaving, which meant we’d go from having 14 football teams in 2010 to just 9 in 2011. At the same time, the GSC learned that six Arkansas schools were leaving, which left them with just 5 football schools. 

Our original idea was to find a spot somewhere between our footprints – such as New Orleans or Shreveport or Jackson, Miss. – where the LSC could send 5 teams and play 5 games against the GSC teams. As I bounced that idea off some of our folks, there was skepticism as to whether fans would flock to any of those sites to support the event. At that point, I suggested to Nate that we begin looking in our own footprints to see if it might work in a location that was closer to at least one of the league’s fan bases. 

One of the first calls I made was to the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau, and with their help we got the idea in front of Dallas Cowboys officials. I was pleasantly surprised at the Cowboys’ willingness to listen and genuine interest in accommodating such an event. Once we realized it was possible to have an event at Cowboys Stadium, a couple of LSC athletic directors made the suggestion that we include as many LSC teams as possible in order to boost the attendance. 

That’s how we ended up with 5 LSC teams plus only North Alabama from the Gulf South last year. That same rationale is also why we’ve expanded to include all 9 LSC teams and have invited Valdosta State of the GSC to round out the field.

Q. - This year's festival is a three day event, with all LSC teams participating, and a top-notch high school game as well.  Can you tell us a little bit about the planning process?  How did the Temple-Southlake Carroll matchup materialize?
The 3-day aspect was really an evolution of sorts. First, we wanted to include all 9 LSC teams, so we planned on having 5 games over 2 days. To do that, we’d need a 10th college team, and that’s where Valdosta State comes in. 

But playing 5 games in 2 days would mean that somebody is playing on Friday night. In Texas, Friday night is all about high school football. Plus, if we’re renting Cowboys Stadium by the day, why not play 3 games each day? As we started thinking about the possibility of a sixth game, it made perfect sense that we pursue the inclusion of a high school game. 

Our initial goal was to bring a high school program from a Lone Star Conference community and pit them against a Dallas-Fort Worth area high school team. We talked with several of the high schools in nearby LSC communities – namely Wichita Falls Rider, Abilene High and San Angelo Central – and it appeared we were headed for San Angelo Central vs. Southlake Carroll game. But when the UIL announced its realignment in February, both San Angelo Central and Abilene were knocked out of consideration because they begin district play a week earlier than expected. 

From there, we approached Temple because that’s the team Carroll was planning to play before we had approached them about our event. As it turns out, the match-up is great fit for the LSC. Obviously it’s great because Carroll is the defending 5A state champion and Temple has the third-most playoff appearances of all 5A programs in the state, but there’s two other components that make it a great fit. 

First, Southlake is a community of importance to the LSC, as our golf and tennis championships were played there last spring. In fact, we hosted a tennis youth clinic there in conjunction with our spring championships and had nearly 100 kids participate. We look forward to that event again next spring. Secondly, having Temple in our event is great for LSC universities as the Wildcats come from a part of the state that is: first, a hot-bed for our members when recruiting both student-athletes and students in general, and secondly, an area where the LSC doesn’t currently have any member universities.  There will be great number of potential college students from Temple, Texas, who know all about the Lone Star Conference and its member schools after this weekend. 

Finally, in completing the evolution from 6 games in 2 days to a 3-day event, the MSU-Commerce game was moved to Thursday at the NCAA’s request to allow for national television as part of the Division II Game of the Week broadcast package. We’re certainly honored to participate in that great initiative.

Q. - How big of a PR boost is it to have the Midwestern State - Texas A&M Commerce game broadcast to a national television audience?
It’s certainly great for those schools to get national exposure and be able to say to a recruit that they’re playing on national television. Not many Division II programs get the chance to say that each year. But for the Lone Star Conference as a whole, I think it’s an especially important boost to what we’re doing as a conference. 

This is an important time for the LSC, having gone from 16 member schools in 2010 to 11 last year. Now with ACU and Incarnate Word heading out the door, we are left with 9 members for next year. It’s paramount that we add new members to the LSC, and events like the Lone Star Football Festival help to tell the story of what it means to be part of the LSC. 

Obviously we are putting our best foot forward by aligning ourselves with the Dallas Cowboys and hosting an event at a world-class facility like Cowboys Stadium, so to have the NCAA come in and provide us the opportunity for a national TV audience when we’re doing something at the highest level possible is priceless. It’s certainly my hope that some of these potential new members will catch a glimpse of the broadcast and realize there’s something special about the LSC, something worth being a part of.

Q. - Do you have specific attendance expectations for this year's festival?
In our planning for the event, we’ve ballparked anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 fans over the 3 days. Our primary revenue source for this event is ticket sales, so it’s important that we have a good turnout each day.  My original theory that averaging 5000 per game equates to success would translate to 30,000 total attendance this year. So to me, that’s the mark that we have to hit. 

But I’m certainly hopeful that we’ll see well more than 30,000 fans this year, given the success we had last year, plus the hard work our member schools have put in to using this event as a way to reconnect with alumni in the DFW market, and the addition of a very attractive Texas high school football showdown.

Q. - Is this now an annual event that LSC fans (and football fans in general) can look forward to every year?
My hope is definitely to keep the Festival going as an annual event, but there are a number of factors that need to be considered. 

First, we have to remember that Cowboys Stadium is a highly sought-after venue. We’ve been fortunate to this point that we’ve not run into any scheduling conflicts with the facility. 

Second, there’s a lot of change surrounding our membership and as a result our football schedules are changing. Having only 7 or 8 football-playing members will present some challenges that are different from what we’ve seen in recent memory, so we need to work with our members to make sure the Festival adds value to our schedule rather than further complicating an already difficult schedule. 

To that end, when this year’s event is complete I plan to visit with our university administrators and determine how the Festival can best serve the LSC. Is the purpose to gain exposure in the DFW market? To provide a superior student-athlete experience to our peer conferences? To generate revenue for conference schools? To provide incentive for non-conference teams to travel to Texas and play our teams? 

It might be possible to accomplish a great number of those purposes, but we’ve got to have those discussions and see where it takes us. One thing is for sure: I will continue to work with our football coaches, athletic directors and University presidents to ensure that LSC football is relevant and restored to national prominence. In my opinion, the Football Festival plays a key role in our ability to do that.

Q. - The football games are obviously the focal point this weekend, but there are other activities to do in Arlington as well.  What are some of the other things that fans can look forward to attending.
I would encourage fans to inquire with the athletic department and/or alumni department of their favorite LSC school. Every single school has at least one social event planned for the weekend, and many have multiple events planned. 

Last year, I jumped from one hotel to the next attending university functions on the night before our games. It was great to see our member schools making the most of an opportunity to reconnect with former students and capitalize on the excitement and spirit associated with these teams having the chance to play at Cowboys Stadium. 

This year several schools are hosting group outings at the Rangers baseball games, and many schools are organizing official tailgate parties. I guess if there was one thing I would encourage an LSC fan to do besides attending his/her own game, it would be to attend the Friday night showdown between Southlake Carroll and Temple. 

Certainly our fans know all about Texas high school football, but I promise you it doesn’t get any better than the atmosphere created by a couple of tradition-rich programs like Carroll and Temple. Carroll was 16-0 last year and won its 8th state title since 1988. Everyone knows the roll they’re on and the type of following they have. 

But Temple entered this year with 693 victories, the third-most in Texas 5A history. They’ve made 39 playoff appearances, also third-most in Texas 5A history. They’re a two-time state champion, and this will be the first time they’ve ever played at Cowboys Stadium. It’s also the first time they’ve ever faced the Carroll Dragons. It’s going to be quite a night.

Thanks Stan.  Everything certainly seems to be in place for and even bigger and better festival weekend this year.  Here's to hoping we can do this again next year.

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Lone Star Conference

Angelo State University

Cameron University

Eastern New Mexico University

Texas A&M-Commerce

Tarleton State University

Texas A&M-Kingsville

Texas Woman's College

University of Texas of the Permian Basin

West Texas A&M University

Western New Mexico