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When You Win It, College Fans Will Come

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Coach Tim Tadlock has made Texas Tech a big winner, bringing fans out to Rip Griffin Park (Photo by John Williamson)[/caption] The stands at Rip Griffin Park were full with a record crowd of 4,811 fans on June 8, 2014, for the second game of the Lubbock Super Regional. Texas Tech was trying to finish off a sweep of College of Charleston to advance to its first-ever College World Series. Texas Tech did just that, defeating Charleston 1-0. As the Red Raiders dogpiled on the field, the crowd chanted “Omaha, Omaha.” It was just after 6 p.m. on a picturesque day that will be remembered for a long time at Texas Tech. More than five hours later, there were still fans in the ballpark’s suites celebrating the victory. “There were people still up there at 11:30 at night, celebrating,” coach Tim Tadlock said. “It was a pretty neat deal.” Texas Tech has always had a strong core of baseball fans. For years, the Tech Hecklers have been a staple at Rip Griffin Park, ready to beleaguer the opposition. But after the Red Raiders broke through to the CWS in 2014—and returned in 2016, while also winning the Big 12 Conference regular season title for the first time since 1997—the fan base has grown and grown. Texas Tech’s average attendance has increased every year since that first CWS appearance. In 2016, the Red Raiders averaged 3,851 fans per game, an increase of 59 percent from 2014. Attendance is up again this spring. The Red Raiders (36-12) climbed to No. 5 in the Top 25 and again contended for the Big 12 title. On the Monday before its series against Texas Christian, a rematch from the 2016 CWS, Texas Tech announced the entire series was sold out. It was the third straight conference series to sell out. Brent Fletcher, assistant athletic director of ticket services, said that is becoming more common. “We’re seeing sellouts more often in advance,” he said. “That’s just part of the excitement—fans are getting their tickets earlier.” [caption id="attachment_201567" align="alignnone" width="640"] Tim Tadlock (Photo by John Williamson)[/caption] Tadlock, a Texas Tech alumnus, said the fans in Lubbock have embraced the program. “We’re fortunate because it’s a great baseball town,” Tadlock said. “I think there are places that have good football, good basketball, good baseball teams, but maybe the climate, maybe the town, people just aren’t going to come. We’re fortunate that if you put the right product out there (people will come).” Texas Tech is just one example of a school capitalizing on on-field success at the box office. A study of attendance data from around the country for the last five years revealed the strongest predictor of increased attendance was a trip to the College World Series the previous season. In any sport, putting a winning product on the field is a key to building and maintaining a fan base. But programs still have to be ready to capitalize on the moment. Texas Tech has pumped $6 million into stadium improvements in the last five years, adding a sun shade, a large video board and the suites. Tadlock credited Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt for having a good understanding of what kind of amenities would help the fan experience and then driving the fundraising effort to pay for them. For his part, Tadlock and his coaching staff are trying to recruit players who will make fans excited to come to baseball games. “From Day One, our staff, it’s been our goal to put a product on the field that you don’t want to leave your seat, whether a guy’s pitching or a guy’s hitting,” Tadlock said. “We don’t want you to be in your seat and go, ‘I can go get a bag of popcorn and not miss anything.’ ” The Love Shack Louisiana Tech had a banner season on the field in 2016. The Bulldogs went 42-20 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987. After four straight losing seasons, there was excitement around the program again. Thanks to Louisiana Tech’s late-season run, average attendance nearly doubled, increasing from 543 fans in 2015 to 1,013 fans in 2016. That number has nearly doubled again this season, pushing above 1,800. Louisiana Tech has already broken this season the program's record for total attendance and will break the average attendance record as well. Marco Born, Louisiana Tech’s senior associate athletic director of external affairs, said it was the kind of season the Bulldogs’ fans had been waiting for. “The state of Louisiana is hungry for a successful baseball program,” he said. “It’s just a little easier when you’re winning games to get people into games.” As Louisiana Tech moved into the postseason, it traveled to Southern Mississippi for the Conference USA tournament and Mississippi State for regionals. At both parks, Bulldogs’ fans found a raucous atmosphere and unique seating areas, such as Mississippi State’s famed Left Field Lounge. Inspired by those parks, Louisiana Tech installed tents and grills down the right-field line at J.C. Love Field, known as the Love Shack. The new area had four lots that included 10 tickets and cost $1,500 for the length of the season. They sold out in a day and a half, and there is a waiting list of about half a dozen people. Born said they are trying to figure out how to add more tailgate lots for next season. Louisiana Tech may have to start looking at other options for expansion at Love Field. Born said they sold nearly 500 season tickets this season, double last year’s total. He believes that with another postseason run this year, all of the approximately 700 chair-back seats could all be sold as season tickets. Attendance at Love Field has also benefitted from a strong home schedule this season. Louisiana Tech hosted a series against defending Conference USA champion Southern Mississippi, a pair of midweek games against Arkansas and a midweek game against Louisiana-Lafayette. A record 3,311 fans packed into Love Field on March 15 to see Louisiana Tech beat the Ragin’ Cajuns by a score of 6-5 in 13 innings. The crowd, which turned out despite cold weather, broke a 20-year-old record and showed the program’s potential. Coach Lane Burroughs, who is in his first season at Louisiana Tech after being hired from Northwestern State last summer, said it was the kind of crowd that could help a team raise its level of play. “People stayed with us,” he said. “It wasn’t full at the end when we won, but there were a lot of people still there.” Turning people who were at the Love Shack that night into regular attendees is Born’s goal. But Burroughs knows much of the responsibility rests on him and his team to keep winning. The Bulldogs have done a lot of that this season. They started the season 15-2 before hitting a midseason skid. They got back on track to 27-14, pushing into the top 40 in RPI. If they close strong again this season, they will likely make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. “More than the facility and schedule, these people are hungry for a winner on the baseball field,” Burroughs said. “It’s a baseball area.” The Show Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech are both advantageously located in baseball-hungry areas without much competition for entertainment. Neither is particularly close to a pro team or a major media market. “We are the show in Lubbock,” Tadlock said. “We compete with no Major League Baseball team. We compete with no NFL team. (There’s) no market for any pro teams. “If you win in Lubbock, people are going to come to games. We always felt that way. Texas is a great baseball state at all levels, and that carries over into our city.” All of that makes it easier to put fans in the stands at Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech, but neither school’s marketing staff is relaxing. “I tell my staff we can’t control what’s happening on the field or on the court, so my expectation is to put our best foot forward and sell as many tickets as possible,” Born said. “We sell on experience rather than the product. I expected my staff to still go after birthday parties and groups and sell the experience of a college baseball game.” “(Winning) is definitely part of the equation there, but just knowing the fan base and making sure you have options for them in terms of packages and (ticket) prices (is important),” Fletcher said. “And make sure fans have a great experience when they’re at the game.” Pairing an improved on-field product with an enhanced atmosphere for fans has created a strong dynamic for both Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech. And it has both schools dreaming of what their parks and game atmosphere might become in the future if they keep winning and building.
Texas Oklahoma Getty

How Would Texas, Oklahoma Moving To The SEC Impact College Baseball?

Oklahoma and Texas are likely leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC. What does that mean for college baseball? We examine the fallout here.

— Justin Perline contributed to this story

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