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Auburn stands out because of the feeling that our fans, student-athletes and alumni have – the people, tradition and generational culture makes it special. It’s not just about sports, it’s ‘that feeling’ you get when you pull off I-85 and into town that transcends sports.

Dan Heck

Assistant Athletics Director, Marketing & Fan Engagement

Auburn University Athletics

× The interview with Dan Heck was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

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1Tell us about your role as Assistant Athletics Director of Marketing & Fan Engagement for the Auburn University Athletics Department. What does a typical day look like for you?

While cliché, I love that no two days are the same, especially in 2020. While it feels like this year has been 20 years crammed into 8 months, the opportunities to adapt, adjust, test, learn, fail and look at things from a different perspective has been an amazing opportunity to grow. That said, our answers to ‘a typical day’ look a lot differently now than they did in February, right?   

While I personally spend most of my time working on football and men’s basketball revenue generation campaigns and fan experience, I love working with our marketing staff and external teams to make sure that all of our teams and programs have what they need to be successful.

In the world of COVID-19, collaborating and planning campaigns together with our marketing/external teams and coaches is primarily happening through Zoom or other digital/virtual mediums, so a typical day will involve an average of 4-5 hours on Zoom or phone calls and texts to communicate – football game weeks for me, that will increase significantly.

With resources being more stretched than ever, collaborating and doing things together, no matter what that looks like has been the key to success.

Thankful to be at a place like Auburn where our staff has volunteered to work and assist on ‘other duties as assigned’ just to do what is necessary and best for our student-athletes and fans.

At Auburn, we have been working under a hybrid system where we have some staff in the office, some at home and some rotating multiple days.

This model as a new Dad (our beautiful son, Webb, is our ‘pandemic baby’ born on the weekend that sports shut down on 3/14/20) has been rewarding and challenging at the same time.

There is not a true work/life balance in college athletics, so working from home for much of the first 8 months of Webb’s life has been one unexpected blessing of 2020 that may never happen again in my career!

My amazing wife, Courtney, also works from home and has been the rock in allowing me to pursue my dreams of college athletics, no matter what where I am working from (home, office or game day), the last 8 months of working from home with a newborn would not have been possible without her!

2Let’s go back to the beginning of your sports industry career – why collegiate athletics and why marketing? Was there a moment you knew you had found your fit within collegiate athletics?

I am one of the few young professionals in America who are blessed to be working in the field that I studied in – a proud two-time alum of Central Michigan University (CMU)… “Fire Up Chips!” While I wish I could say that I entered the undergraduate sports management program with aspirations of being an AD someday like I do now, I really didn’t know that I was obsessed with college athletics administration until someone took a chance on me.

That someone is Mike Dabbs, who now works as the Director of Regional Development at CMU and a great friend/mentor. Like so many of us, all it takes is one person to take a chance on you, invest in you and mentor you.

Heading into my senior year of college (2008-09) all I knew was that I needed an internship to graduate. Little did I know that this ‘formality’ of completing an internship would transform my life and pave the way for where I am at now at Auburn University in the SEC. I am completely blessed and will never take for granted my ‘roots’ in the mid-major world at CMU.

I will never forget my first week as an intern in the CMU athletics marketing department – it was the first week of class and the home opener for CMU football. I just remember coming into the office on the Sunday of that game week for our intern orientation with an open mind and wanting to go way over the top. I officially “drank the Kool-Aid” served to me by the full-time/graduate student staff and being wound up being hooked.

I wanted to go all-in. I had no clue if I had any skills, but wanted to just work as many hours as possible and be as reliable as possible to get the job. I think that first week of the internship I ended up coming into the office each day that week. Being a game week, I could just feel the ‘buzz’ of being inside of an athletics department gearing up for a game day.

The “wow” moment came during pregame where I had the chance to be on-field to help with team entrance to the field and in-game promotions. It was at some point in the 1st quarter where the sun was setting on a perfect #MACtion Friday night heading into a Labor Day weekend where I looked around and felt the energy of the crowd, the pageantry and buzz of a new college football season and just said “Wow, this is really surreal that I am doing this.

I see my bosses making money doing this… if they can do this for a career and come to work every day at a football stadium or athletics facility then that’s what I want to do!” I was hooked.

3In your role, you oversee and direct the marketing and promotional plans for all 21 sports at Auburn University with an emphasis on football and men’s basketball. How do different sports vary in the marketing tactics used?

I love this about working college athletics. I think I would be bored working in professional sports or with a team that only focuses on one sport.

We are blessed to have a marketing staff and external teams who care greatly about the sports that they work with. We work in pod systems/external teams, so while our pillars of driving revenue, building the brand and creating amazing experiences for fans and athletes are our core, the way we accomplish those things may look different to each coach based off of priorities or even in-season vs off-season.

The main thing is listening within those external teams to keep our core diverse and flexible enough to fit the unique vision or personality of the program. The diversity and variety of our sports, coaches and their priorities are what makes this industry so unique!

4How do the marketing strategies for Auburn compare to other schools in the NCAA? What are some things you are considering now when creating campaigns that you might not have before? How does Auburn stand out?

I have had the honor of working in the MAC, Pac-12 and now SEC, so regardless of the level and resources, we are all at the end of the day looking to accomplish the same thing – (driving revenue, building the brand and creating amazing experiences for fans and athletes) so while our priorities are the same, our tactics may be a little bit different based off of our fanbase.

Some things that we consider now that we may not have before is how do we connect with our fans at home? So much of what we have done in the past is to pack our venues, to bring people to visit campus.

Especially at a place like Auburn, there is a ‘feeling’ you get when you come to campus or our venues, so now in 2020, how do we bring that experience to your home and how do we drive that FOMO that will make the Auburn Family want to return someday when things are safe? Part of that is what makes Auburn stand out.

Our 2020-21 branding campaign, ‘Believe in Auburn,’ says nothing about wins or losses or exciting plays on the field, it speaks to the emotion of Auburn as a whole. It’s a feeling, not just about buying a ticket.

Auburn stands out because of the feeling that our fans, student-athletes and alumni have – the people, tradition and generational culture makes it special. It’s not just about sports, it’s ‘that feeling’ you get when you pull off I-85 and into town that transcends sports.

It’s things like the “Auburn Creed,” Toomer’s Corner and “War Eagle” that resonates so much with our fans, regardless of the capacities of our venues. Tapping into that emotional appeal is critical now more than ever for our campaigns to make sure everyone feels connected to campus.

5In Alabama, professional sports teams are limited, but NCAA schools take up a large part of the state! However, working in marketing for such an iconic brand in Alabama like Auburn University, do you find it is beneficial having such a recognizable brand and local fan base, or does it make it a challenge to find new areas of growth?

The passion of our fans is special and grows deep because of the generational, cultural and geographical ties of Auburn and college athletics in the SEC, even back to the 1800s.

We are honored to play such an important role in so many people’s lives that revolve around Auburn athletics – whether it is the local economy, family rivalries or even the local media market, we would rather be a ‘big fish in a small pond’ vs ‘small fish in a big pond’ that sometimes happens with Power-5 institutions in an urban market. 

If there is a big win or breaking news at Auburn, it will be on the front page of the newspaper, not just the sports section. In big cities or larger markets, a big win against your rival may be tucked away on the third page of the sports section with so many other teams and entertainment options competing for our attention. We are thankful for that support and do not take it lightly in serving so many people who love the Auburn Tigers!

That said, our future and the new areas of growth typically happen for us in building the next generation of Auburn fans, so we pride ourselves in making the AU student experience second to none (currently the largest student section/ticket allotment in the SEC, possible the entire country with the majority of our football ticket allotment going to students in this pandemic), in addition to our outreach and efforts in cultivating the 12 and under demographic.

6How is ‘success’ measured in your role? When executing a marketing idea, how do you track data, measure success and essentially, know the idea worked?

Great question.

Success looks differently based off of the sport or campaign, but it helps that we clearly establish our goals of driving revenue, building the brand and creating amazing experiences on the front end.

While not every successful campaign is measured in numbers, we will try to quantify everything we do, so when launching a ticket sales campaign, we will track data through various key performance indicators such as email open rate, conversation rate, website duration, transactions, revenue, website traffic, downloads, clicks etc.

These are measured through our Google Analytics account. Even for fan experience metrics, quantifying fan satisfaction and importance through tracking survey results is important to us to serve the Auburn Family in the best way possible.

For anything not quantifiable, word of mouth marketing (whether through social media, influencer sharing, media interest/buzz) helps to show success.

In-venue fan experience can be measured through decibel meters but also ‘felt’ with the buzz in the air. Whether it is the way our students interact with a defensive prompt or song at a key point in the game (Side note: Who would have thought that in 2020 ‘Mr Brightside,’ by The Killers would be a sing-along song by this generation of college students?), it all builds an atmosphere that is directly impacted by the hard work of our staff on the headset for that right song or video at the right moment to keep our crowd engaged.

When that impacts the game to provide a tangible home-field advantage for our student-athletes, that is a successful feeling!

7As we look to the future, there are so many new emerging technologies that have a role in the world of sports marketing – from analytical approaches and targeted campaigns, to digital advancements and more. What do you think is the next great approach, tool or idea to enhance the marketing efforts of a sports team?

2020 has allowed a lot of industries, but especially college athletics to take a step back and pause to reflect on priorities, strategies and even a return to fundamentals.

While I don’t hold a crystal ball, I am very intrigued to have a front-row seat to the rollout and implementation of Name, Image, Likeness (NIL). While there are still more questions than answers on the logistics of NIL, from a marketing standpoint, the synergies between team and individual athlete, partnerships to grow personal and school brand both, what does that look like? 

Also, the return to full capacities and re-engaging our season ticket holders to opt-in and feel comfortable joining us. There will be a day when our stadiums are opening back up, but we can’t just hope and pray that our donors and past season ticket holders will join us. We need to do all we can to keep these people engaged and excited to return to campus.

Hayley Michie Hayley's Final Thoughts

Coming into his role as Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing & Fan Engagement for the Auburn University Athletics Department, Dan had no doubts about committing to a career in collegiate athletics. Currently, Dan is creating fresh, dynamic branding campaigns and marketing Auburn athletics in fun, creative ways. What I find most intriguing about Dan's role is his ability to bring a community together. The culture surrounding Auburn athletics makes each and every game special – it is a feeling that transcends sports. Marketing plays a key role in uniting communities and Dan has done a fantastic job in doing just that. As we look to the future, marketing will also be a major player in engaging and exciting fans to return to college campuses. With a brand like Auburn University on his back and major marketing skills, I am positive Dan will have no trouble doing so. 

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