I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Auburn to watch and support our UMass Football Team, and I am still trying to process what an incredible weekend it was for all of us. I’d like to share some of the highlights, but I want to preface my remarks by noting that, although I currently reside in Pennsylvania (originally from Massachusetts), I have also lived in Mississippi and Georgia. So, some of the observations I’ll share stem from the cultural differences between the Southern and Northeastern regions of the United States.
From the moment we arrived at our hotel, we felt a warm and genuine sense of welcome. Every hotel staff member greeted us with a cheerful “Welcome to Auburn!” These were just the first of countless such greetings we would receive during our two-day stay. The hotel lobby was adorned in support of their team, and I particularly appreciated the daily sign in the lobby that acknowledged UMass’s presence in town. After a half-day of travel, we settled into our rooms, donned our UMass gear, and ventured into the downtown area in search of a good place to dine (and perhaps enjoy a few pre-game drinks). The downtown area was conveniently located across from the campus, somewhat akin to downtown Amherst but notably larger and tidier. Everywhere you looked, there was an evident buzz as the town had dressed itself in orange and blue to rally behind their team. We were equally delighted to come across references to UMass. The aroma of delectable barbecue lured us to “Moe’s BBQ,” just off the main street. Inside, we were warmly greeted by both the restaurant staff and several parents of UMass team members. The food and beverages were exceptional, and we left our mark on their walls, which were already adorned with inscriptions from previous visitors.
Following lunch, we decided to explore the campus and get a glimpse of the massive stadium, which was visible from a considerable distance off campus. As we strolled through the picturesque campus grounds, we encountered many people securing their tailgating spots and others already savoring the warm summer day with friends and libations. We were approached by numerous individuals extending warm “welcome to Auburn” greetings, and some even invited us to join them for drinks. We were astounded by how many years some folks had been tailgating in the same spots, with a clear understanding of who occupied which location. A special thanks to “Bush” and his friends for their hospitality, as their tailgate had been in the same spot on campus for an astonishing 40 years!
We had received an invitation to join my boss’s tailgate for the game day festivities, so we took the opportunity to survey the area as we meandered across the campus. He had previously mentioned having an assigned tailgate spot outside the stadium, but I had no inkling of what that entailed. As we approached the stadium, we were met by hundreds of neatly arranged white tailgate tents, complete with chairs, TVs, coolers, and an abundance of trash and recycling bins. Apparently, two former Auburn alumni had founded a company known as “The Tailgate Guys,” specializing in selling and managing premium, pre-set tailgate spaces right outside the stadium. Supporters paid for these spaces for the entire season and had the freedom to bring or pre-order whatever they desired to enhance their tailgating experience. What a brilliant concept! (I couldn’t help but think that it would be great for UMass to consider offering a similar experience in the future – https://revelxp.com/locations/collegiate)
We retraced our steps into town, visiting various bars and restaurants, all bustling with people. The energy was infectious, and our final stop was at “Live Oaks” restaurant and patio bar (https://www.instagram.com/liveoaksauburn). Here, we had the pleasure of meeting both UMass football parents and a few UMass students. At one table, there were three UMass students from the ATG fraternity visiting a friend who attended Auburn. Conversing with them was a delight, as they too were utterly impressed by everything they were witnessing and experiencing. After a long day of travel and a few beverages, we returned to our hotel to get some rest before the big day.
The following morning, we were up early with eager anticipation. It was an absolutely gorgeous day! We grabbed some coffee and headed to a local Publix to purchase some beverages for the tailgate. While we knew the tailgate would already have food and drinks, we decided it might be a good idea to have a few extra cases of beverages on hand, just in case we encountered other UMass fans (truth be told, I might’ve directed a few to our location, so I knew we’d need more beer!). One noteworthy aspect of Publix, apart from the warm welcomes from everyone there, was the abundance of branded gear and tailgate items supporting their school and team. From hats and shirts to koozies and coolers, and a variety of branded tailgate treats to balloons and decorations scattered throughout, their school pride was unmistakable at every turn. I must admit, I was both excited and disheartened as I reflected on the opportunity UMass has always had, both as a campus and in the neighboring town of Amherst, to create a similar environment.
With beverages in hand, we made our way to game day via our Uber driver, “Dallas.” Like everyone else we encountered, Dallas greeted us warmly and shared some insights about the school as we approached our drop-off point. Even the Uber drivers were fully invested in creating a memorable visitor experience! Though our trip was only about a mile and it was only 9AM, traffic was already beginning to build around the campus and stadium. Fortunately, our driver knew the side roads that would get us closest to the stadium, and he dropped us off right by the sea of white tents.
As we approached our designated tent, we could feel the positive energy emanating from all around us. Each tent was equipped with TVs, banners, and a festive atmosphere. It was a breathtaking sight to witness so many people smiling, laughing, and relishing each other’s company. Shortly after our arrival, several other UMass supporters joined us at our tailgate spot. Some had been invited (such as parents of UMass players), while others stumbled upon us as they explored the remarkable tailgate area, happy to find fellow UMass enthusiasts. Throughout the pregame festivities, we were visited by approximately 40 people who were there to support UMass football. At around 1:00, we left our tailgate area to cheer on the team as their buses arrived at the stadium. Although our numbers were not large, we made sure to generate enough noise to be heard. Auburn boasts a comprehensive game day experience that includes the renowned “Tiger Walk,” where thousands of fans leave their tailgates to line the streets and watch their team make their way to the stadium. It was truly impressive to witness the unwavering support of the entire fan community for their players and team (https://youtu.be/vImyDDqZFN8?si=54bplHfSGI0vcPRe).
As kickoff time approached, we entered the stadium, where security and ticket entry were swift and efficient (TSA could certainly learn a thing or two from Auburn University in this regard!). The stadium itself was a thing of beauty, filled to capacity with students and fans all clad in white. For each game, they instruct fans on what color to wear, and the fans complied enthusiastically. Attendance exceeded 88,000 people, and the energy was palpable. The video board was an astonishing 190 feet wide and 57 feet tall, second in size only to the one at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium. Auburn, like many schools, had various pregame rituals, but watching an eagle soar above the crowd across the stadium was undeniably one of the most awe-inspiring experiences across all schools. The student section waved white pom-poms (provided by the school) throughout the game, and to maintain high energy levels, Auburn employed both their talented band and a DJ stationed within the student section. The students knew precisely how to respond to each song and ritual. Given that it was the first game of the season, it was apparent that many were being coached on the appropriate student responses to the various songs and traditions. On a related note, I believe it was a missed opportunity for UMass not to have our band present for this game, as they would have been warmly received not only by UMass players, families, and fans but also by the larger Auburn audience.
There were a couple of additional student-related observations worth mentioning. At the top of the student section, some students were dressed in jackets and ties, while others wore orange jackets (men) and blue dresses (women) in prime seating areas. I inquired about these groups and learned that the students in blue jackets were fraternity pledges who sat together for games, showcasing the Greek community’s involvement in the football program. The men in orange jackets and the women in blue dresses were part of the “War Eagle Girls and Plainsmen,” a special group of 26 students with roots dating back to the 1960s. They serve as the official student representatives of the entire university, playing host/hostess at major events throughout the year, providing campus tours to prospective students and donors, and engaging in various university activities. https://wegp.auburn.edu/
Even though this game was challenging for the Minutemen, we thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of those seated around us in the stands. They were exceptionally friendly and eager to share insights about their school and program. One striking aspect was how well-coordinated the entire school was in supporting each other. Video segments on the board highlighted other coaches and different facets of Auburn University pride. We heard messages from individuals like Bruce Pearl, the head coach of Auburn basketball, and even saw Auburn players in the stands, some of whom engaged in spirited crowd-pleasing activities, like one player who enthusiastically removed his shirt to the cheers of the crowd – evidently another Auburn tradition. From a branding and fan experience perspective, every detail seemed thoughtfully considered. Even the bathroom had blue and orange tiles along the walls, with game sounds piped in. The entire experience reminded me of a marketing leadership class I attended years ago, taught by Lewis Carbone, on the topic of “Engineered Experiences.” Lewis explored the idea of companies stepping back and designing “experiential clues” for their customers. Auburn University’s approach to creating an engineered experience was readily apparent and definitely an area UMass can further improve upon as we continue to grow the football program. (https://jungkirbalik.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/engineering-customer-experience.pdf ).
Despite UMass’s loss, the Auburn faithful remained gracious as we exited the stadium and returned to our tailgate area for a few more drinks. One aspect that stood out was the absence of alcohol sales within the stadium. While tailgating was encouraged all day and night, inside the stadium, the focus was squarely on the game, the team, and the overall experience, rather than drinking or getting drunk. As nightfall descended, we bid farewell to our gracious tailgate hosts and made our way to witness yet another remarkable ritual. After every home game victory, fans “toilet paper” the trees at the front of the stadium in an area known as “Toomer’s Corner.” We had heard about this tradition during the game but were unprepared for the sight that awaited us. Every tree was draped from top to bottom with toilet paper, creating an unexpectedly beautiful spectacle. We learned that the next morning, the fire department comes to hose it all down and away, and surprisingly, they consider themselves an integral part of the ritual, proud to support the team in their own way.
We then headed to another exceptional bar and restaurant for dinner, “The Hound,” where we once again encountered staff and patrons who extended extraordinary kindness. After dinner and final drinks, we returned to our hotel to get some rest, knowing we had an early morning drive back to Atlanta airport to catch our flights north.
All in all, this was the best college football experience I have ever had to date, surpassing even UMass playing between the hedges of Sanford Stadium (Georgia). The people, fans, and businesses in Auburn demonstrated the utmost respect for others and genuinely enjoyed having us in their city and celebrating their school. The consistent brand experience throughout the city and the university was remarkable. There wasn’t a single person in that town or on that campus who didn’t know it was game day and that the Tigers were facing UMass. While we may never have a 90,000-seat stadium or the Southern hospitality of Auburn, I remain hopeful that someday UMass will further invest in its athletic teams, facilities, and overall fan experience, allowing us to bask in the same sense of pride and energy that we just experienced over the past 36 hours.
From my perspective, this all starts at the top and I was very pleased to see the new UMass Chancellor Dr. Javier Reyes, and his wife in attendance at this game. I am encouraged by his early involvement and look forward to seeing his continued support in helping make UMass a desirable institution through strong academics AND strong athletics programs. #GoUMass