Athletic department looks to boost fan engagement in light of campus return

Media Credit: Gabrielle Rhoads | Staff Photographer

The Smith Center and other athletic facilities are returning to full capacity as the fall season gets underway.

After playing in empty sports facilities for more than a year, athletes will once again play with the roar of fans around them.

The athletic department has prepared for students and fans to pack into the Smith Center after announcing there would be no COVID-19 capacity limitations for fans in the upcoming fall season. Millie Cohen, the marketing and fan engagement coordinator for the athletic department, said welcoming fans back to games is an “exciting” chance to reconnect students with the athletic programs.

“We’re really, really excited to have two brand new classes at once, kind of make lemonade out of lemons,” Cohen said. “It was really sad that sophomores couldn’t come here for their first year but they’re here now and now we have a really big opportunity to get both of those classes really engaged with us.”

The role of the athletics marketing office changed dramatically when University operations went virtual last year. Instead of planning promotional events around campus, the department prioritized online features and live streaming for athletic events.

“My role became a lot of content planning for social, working on the tech side of things in house and making sure our stream looked really good and was engaging for our viewers,” Cohen said. “So we had our First Ladies team and cheer and band on the stream with us and we tried to make it feel like it was as close as possible to a regular game.”

She said she prepared for in-person events over the summer knowing that the University could “pivot” quickly to a virtual setting if a change was announced due to health reasons.

Cohen said the athletic department is continually reminding fans to wear masks inside the Smith Center to remain compliant with GW regulations for the semester to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Cohen said the athletic department made an early effort this semester to link the new students to the Colonials’ sports scene by allowing them to meet men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian and women’s basketball head coach Caroline McCombs at a campus kickoff event Aug. 25.

Volleyball’s match against Georgetown on Aug. 29 was the first GW athletic event with fans in the Smith Center since the spring 2020 semester and the first opportunity for many of this year’s freshmen and sophomores to enter the arena.

Cohen said the event resulted in strong student turnout, which she credits to the campus kickoff promotions and a cookie giveaway for the first 150 students.

“Giveaways are a big driver and definitely partnerships with on-campus orgs, so working with the Residence Hall Association is a big one and working with the Black Student Union to make sure that they want their group out there,” Cohen said. “So definitely those strong relationships and partnerships on campus are a huge thing for us.”

Cohen said communication between the athletic marketing department and student organizations has benefitted both parties because student groups are sometimes highlighted during a game while simultaneously boosting turnout for events.

The athletic marketing department measures fan engagement through statistics like attendances and social media interactions and through qualitative observations like excitement and the atmosphere inside the Smith Center, which Cohen said were present during the first home volleyball game.

“We had a really engaged crowd and it was very obvious,” Cohen said. “We had our band there, we had our spirit teams there and it felt really great. I think everyone in the room could feel it so it’s a lot of data and also making sure we can feel that in the Smith Center.”

Cohen said the department has planned a variety of promotions for sports this semester, which they hope will draw fans to the events.

The Smith Center will prepare for another influx of fans Friday for volleyball’s Dig the District Invitational against Loyola University Maryland. First serve is set for 7 p.m.

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