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U. of Tennessee at Chattanooga Fan Council Has Tough Task

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Copyright 2018 Chattanooga Publishing Company
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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)

 

Sixth grade. Jasper Middle School. That's when Scottie Swafford first fell in love with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics.

"We got free tickets to watch the Mocs at the Roundhouse," Swafford recalled. "I remember walking into this huge arena. The place was packed. Gerald Wilkins was playing. I was in awe."

That early awe eventually led Swafford to earn a communications degree from UTC. He played tuba in the marching band. His daughter Cameren is now a sophomore catcher for the Mocs softball team and carries a 3.8 grade point average in chemical engineering.

And all that history, plus his current interest as a parent, no doubt had a lot to do with why UTC athletic director Mark Wharton chose Swafford to serve on his initial 12-person Fan Council. The council was created to, according to the school's recent news release, "provide feedback and guidance in the areas of external operations, especially as it relates directly to the fan experience on game day.

Or as Wharton was quoted in the release: "I am excited to get this initiative started. I have reached out to each of these individuals and they are ready to get to work helping the Mocs grow. This is going to be a fun group to work with, and I can't wait to hear their ideas."

Swafford may be the only parent of a current UTC athlete on the committee, but it is filled with wise, experienced folks from diverse backgrounds. All were asked to submit brief essays on why they thought their skill sets could improve the game-day experience, which will, in theory, eventually improve the dwindling crowds of late in most sports.

"I know what sports can bring to a community," said Craig Miller, who once lived in sports-crazed Australia but was born in the United States and went to the University of Michigan. "I've seen what UTC games mean to my children (Emma, 10, and Max, 7). We have season basketball tickets. When the T-shirt cannon comes out, you'd think they were shooting money at them. They love it."

Much like Swafford, Miller believes enticing more young people — particularly elementary and middle school kids — has the potential to not only give back to the community now but potentially get back enthusiastic new supporters for an aging fan base that definitely needs new blood.

"Let's fill the stadium up with youth," Miller said about all the empty seats he and his wife and kids see far too often. "We need to integrate more with our elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. The way to get more involvement with UTC is through the kids."

Of course, while today's kids are the future of all things down the road, that's not the only focus of this Diligent Dozen, or the Dozen Dreamers, if you will.

Casey Knox, who has a UTC business degree, said she would "like to see us do more with social media. UTC does a great job, but how do we take it to the next level? How do we re-engage alums who haven't been back recently? How do we make them be a part of something if they aren't there?"

For Knox, that starts with the school's Wi-Fi network at both Finley Stadium and McKenzie Arena.

"I love going to the games," she said. "It's easy. They give out things for the fans. But for engagement during games, Wi-Fi is important. And your Wi-Fi can never be strong enough. People expect the Wi-Fi to be seamless everywhere."

Especially in Gig City.

Yet the committee of Swafford, Miller, Knox, current students Davon Crews and Gabrielle Woods, longtime season-ticket holder Larry Parks and alums Russell Gros, Jackie Howard, Kim Leffew, J Raschke, Priscilla Sims-Roberson — along with Wharton — might all do well to cede the floor whenever possible to Richard Buhrman, who graduated from the University of Chattanooga in 1963 and later earned a law degree from Duke after serving his country in Vietnam and whose mother Margaret worked in the UTC administration building as a secretary to Dr. Alexander Guerry and numerous others for 47 years. Her tenure is believed to be the longest in school history.

In his youth, Buhrman sold soft drinks during games at Chamberlain Field. He later wrestled for the Mocs. He has, at times, bought large numbers of season tickets for football and basketball. But the near-constant booming of, in his words, "obnoxious music" during games and a lessening of perks for hospitality rooms and the like without large donations beyond the purchase of season tickets has taken its toll on his loyalty.

"(The music's) so loud everybody's holding their ears," he said. "Keep the volume down."

Then there's the reduction of passes for the hospitality rooms and such.

"It's really squirrelly what's going on," Buhrman said. "Lots of older alums are upset. They've quit buying tickets."

In true low- to mid-major programs such as UTC, money and how to generate more of it is always a problem. Which is why the Fan Council can prove quite valuable, but also why Buhrman's voice must be especially considered, since a high number of season-ticket holders are 55 or over, especially in men's basketball.

Observed the septuagenarian attorney, using words that have vexed athletic directors of struggling programs for years: "Do you want to raise money or have happy boosters?"

If this council can discover a way finally to do both at UTC, it might want to go into business rather than volunteer work, because successfully implementing such a formula nationwide would deliver it enough income to shoot money out of the T-shirt cannons at Finley and McKenzie for decades to come.

mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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