Yulman Stadium at heart of Tulane's effort to improve fans’ experience

While the sights and sounds of daily construction at Yulman Stadium have energized a Tulane community starving for on-campus football, the university’s administrative staff and those inside the adjacent Wilson Center are preparing for what comes after the doors open Sept. 6.

Tulane hasn’t hosted an on-campus football game in nearly 40 years, and listing the logistical measures necessary to properly structure an event welcoming 30,000 people can go on for days.

Departments inside and outside of athletics like sales, marketing, ticketing, facilities, music, catering, police, fire and public relations are all forced to work in concert, with high stakes on the line. And it all takes place before football coach Curtis Johnson even puts on a headset.

It’s a far cry from the past 38 years of home football games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Dome’s staff handled most of the game day operations while Tulane provided a rent check and some auxiliary support staff.

“Getting these games onto our campus is extremely important because it’s a window into our (athletic) department,” Tulane chief operating officer Barbara Burke said. “When you think about 30,000 people who will be coming to this area six or seven Saturdays, it’s our best chance to put our best foot forward and sell people on Tulane athletics and the commitment we have to excellence.”

Overseeing the changes

To help orchestrate the symphony that is hosting a football game, Tulane enlisted the services of former SMG event services manager John Lange. As an employee of the university, not the athletic department, Lange’s first task was to create an organizational chart connecting the groups that will share the duty of hosting the public in and around Yulman Stadium throughout the season.

What seemed like a mundane introduction to the stadium process quickly revealed itself to be a tremendous web of responsibility. It stretched beyond internal operations and into meetings with the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments, all the way to various independent contractors like SP+ Gameday and Sodexo.

“I was hired to pick up the baton and make sure that everything from St. Charles Avenue to Claiborne Avenue was being done together and toward a common goal,” Lange said. “The football program is a tenant in the building, and they need to focus on football and producing football the way athletic departments do, which is a full-time job of its own.

“We have a whole stadium and campus to worry about, so we don’t just unlock the doors and turn the lights on and invite 30,000 people and kick off. There are so many moving pieces, and my job is to serve as the primary point of contact for everyone so we can have some central communication.”

Each home weekend, the impact of Yulman Stadium will be felt starting at 10 p.m. Friday night when the Tulane Police Department will completely clear parking lots and tents start popping up across from the Lavin-Bernick Center. It won’t end until three hours after the game’s conclusion, when traffic patterns return to normal and quads clear out.

In between, Tulane is selling an experience to every visitor who steps foot on the grounds.

Make it worth the visit

“This is going to change the culture of our campus,” said Brandon MacNeill, the Green Wave’s executive associate athletic director. “A lot of our alumni used to come into town as groups and never come back to campus. Now, we are going to host more people at one time than have been here in 40 years, and we have to make it worth it. We finally have the pomp and pageantry of college football, and turning the (Lavin-Bernick Center) into a version of The Grove (at Ole Miss) is going to be such a special experience.”

Starting with three sets of options in the tailgate village — a prepared and catered party by Tulane, a spot set up by fans or a festival-like setting with vendors — and stretching into two club sections inside the stadium, the university is trying to customize the experience for a variety of patrons.

While across the board, university and athletic department officials admit winning football will be the ultimate bellwether of Yulman Stadium’s success, they’re trying to fill in the gaps. Barry Kern from Mardi Gras World has been brought in as a consultant to add local flair, and MacNeill estimated the marketing budget has increased tenfold from previous seasons to make sure New Orleans residents are aware of Yulman’s existence.

“We want it to be like the old days of Tulane Stadium where people brought their kids and it was a day for families to be together,” said Yvette Jones, Tulane’s executive vice president for university relations. “We have a lot of interesting ideas that we can’t share yet, to make it a unique experience, using animation as a way to celebrate inside the stadium.

“We have to up the ante. Even the halftime show has more pressure now. Everything has gotten our attention, and we are looking at literally everything to make this the best experience possible.”

Reaping the rewards

So far, the sales pitch appears to be working. Tulane’s ticket sales (estimated at 15,000) have tripled since last year, and the Green Wave has more than quadrupled its season-ticket base since Johnson replaced Bob Toledo in 2011.

With more than 86 percent of season tickets already sold, according to Jones, it’s clear the fan base is energized and interested.

It’s up to Tulane to keep them coming back for more.

“Those who gave money to Tulane for the stadium believed it would boost alumni connectivity and help the school grow in its bond with New Orleans,” Jones said. “We want a whole game-day experience, and we are planning to open up the whole campus. It’s going to be festive.

“Everyone is going to enjoy being a part of the Tulane community, and we are working to make sure that’s the result.”