Utah athletic administrators want football fans to arrive earlier, respond enthusiastically to a new stadium announcer’s voice, jump when the opponent faces a third-down play and, in a newly developing tradition, stand and yell whenever the Utes make a first down.
That's asking a lot, at 11 o'clock in the morning.
The rollout of the Utah marketing staff’s latest effort to further energize the Rice-Eccles Stadium atmosphere, maximizing the environment created by 57 consecutive sellout crowds, will be tested Saturday in an unusual time slot. If this stuff works for an 11 a.m. kickoff vs. Northern Illinois, as dictated by the Pac-12 Networks, imagine a night game in October vs. a Pac-12 rival.
The school’s revved-up approach is designed to “reinforce the message that the absolute best way to see the Utes play is in person at Rice-Eccles Stadium,” athletic director Mark Harlan said. “You have to be there … to experience it in the most immersive and memorable way possible.”
Utah clearly is not complacent about its sellout streak, recognizing that about 5,000 seats need to be filled in the stadium’s 2021 expansion to the 51,000-plus capacity and that dwindling attendance is an issue nationally in a television-driven era. That’s partly why the school markets “experiences” that include witnessing the pregame coin toss at midfield and standing on the sideline in the fourth quarter, with prices ranging from $125 for a pregame sideline pass to $500 for two fans carrying flags as they lead the team onto the field prior to kickoff.
The school has replaced the traditional style of longtime public-address announcer Mike Runge with Tim Hughes, who possesses the voice and enthusiasm of a kickboxing ring announcer, another of the radio news broadcaster’s part-time jobs.
“You always need to be focused on your traditions and keep those as your core foundations,” said Ann Argust, Utah’s associate AD for marketing/branding, “but marketing and game atmosphere and all those things are in constant evolution, because our fan bases are evolving.”
The Utes are proud of their home-field advantage, although the team’s record in Pac-12 games over eight seasons is not decidedly better at Rice-Eccles Stadium — 19-18 at home, compared with 15-20 away. Even so, Utah’s atmosphere that features students in the MUSS is judged among the best in the the country, and administrators say a high-energy environment attracts recruits and younger fans.
“If you ever take any of our sellouts for granted, you're going to lose them,” Argust said. “And we never want to do that. We're always going to continue to get better. … We're going to bring the innovation to every one of our sports.”
Argust and her staff study other schools, such as Penn State and Texas, that also are trying to enhance the in-game experience, amid their great football traditions.
Promotional tie-ins for Utah's 2019 home football games:
Saturday vs. Northern Illinois: Red Out.
Sept. 14 vs. Idaho State: Salute to the state of Utah.
Sept. 28 vs. Washington State: Homecoming; throwback uniforms.
Oct. 19 vs. Arizona State: TBD.
Oct. 26 vs. California: Ute Proud.
Nov. 16 vs. UCLA: 150-year celebration of college football; historic uniforms.
Nov. 30 vs. Colorado: Senior Day.
In 2019, Utah hopes to get more tailgating fans into their seats by game time by blasting a cannon 45 minutes before kickoff and having the band and spirit squad enter with fireworks at the 20-minute mark. Once the game starts, Utah will have four more microphones to amplify the band in the stands and use more cameras and equipment upgrades to enhance the use of the video board.
Prodding of the Huntsman Center crowd by Bracken Funk, the new P.A. announcer for men's basketball in 2018-19, got mixed reviews. Yet administrators want Hughes to stir football fans and “add to the electric moment,” Argust said, “to bring the crowd from a '6' to an '8' or if we're at a '7,' bring us to a '10.' ”
The MUSS and other pockets of fans have produced those levels of enthusiasm on their own, creating the “Third Down Jump” when the Utes are playing defense. The school hopes a new way of responding to a first down by the Utah offense, featuring a drum cadence, will catch on, starting Saturday.
During a November game last season, Runge said, he was asked to use a growling voice to set up a third-down play. That’s not his game, but he understood the school’s wanting a different style in replacing him. “They were nice about it,” said Runge, 81, who had done the stadium announcing for 40-plus seasons. “It’s not so much that I’m upset about it, but it was my deal and it’s the last thing I had going in broadcasting.”
Administrators wanted to honor Runge during Saturday's game; he said that was unnecessary, settling for one line about his retirement in a news release. “So we part friends,” he said, “and life goes on.”
Hughes, who does the morning news for KSL Radio, is the ring announcer for Glory Kickboxing. He was among those who auditioned for the Ute job this summer, announcing to selected fans in a mostly empty stadium. From his experience as a fan in the raucous North End Zone, Hughes said he hopes to convey that level of excitement from the press-box booth.
As a vital part of the gig, he’s also practicing the pronunciation of Polynesian names.