The Central Michigan football team will play Minnesota on Monday, Dec. 28, in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit. CMUChippewas.com sat down with CMU Associate Vice President/Athletics Director Dave Heeke for his thought ahead of the bowl game, and on other CMU athletics-related issues.
CMUChippewas.com: Central Michigan has played at Ford Field in four bowl games in the recent past. How does this one compare from a business standpoint to those of the past?
Dave Heeke: There's certainly two different models, from our previous experiences with a bowl in Detroit and the current Quick Lane Bowl. Previously the actual payout itself, the ticket commitments and other arrangements around the bowl were more loosely defined. There was a lot more access to tickets for the partner team involved and more flexibility in what you could do with those tickets but no guaranteed cash payment. This made the process more unpredictable. The new model provides a larger up-front guarantee ($250,000) and a smaller number of tickets, which we were able to quickly sell. We had a better idea of what our projected revenue is going to be, which definitely helped in the planning process. We have been successful with the past model and I think we will be successful with this model, but I do think it is important for our fans to understand why we have limited tickets this year compared to past bowl games in Detroit.
CMUChippewas.com: What was your primary focus with that ticket allotment?
Heeke: It was to reward and provide preferred access to our biggest supporters. Our Chippewa Athletic Fund donors who are invested in our athletic program and in our football program especially. We needed to reward them for their long and loyal support. We also focused on our student body and wanted to make tickets available to them at a preferred ticket price because of the great support they have shown all year. We have a lot of great fans and we felt the need to focus on those who are in Kelly/Shorts every home game. It is also important that nearly one-third of our allotment was set a side to provided complementary tickets to our football student-athletes, coaches and staff. This is a great benefit to that group for all their hard work this season.
CMUChippewas.com: Can you explain how the bowl selection process works now as compared to in the past?
Heeke: There's a three-way conversation between the bowl itself, the conference aligned with the bowl game, and then potential participants. The bulk of that conversation is between the conference office and the bowl itself. We have alignments both primary and secondary in order to reward all our teams in the MAC. So we're in the best position we've ever been in bowl wise. If you have a successful season in this league now you're not left out, you're virtually guaranteed an opportunity to play. In that respect we've come a long way in terms of guaranteeing opportunities for our teams and our fans. It's really about matchups and geography as much as anything else, combined with the relationships between the conferences and the matchups that occur. You see that across the board with all the conferences. There isn't a one-through-seven pecking order. There are a number of conversations that go on that decide what is the best matchup, the best competitive game, and the best geography for those games. That's really how it goes. For us, we were a commodity. People really wanted CMU. We had a great season, we have a dynamic head coach, we have a great story, we have a real tradition. People know we do well in bowls. At the end of the day, we try to mix and match and find the best situation that can reward our players and fan base. It's an opportunity for our players, it can help build our program, and for this year that turned out to be going to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. But we were on the board for a number of different bowls. Virtually every bowl we are aligned (with MAC) was interested in us. We weren't going back to the Bahamas because we've been there. That will tend to be a rotating opportunity in our league. But every other bowl would have been pleased to have Central Michigan there.
CMUChippewas.com: With the bowl destination Ford Field in Detroit, what has been the feedback from the players?
Heeke: I think almost to a player they're excited to have an opportunity to play inside Ford Field, one of the best NFL venues in the country. The opportunity to play in front of our students and our fans in a big-crowd, big-time atmosphere. The chance to ensure that their family and friends can all be there to watch. If you're walking out for the last time that you'll ever play college football, there's something special about having your mom and dad and your friends there to see that happen one final time. They've seen the atmosphere with big crowds in Detroit. It creates, on game day, a magnificent atmosphere that they're excited about.
CMUChippewas.com: What are the athletic department's priorities when it comes to revenue and expenditure surrounding the bowl game, to ensure the student-athletes have a great experience.
Heeke: The key on the revenue side is the guaranteed payment, $250,000 and the revenue we can generate off of 3,500 tickets. That's why it was so critical that our fans purchased tickets through our box office. Fans who purchased through our box office did a lot in supporting CMU athletics and our football program. That was the best way to support the effort and that's why it was so critical we sold our allotment. On the expense side there's some obvious issues. We have four or five days in a Detroit hotel, lodging, food and things that are mandated by the bowl to participate. Some of the guidelines are the hotel, the meals, and the events you'll attend. Those things are not all covered by the straight cash guarantee. Then we have to move a 200-member marching band so they can come down and be part of the experience. We'll house them, feed them, transport them. We have to make accommodations for those expenses as well. It becomes somewhat of a complex, several-hundred-thousand-dollar venture, to go down and to do that for four or five days.
CMUChippewas.com: Last year, the football team went to the Bahamas for the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. How does that compare, from an organization and logistical standpoint, to a bowl game that is just 150 miles away, doesn't require a flight or an international border crossing?
Heeke: Logistically it's different. From an economic side, it's not a whole lot different. There was a little more up-front cash from the Bahamas Bowl, but there were a number of incentives down there when you talk about how much it would truly cost for lodging and food. Logistically moving several hundred people to foreign soil, the football program and all their equipment, that was tricky. This year will be much easier. We'll load up a truck and buses and head down the road and we know the way. But from the expenses involved, they tell you how much you We then attempt to generate a revenue stream. It's pretty clear. Both bowl games are reasonable from an expense perspective.
CMUChippewas.com: From a marketing standpoint and in raising the profile of a university, is there any better avenue than a bowl game?
Heeke: That's a significant part of the bowl effort, the exposure and the ability to get your name out at a time when people are really focused on bowl games. It's a tremendous opportunity to be the marketing arm, the front porch to the university. That's what bowl games provide. That's why we invest the resources we do because the return on that is highly beneficial and it provides opportunities to leverage assets. This bowl will allow us to be highlighted in southeast Michigan where we have a huge percentage of our student body, as well as potential students, and it's a hotbed for football recruits. It gives us an opportunity for connection and engagement with our alumni and friends and we can capitalize on all of those things around a bowl game.
CMUChippewas.com: And television is a major component of that, correct?
Heeke: Yes, we are able to capitalize on the TV component. There will be a huge viewership that will tune in to the game. It's all across the country where people can watch it and millions of people will watch it. Again one of the great examples was last year. The tremendous rating we had (for the Bahamas Bowl), the amount of people that saw it and when you take that extended value with being a potential ESPY play of the year that went on for not only just SportsCenter that night but the entire bowl season and it ends up being one of the greatest plays of the bowl season. Then it extends its life for another virtually eight or nine months and is recreated through the ESPY deal as one of the greatest plays ever. There was extended value in that exposure and a lot of people heard the name Central Michigan. You cannot pay for that kind of exposure for a university or a brand of any type.
CMUChippewas.com: This will be coach John Bonamego's final game in his first year as the head coach at Central Michigan. What are your thoughts on how the program has performed and progressed under him?
Heeke: We have a lot to still do here and play for in this first season, but I couldn't be more pleased with the overall direction of our football program and the leadership by John along with the tremendous work of his staff. I think it's well documented that it was a challenging start. The way John addressed that, internally with the team and then publicly, was just remarkable. It has helped our program. It's made our program stronger and shown people the type of person John Bonamego is. He's a builder, a people person, a connector. He's passionate, he loves CMU and he wants to be here for a long time so he can build a dynamic, successful program that we all expect and one that Central Michigan alumni and fans deserve. It's pretty exciting. It's been a great first year and now I'm excited to see it evolve into the next step of building the program through recruiting, which has been so successful already. Recruiting is the life blood of a program. We're a program of substance. We're a program that is real. We're a lot of steak and the right amount of sizzle and that's how great football programs are built. When you commit to the real part of it, the foundation of it and to your team and your players, recruiting is successful. That's what this football program is about, and that's because of who John Bonamego is.
CMUChippewas.com: One of the words you've used to describe the football program is energy. How palpable has that energy level been since Bonamego was named the head coach in February?
Heeke: It's been incredible. Just like any successful athletic program, it's connections. Connecting to your fan base, the communities you're in. Connecting to recruiting networks, connecting to players, students -- all of that. So the energy and the excitement John has brought have been quite remarkable and very impressive. This guy's committed to doing things right and doing them well for the right reasons. I don't know if we've ever had a situation where I can say we've been this connected and have this much excitement around the football program than with John at the helm. We've had some really good times here too and that's no criticism of anyone, but the vibe now is unlike any other I've ever felt in my 10 years here.
CMUChippewas.com: You've touched on what Bonamego has brought to the program in his near year, as you look forward - one year, five years - what, as the athletic director, are you looking for in terms of engagement with alumni, fans, supporters?
Heeke: We've got someone who's all in. He's all in for this football program, this athletic program, and this university. It's hard to get those people and we have it now and in return it's an obligation that our alums and fans, our student body, the people who want Central Michigan to be great, to become engaged to a full and higher level. We all need to get involved together because it could be one of the most magnificent rides for CMU ever -- if we're all willing to invest in it. That requires people to purchase season tickets, support our football program through the Chippewa Athletic Club, come to games, be a true Chippewa, be proud to wear that sweatshirt and wave that flag out in front of your house every day. We're close. We just need that momentum and everyone to buy in. If we don't have everyone buy in it's going to be a tough road to get where we all want to be. We've gotten close in the past. We need to go over the top because this can be the premier program in this conference without question if we're all willing to get onto that train that's heading in a real positive direction right now. That kind of commitment is what it takes, not just from the football coach and not just the team, but everyone. And it can't be accomplished with a fan base who want to take a `wait and see' attitude. It takes us all, right now, together. I know we'll appreciate the outcomes more if we become invested in the process.
CMUChippewas.com: You talk frequently about establishing and maintaining a Championship Culture at Central Michigan University. How do you keep growing, cultivating it?
Heeke: Our ultimate goal is to be excellent here. That's why we use the term Championship Culture. It's an experience. It's excellence. It's about excellence in everything we do all the time in this program. We provide a great environment for our student-athletes and our coaches to be successful. An experience that combines academic rigor, athletic participation, and then personal development that is so critical. It really defines what being a champion is. Ultimately we're preparing young people to be highly successful as they leave our campus. That's never going to change. That's what we're all about. A culture and experience that is excellence. Part of that is working with champions on the courts and fields. We're going to be outstanding and compete for championships in everything that we do. I think we have a tremendous group of coaches right now. We have our outstanding leaders bringing in high quality student-athletes and we're doing it the right way. That bodes well for the future too. It's an exciting time.