The Millsaps Experience: How a D-III AD is drawing big crowds to small-school games
JACKSON, Miss.—Josh Brooks flipped open his laptop and consulted Amazon.com. I had just mentioned something we did in the backyard on July 4, and suddenly the athletic director at Millsaps College had another idea for the most interesting student section in America. All I said was that an inflatable splash pool that cost about $50 had entertained about a dozen kids for five hours, and Brooks began wondering how big a pool he would need to accommodate the student section at a Division III football game. After a few minutes of scanning online, Brooks looked away from his laptop. Instead of buying a pool, he could invite the fraternities and sororities on campus to bring their own. The athletic department could give away pizza to the most creatively decorated pool. "The Greek organizations would pay for the pools themselves," he said.
The 35-year-old Brooks has yet to throw college football's largest student section pool party. When he came up with that idea, he was only weeks away from throwing college football's largest student section foam party. He did that when the Majors hosted cross-town rival Belhaven University in their 2015 season opener. (Last year, Brooks put a Slip 'N Slide in the student section.) Behind one end zone on Sept. 3, students played in foam, socialized along the fence or luxuriated beneath their particular student organization's tent. Behind the other end zone was a kids' zone with a bounce house, an inflatable slide and an inflatable pugil stick arena. (The Army National Guard brought that last one. Think American Gladiators, but nothing hurts.) On the deck between the 20-yard line and the end zone on the kids' zone side of the field, grown-ups sipped craft beer from Jackson's Lucky Town Brewery and ate wings from Wing Stop that they purchased for about the same price as they would have been charged had they gone to the store themselves. Because of this, Majors players can charge out of their locker room and find a full stadium. Against Belhaven, Millsaps drew a standing-room only crowd of 4,100. That's more than usual, but the Majors have been drawing close-to-capacity crowds since Brooks's arrival at the school in '14. That isn't common in Division III. "It may only be 3,000," Brooks said. "But it's going to be a packed 3,000."
In an age when athletic directors at every level of college sports worry about finding ways to keep fans coming to games, Brooks has figured out how to pack his stadium for every contest. The Majors don't feature a single player who the fans might have followed as a recruit. As a Division III school, Millsaps doesn't even give out athletic scholarships. So, why do people come? Brooks has thought a lot about that, and it comes down to a question he has asked himself as a fan in another venue.
Brooks owns practically every song The Avett Brothers have ever recorded. He can listen to any whenever he wants. So, why are his best memories of the group from concerts or from times when one of those songs came on the jukebox in a crowded bar? Because Brooks experienced them with other people. No giant television can replicate that feeling. "We're social animals," Brooks said. "We want to be social."
Brooks is not some Division III lifer who discovered his inner Bill Veeck. He paid for his undergraduate degree at LSU by being a football manager, and by his senior year he was essentially offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher's right-hand man. Brooks worked in football operations at Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia before moving into an administrative role in Athens. Working under Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, Brooks was involved in all of those meetings about how to keep fans coming. In fact, Brooks helped spearhead an event that nearly filled Sanford Stadium in April. Brooks didn't understand why such a beautiful facility was only used eight times (seven home games and the spring game) a year. So, he helped bring in Jason Aldean for a 2013 concert that drew more than 60,000 people. When Brooks took the athletic director job at Millsaps in the summer of '14, he began to look for ways to fill his stadium.
He found grassy areas behind each end zone and a wooden deck next to the grandstand that had been built to host reunions. The grassy areas were easy. One was the student section. The other would be the kids' zone, and Brooks would borrow many of his ideas for that section from Georgia's gymnastics program, which routinely fills Stegeman Coliseum. Brooks, the father of 6-year-old twins and a 3-year-old, knew parents would bring their children to games if they knew the kids could have fun in a safe environment. And with free admission for children and $10 admission for adults, Brooks set the correct price point. "Take your kids to the movies," Brooks said. "See how much you're out. We can be that option for a family of four." After three hours in the bounce house, Brooks added, those children will sleep well. Millsaps athletic department has a microscopic advertising budget, so one parent telling another about the experience is the best commercial the Majors can buy.
When Brooks saw the wooden deck, he knew what to do. "This is a beer garden," he told his staff. Brooks knew he would face some opposition to selling alcohol at games. Millsaps is a Methodist school, after all. And he got some angry emails and letters. But Millsaps president Robert Pearigen backed Brooks, and the party on the deck began. "If you let the two percent always drive your decisions, then we'd never do anything," Brooks said.
Brooks wants his fans to drink responsibly, and he believes his choice of brewery will encourage that. How often have you seen a craft beer snob falling down drunk or preparing to fight? That's usually the guy swilling out of the flask containing something brown and 90-proof.
Brooks knew the beer garden would be a hit because he knew that deep down, fans want a place to socialize with other fans outside the constraints of assigned seats. He could see this every time Georgia played at South Carolina and fans retreated to the round walkways at Williams-Brice Stadium to stand along the rail and watch the game. At the end of the day, Brooks believes, people want to watch together. They just don't necessarily want to watch from the same two-square-foot space. And here is where what Brooks is doing at Millsaps intersects with what his old boss is doing at Georgia. "We'll never lose the real high-five," Brooks said. "You can't replace that with a Like on Facebook. You can buy a bigger Jumbotron. You can increase the Wi-Fi. You can sell bigger hot dogs. But what's going to move the needle is something you can't replace at home."
Brooks inherited a stadium that lent itself to communal spaces, but ADs further up the food chain are working to add similar spaces to their stadiums. NFL and MLB teams were far ahead of college football programs in terms of having communal spaces outside of luxury suites, but college football is trying to catch up. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, whose football team has sold out 101 consecutive games, said the new south end zone renovation at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium would include such spaces. "The one thing TV cannot replicate is the game-day experience," Castiglione said. "What we have to focus on is making it an unforgettable one. If it's the experience that you can't do without, and you only have six times a year to get that experience, that is what will drive them to the stadium year-in and year-out."
Brooks has created that experience on a different scale at Millsaps, and every day he challenges himself and his staff to come up with the next great idea. Maybe it's the student section pool party, but he'll have to hurry before the temperature drops. Or maybe it's something Brooks has yet to imagine. Still, if he had the budget, he knows exactly what he would do. "I'd build a Ferris wheel in the end zone," he said. "Why not have all that stuff? We're in the business of entertaining."
No matter what comes next, Brooks's goal will be the same. Bring people together to share an experience, because they can't get that at Best Buy and hang it on the wall.