The Syracuse student section has been as good as its been in decades so far this season, even setting an attendance record against Clemson at over 5,700. Each home football game, students pour into the Carrier Dome to cheer on the Orange. Not only has the number of student fans been noticeable, especially compared to previous years, but the energy and enthusiasm they bring has been as well. All Syracuse caught up with Jonathan Danilich, Senior Advisor for Otto's Army, to find out why.
Q: How challenging was it last season to not be able to go to games?
Jonathan Danilich: "It was really tough. Especially for the leadership of Otto's Army. I was the only President in Otto's Army history to not get a football or basketball season. The upper leadership, we live for these games. We live to go to these big sporting events. No Duke, no Clemson, no UNC, none of that last year. It was very different watching everything from the couch. I think we're a better club for it because that excitement carried over and it's helping us a lot this year."
Q: What has been the biggest reason student engagement in athletic events has been so strong?
Danilich: "We've completely changed our messaging. We've learned how to reach every student on campus, which we hadn't perfected that until this year. We know there are a lot of media organizations and clubs on campus that everyone on campus knows about and follows. It's really been a collaborative effort with them and other things that we've been able to get the messages out much better this year. The perfect example of that was Liberty. We did a white out, people said what they wanted to about that on Twitter. We got that out in four days and everyone bought in. Everyone was wanting to be there. It was more of an event on top of a football game that people wanted to be a part of.
"One thing we've been doing this year is just that. We've been trying to figure out how to make games more than just games. How do we make them an event? Clemson, obviously, you don't really need to make that an event. But we announced that we had a chance to break the record and we sold 1,500 tickets in two days after that. Everyone wants to be a part of something like that. Everyone wants to be a part of a white out. Everyone wants to be a part of things like that. So that's really helped us. The big thing that we've been pushing to all the students this year is you go to a football game to have fun. Everyone knows you go to a Syracuse football game because it's part of your college experience. It's fun. But we also have been pushing very hard this year that you also need to go to take part in the game. You can actually make a difference on the game. Our new slogan that we've been doing the last two years is 'defend our house.' We want to defend our house in the best way that we can and that's making noise. Making it hard for the other team. Every single game we've forced a false start this year. Every single game there are communication issues from the other team so far. That's exactly what we want to do."
Q: How did changing the way you communicate with students come about?
Danilich: "Obviously you never want to have a year where you can't go to sporting events. Last year we had the pandemic and we didn't go to anything until lacrosse at the end of the year. That gave us a lot of time to experiment with how we can make our club better when it matters. That's obviously this fall. I think the first thing we did this year was we went to the involvement fair and had a box full of t-shirts. We gave a t-shirt to everyone who signed up for our email list. You bet a lot of people signed up for our email list because they wanted free t-shirts. I think a lot of them realized how cool this club is and how much of an impact we can make on campus. Last year when we wanted to get a message out, we tried it in several different ways. We didn't use to use Instagram at all. Or very rarely, we used Instagram. It was mostly a Twitter driven club.
"We've learned that if you use Instagram on campus and you Barstool Cuse or The Tab or those organizations, everyone on campus follows one of those. So if we work with them to get our message out and things like that. Everyone on campus has the same goal. Barstool Cuse, they have the same goal as us. They want to the games to be as rowdy as possible. If we're on the same page, it makes perfect sense to work together. It's been great for everyone. It's been great to see how the campus has responded. We have so many new people on our email list this year. I think we had 600 freshmen sign up for our email list in like an hour or two at the involvement fair. We had another one where we had another couple hundred. I think we have most of the freshman class sign up. That's a big deal for the future of the club. People are into it. We have a GroupMe now. We have an Otto's Army GroupMe where one can join that on campus. That's the easiest way to get messages out because a lot of clubs have GroupMe and we have hundreds of people on that one too. We had time to experiment with it and we put it in place this year."
Q: What has it been like to receive recognition from the community, the fan base and even nationally?
Danilich: "It's been awesome. I'll throw a little jab out there, but everyone who's been on campus for more than a couple years knows that we used to catch a lot of heat from the town. Everyone in town, 'oh Otto's Army? They don't show up for Wednesday basketball games.' We wanted to change that. When I came here when I was a freshman, there was a football game against Wagner. There was structured Otto's Army. There were a lot of people there because it was the first game, but there was a lot more potential that could be unlocked. Everyone on the board saw that. I think that we're finally able to put it together. It would've been great regardless, but I think it really helped that... every year when freshmen come in, they're the most enthusiastic class. Because 'oh it's our first college experience.' This year we had two.
"We had freshmen and sophomores that had never been to games before. So that base is going to translate to years and years, I think this is sustainable success because we've built that base this year. The messaging and everything, you talked about it being the most engaging that it's been, we've been printing out cheer sheets every game so that everyone in the lower level of the student section are on the same page. They know what cheers to do when, things like that. They know when the other team has the ball you need to be as loud as possible. When we have the ball, please don't say anything. Let us snap the ball. Then we've also put that on Instagram and stuff. To answer your question, it's great to see. This was a dream of ours was to become one of the best student sections in the country. We've seen that. We're a finalist for the Live Mas of the Week Student Section this week. Big Game Boomer always puts us in the top 20. It's been great to see."
Q: What's the key to keeping this going for the rest of football season and into basketball season?
Danilich: "First of all, it helps to win in any sport. If the team is able to pull off that win in Virginia Tech. I'll be going down to that as well, I live in Virginia, I'll be at that game. Hopefully they win that game. As long as they're winning, students are going to show up. But like I said, we've built that base so that it's our job to come defend our house now. I think people are going to show up win or lose. We've been trying to figure out every game an event. We want people to go for the football. We want people to go to create an atmosphere. But to make people go in the first place, you need to make it an event. The first game's always in itself an event. Everyone wants to be at the first game. That attendance record there were a lot of people there against Clemson that had probably never been to a football game. We sold 1,500 student tickets in the last two days before that game.
"I would say probably half of those had never been to a football game on campus. When they come and they see how fun it is, they're going to want to keep coming. We've got plans in place to make sure its sustainable. If it looks like this for football, basketball is going to be amazing. Everyone knows that. Maybe Wednesday night game against, I guess I can't say St. Bonaventure because they're good this year, but Colgate or something. Maybe we'll struggle to fill up some upper deck seats for that one. But I think a lot of people are going to be excited for basketball season. It will reinvigorate that base that we've already built during football season."