An Open Letter to Ohio State

By Ramzy Nasrallah on April 16, 2014 at 11:15 am
Ohio Stadium rotunda stained glass

Hello, The Ohio State University. I'm a Buckeye for life.

I should start by introducing myself as a stakeholder, enthusiast - and most importantly - a donor - just so we get off on the right foot. People generally don't read anymore, so holding your attention is critical: I give you money. South of Wexner but north of Hoke; formally and informally. It feels good.

I've transferred chunks of my income from my bank account to yours ever since a W-2 has bared my name. I hold favorable if not overtly biased positions on both the university and my home state, sharing them on a weekly basis in this space going back well into the prior century. My alumni association status generally slides between inactive, active and inactive again, which probably doesn't make me too unusual on your rolls.

I view my Ohio State affiliation and contributions the same way I view my blood: Happily donate when convenient, but even if I miss a round - I cannot change my blood type. It's unwavering. Changing it would radically alter who I am.

2014 spring game
Buckeyes taking the field last Saturday (Kirk Iriwn Photography)

So here's why I'm writing a letter to you this week instead of poking Michigan in the eye or whining about Thad Matta's frontcourt or endlessly championing Jim Tressel or lauding your efforts to bring a national title Columbus: Gwyneth Paltrow.

I casually loathe Gwyneth Paltrow for all the same shallow reasons we blithely revile certain celebrities, but with just a little extra vigor for being pridefully tone deaf about goddamn everything. Paltrow dispenses heartfelt "lifestyle guidance" for what appears to be a parallel universe where time and money are both infinite; recommendations such as $1,209 napkin sets and spring wardrobe essentials - that word means something - that cost nearly half a million dollars to name just a couple of her must-have items. (I don't think she donates money to Ohio State yet - hey, you should call her.)

Anyway, I was traveling abroad and thus forced to catch up on the OSU spring game online when I abruptly discovered you had designs on charging $20 to attend a scrimmage. It's not quite Paltrow imploring working moms to hire celebrity trainers and stylists while dropping $2500 on a coffee maker to feel better about themselves but it's still tone deaf as hell.

The largest expense you have in hosting a football game isn't the cost of electricity, security, staffing or paying players (LOL) since those costs are all contractually fixed already. It's the enormous payout to the visiting team which - when Ohio State is playing against Ohio State with nothing on the line - is zero.

So when Gene Smith says that the university has "huge gameday expenditures" he's telling the truth. He's just omitting the parts about 1) the Spring Game costing less than half of a regular season game and 2) the university making well north of $4MM in profit every time the Buckeyes host someone else despite those "huge expenditures."

There were a couple of basic business principles that were completely ignored here, and considering the Fisher College of Business is only a 3-wood from Ohio Stadium it's alarming that they were abandoned. First, pricing: It's not some superfluous concept; educated people in your email directory - some of whom are currently paying tuition - could have helped you with this. It's the second P of the five in marketing: Only Product comes before Price.

You did not build this brand. You can only damage or improve it.

The 2009 game with nearly identical weather brought in 95,722 fans paying $5 each. Five years later you jacked up that price 300% and noble beneficiary LiFE Sports very likely received less money because of that decision. Pricing matters. Don't use a dartboard - and never take your customer for granted (this involves actually knowing who your customer is, which we'll get to in a bit).

You had an 11th hour 75%-off sale while cheerfully citing good weather as the reason for the sudden price drop. Buckeye fans will buy almost anything - we have generally lousy, franchise-driven, mass-manufactured taste - but we won't buy anything. Your underperforming spring game tickets are proof of that, and sunshine didn't have a thing to do with it. By the way, if you pull my other leg - it plays Jingle Bells. 

Second, and more importantly, the brand: Ohio State does not belong to you. You just happen to work there at this moment - you're stewards for a rich inheritance you're passing along to someone else that no one will ever cash. That's what Ohio State is. You did not build this brand. You can only damage or improve it.

And you should find as many ways as possible to give it away for free. Businesses do this all the time because it gives them a great return and it's terrific exposure for future buyers. Future buyers. This is where we talk about the children who don't have wealthy parents or opportunities to embark on a wallet-crushing fall Saturday in Ohio Stadium.

2014 spring game
Postgame Carmen Ohio (Kirk Irwin Photography)

Your youngest fans and future students do not currently view Braxton Miller as a college student. He's a superhero who to them only exists on television (never mind he wasn't even part of the practice you wanted to charge $20 to attend). 

When I was a kid Keith Byars and Chris Spielman were immortal - even lumpy Jim Karsatos and his 80s perm seemed almost mythical. Getting to see them in that stadium that you take for granted is absolute magic. Your mouth hangs open, your eyelids freeze in position and you'll never hold your parent's hand tighter.

My folks worked at Ohio State, so I was lucky and got to see, like, all of the games in the stadium - and I was reminded every time we entered about the less fortunate kids who were starving to death, and worse, not able to sit in Ohio Stadium, our beloved state's largest church with by far the most unwillingly absentee parishioners.

They are why the spring game exists: It's Buckeye football for the people who can't even gobble up FAMU tickets on the street. It's for ordinary mothers and fathers who have more than one child, making a family outing at the stadium under regular season circumstances a fantasy. It's a gift to the community from you stewards of Ohio's rich inheritance that you're merely passing along.

Try not to be so blissfully tone deaf next year - college football doesn't need a Gwyneth Paltrow, because nothing needs a Gwyneth Paltrow. The spring game is a gift, which as you've recently demonstrated can be a vehicle for good or greed. They're very easy to tell apart.

Go Bucks


PS - if you ever have any branding ideas you'd like to kick around, there's a guy at 11W who recently ran a successful internship for students through the Fisher College of Business on customer engagement and brand management. He would be happy to donate his time.

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