This is Part IV in Engineering a Program, our series on explaining Georgia Tech’s athletic context to outsiders. If you’d like to read other parts of the series or get a primer on what the series is about, head to its homepage.
Now that we’ve gone through some of the more existential and systemic factors facing Georgia Tech, let’s dissect some of the recent approaches being taken to see how the hole is being dug deeper.
A T L
In the wake of Geoff Collins’ firing, much has been made about Tech’s relationship with Atlanta. Many people saw his 404 branding and the Waffle House cups as a sign that Tech was finally embracing the city it lives in...and then, a lot of those same people reacted to Collins’ firing incredulously, asking “how on Earth could he fail in Atlanta?”. We’re not here to gate-keep “understanding the city”, but...is it so hard to believe?
Tech plastered “In the HEART of ATLANTA” all over everything, but it’s really only true in the literal geographic sense; the school has done next to nothing to actually ingrain ourselves into the fabric and culture of the city. As an athletic program, it does not do much in the way of outreach to local communities, celebrities, organizations, or anybody. The Institute seems to hold an attitude of “the city should be coming to us”, and — aside from some partnerships with city government — that is just simply not going to happen. The school in Athens put the Atlanta skyline on some recruiting promotional material a year or two ago, and there’s a reason no one batted an eye: Tech hasn’t done a single thing to show that it has a more valid claim to the city than anyone else. To borrow a line from Steven Godfrey and emphasize a point we’ve made previously: Tech is in Atlanta, not of Atlanta.
Collins-era Georgia Tech used Atlanta as a marketing tactic and offered nothing to it in return. Nothing about this ‘relationship to the city’ ever felt genuine, tangible, or symbiotic; it was an attempt to externally profit off of someone else’s reputation. All the posturing of being “Atlanta’s team” was for everyone else in the country but the actual city it was ostensibly relating to. How could he fail in Atlanta? Because he didn’t try.
Marketing and Fundraising
Speaking of marketing, let’s look at one of GTAA’s recent fundraisers for a great microcosm of the current strategy. Instead of taking an opportunity to mass-market itself and appeal to as many common fans as possible, GTAA chose instead to sell $404 hats to a few rich, elite, already-invested fans. Put a different, more cynical way: instead of drumming up interest from the thousands of locals who live in and identity with the actual 404, Tech sold a few hats to some wealthy super-fans in Johns Creek. Don’t have $404 in disposable cash? Tech’s deemed you unworthy of its attention.
Frankly, what’s the point of something like this? Surely, it’s better to have 10,000 people buying $4.04 hats or even 1,000 people buying $40.40 hats than 100 people buying $404 hats. Making the barrier to entry so incredibly high does two things:
- It wastes capital by marketing to people who have already bought in. The people willing to give you $404 for a single hat are not the people you need to convert into long-term fans.
- It turns away masses of people who may be perfectly willing to contribute a more reasonable amount. It’s a hat for God’s sake; sell it to people for a more reasonable amount. Tech missed a golden chance to have tons of people create visibility for the program by wearing Tech-branded 404 merchandise around the city.
Special incentives are perfect for bigger donors who Tech may want to make a bigger commitment, but let’s be clear: the incentive here is literally a hat. Sell it to the layman for the normal cost of a hat and take a normal profit. This artificial scarcity is more reminiscent of a pompous luxury brand than it is of an athletics program in (desperate) need of money. All it does is drive home the impression that Tech likes the idea of Atlanta, but doesn’t care much for integrating itself into the culture of the city (let alone drive home the impression that we’re bad at marketing and fundraising). This whole saga muddies what the overall vision might be, begging the questions: how does Tech see itself and who is it trying to market to? Is it trying to drive engagement and excitement across a large, active fanbase or is it content to let fans generate their own buzz?
Apparel, or Lack Thereof
The problem with the 404 hat looks even worse in the context of Georgia Tech’s apparel contract. Tech announced a partnership with Adidas in August of 2017, with apparel slated to begin appearing in July of 2018. We talked a great deal on this very site about how great moving to a modern apparel provider and centralizing on a shade of Tech gold would be for Georgia Tech and its brand.
Five years into the partnership, the reality is much different. The official team store site has just 48 total Adidas items for sale, and most of them with designs certainly no better than what fans got from Russell Athletic. Fanatics offers 78 Tech Adidas items on their site. The Fanatics store for another Adidas school, Miami, has 141. Meanwhile, every new Instagram and Twitter post from the football team shows them in a new shirt/hoodie/hat that is not available to the public. Want to wear the cool apparel that coaches and players wear on the sidelines every game? You can’t, it’s not for sale. Want to rep the 404 branding that we stress so much? You can’t, it’s not for sale. Of those 78 items on Fanatics, zero have the program’s omnipresent 404 branding. If you search that official Ramblin’ Wreck Store for “404”, you get a grand total of 5 off-brand shirts/hoodies with a (pretty bad looking) 404 design. The only place you can get actual 404 apparel is third-party newcomer Section 103.
The gold situation is just as frustrating. Look at either of the stores linked above and count how many different golds and yellows adorn the items. Even our actual uniforms often feature multiple juxtaposed shades. We’ve also recently promoted navy into a primary color slot for some reason (maybe to help sell all those navy items in the team store), so don’t expect any general consistency in crowd shots at Bobby Dodd anytime soon.
Thankfully, in the past year or so, new brands like Section 103 and Homefield have come into the picture to improve selection on a third-party basis. The instant appeal to the target Tech market is readily apparent - an unscientific look around Tech football and volleyball games this year has yielded not only a noticeable number of fans wearing these products, but a diverse array of items as well. The success of these brands offers a great case study in allowing wider licensing and more diverse options.
Overall though, apparel is one of the easiest ways to spread a brand and we are failing miserably at doing so. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as “just make and sell more things” - this industry operates on a system in which demand dictates supply. Manufacturers like Adidas rely on retailers to ask for products; if retailers don’t think they can sell enough Tech gear, then they’re not going to put in stocking orders for it. It’s possible this is a bit of a vicious cycle: purchasing is low because the offerings are limited and not good; low purchasing is a proxy for low demand; and low demand means the offerings stay limited and of poor quality.
Meanwhile, you can walk into just about any sports retailer in Georgia and stumble into an entire section of Athenian apparel and items (and sometimes even those for UF, FSU, and others as well). Compare that to the experience of needing to hunt down any trace of Georgia Tech. Making it actively difficult for the fanbase to find and buy quality merchandise leads to less visibility and less revenue.
Instead of relying on merchandise sales, Georgia Tech prioritizes competitive scheduling to sell season ticket packages. In theory, this is a solid plan: games versus great teams like Alabama and (most recently) Ole Miss improve strength of schedule and ensure your fans can get into these sure-to-be-popular games for cheaper than they would be able to on the open market results in massive ticket sales.
But there are two major problems with scheduling like this:
- You can only get away with scheduling these teams when your program is operating at the level of a 2010s Virginia Tech, a current-day Cincinnati, or a Miami. For programs like these, scheduling equal or better competition can be a benchmark for where your program is versus where it wants to be: are you poised to be at the top of your conference, or will you sink somewhere to the middle? Tech is not at either of those points in its conference.
- You can also only get away with scheduling one of these teams if your conference and existing non-conference schedule is middle-of-the-road to soft. Georgia Tech’s schedule has…..never been that.
Let’s take a look at the average Georgia Tech schedule and their usual anecdotal win probabilities:
- Game 1: FCS cupcake - 99+%
- Game 2: FCS cupcake - 99% OR G5 buy game - shamefully, 75% or lower
- Game 3: non-conference P5 or Notre Dame - 30% or lower
- Game 4: Clemson - lol%
- Games 5-11: ACC Coastal play - 40-60% (depending on the year)
- Game 12: Athens - sigh%
Based on this schedule outline (and current team quality aside), Tech should always have two wins in the bag per season and therefore need to win four of its 50/50 games in Coastal play to be bowl-eligible. The annual series versus the Death Stars to the East are not ideal; but Tech can’t get out of either of them, nor can Tech get out of the Coastal grind without giving up its conference affiliation (and the accompanying TV revenue). Thus, Tech should control what it can control and make it easier on itself to make a bowl game and bank more money, right?
Well, that’s not what it chose to do in 2022:
There is one (1) virtually-guaranteed victory on this schedule. Playing 11 P5ish opponents (UCF isn’t right now, but they will be in a couple years) is great — fantastic, even — when the program is in tip-top shape. Tech is currently anything but.
Granted, 2022 is an outlier, but not much of one: in 2023, Tech trades UCF for Bowling Green, but from ‘24 through ‘26, Tech adds Georgia State, Colorado, and State again, then faces Alabama in ‘30 and ‘31 (ed. note: yes — for some godforsaken reason, Tech has chosen to open ‘30 and ‘31 with Alabama and then end with Athens). One can quibble with the quality of State and Colorado in the context of this argument, but the bottom line is: those are 60/40 or 70/30 games at best for Tech. Why not schedule more 2019 Bowling Greens for more 80/20s or 90/10s? If the stated goal of every season is to make a bowl game, why not set yourself up for success from the get-go? It’s frustrating to see other struggling teams get this scheduling trick right and grow into success using it (see: Kentucky), while Tech consistently flounders under the weight of its schedule.
Given the strategies the Institute is employing today, it seems like it’s looking to make a hard job even harder. School identity remains an enigma, branding is shifting constantly, and no one really seems to be selling a vision. “Do more with less” is a classic mantra for smaller schools that want to punch above their weight, but at times, Tech seems more content to “do the bare minimum with less”.
But in many ways, the things discussed in this section are the most straightforward to fix: each is a direct, explicit decision with short windows of effect to measure progress against. Reaching out to community partners is a snap compared to changing staid institutional attitudes about academics. Similarly, It’s easy to buy more product from Adidas and even easier to price that product more effectively to induce demand. It’s harder to move around football games on a calendar, but not impossible — it’s not like games haven’t been scheduled on short notice before.
No, the underlying challenge here for Tech is more philosophical than tangible: what is Tech’s vision? What does it want to be? How does it want to sell itself to the people of Atlanta? How does it want to sell itself to the people of the Southeast? Fundamentally: how does it juxtapose the institution it wants to be with the athletic program it wants to be in the city it lives in?