I grew up in a place where being a sports fan was easy. Born and raised in Auburn, Alabama, during the era of Charles “Round Mound of Rebound” Barkley and Bo Jackson, my dog was named Pat Sullivan after the Heisman Trophy winner. We rolled Toomer’s Corner every weekend.
Then I went to college at Vanderbilt University… in the late ’80s. Being a sports fan became hard work. I showed up at half time and left before the third quarter ended. Really, I’m not proud of this period in my sports fan life. This is not how I was raised.
Fast forward a few decades. My husband and I bought a house close to Vandy campus, and we had two sons. Thus began the campaign to get me interested in sports again. (My husband Skip graduated from Vandy in ‘88 and remained a fan even through the darkest days.) It was going to be good, wholesome family fun, if only I would get on board. I needed to show my gold.
The hard sell
First came the season tickets. Then the accessories: a VU snuggie under the tree; game-day apparel in my stocking; and the least subtle of all the nudges: a logo-emblazoned stadium seat with back support. I tried. I really did. The tailgating was artful, but it couldn’t overcome those soul-crushing seasons that ended with only one or two wins. “Moral victories” are not my thing. My attendance suffered.
A storied approach
What ultimately turned the tide was a subtle and brilliant strategy employed by skilled marketers everywhere: Skip started rolling out the stories. It was like having my own live-in Olympics announcer giving me the background of each athlete. Stories of the players; their lives, families, passions and problems off the field. They were carefully crafted and complete, with a rise and fall of action, plot twists, conflict and resolution, triumph and tragedy. The players became more than names and numbers on a uniform — they were people who endured injuries, crushed dreams and renewed hope.
Looking back, I believe this storytelling strategy began with tales of rough-and-tumble fellow Alabamian Jamie Winborn, who led the SEC in tackles for Vandy at that time. But back in our shared home state, Winborn had picked peas and loaded watermelon for 10 hours a day growing up. Definitely a player I could root for. There was more: “Jimmy Williams speaks fluent Japanese,” my husband would lean in to report, just as Williams lined up to return a punt. Skip even took the tales beyond football. He told me stories of brotherhood (Zac Stacy), coming to America at age 14 (Festus Ezeli), homegrown Nashville natives-turned-stars (John Jenkins), and overcoming being a two star recruit and the first Div 1 player from his high school (Jordan Matthews). Watching #6 Tony Kemp’s infectious enthusiasm while playing second base was a fun story in itself.
Perhaps recognizing he’s good but he’s no Joe Fisher, Skip didn’t only rely on his skills as a narrator — the Vandy stories came at me in multiple formats. (Husbands everywhere: Take note.) I would find the sports page folded in such a way that a player profile was right on top. Highlighted quotes appeared on our refrigerator. My inbox was full of links to YouTube videos of players’ funny moments from high school, montages, family photos, and some sad things, too. If my interest waned, Skip was not above painting colorful pictures of the opposing coaches so I would be convinced of their villainy before the next big game.
It worked. You can find our family of four in the stands every season, cheering on the home team, decked out in black and gold. (Not my best colors, by the way.) I’m rooting for Vandy, but also for the players — for the people — whose well-crafted stories I now know and love. It’s a testament to the power a well-told story has, if only you know how to tell it.
And the fact that we started winning helps a little.