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Pirates all-in on winning back fans

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East Carolina takes the field before the 2014 game against North Carolina, which ended as a 70-41 victory for the Pirates in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The attendance was 51,082.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, January 14, 2019

Ryan Robinson had a family member at the 2014 North Carolina-East Carolina football game, when the Pirates beat UNC 70-41 in front of an ECU record crowd of 51,082 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and he received rave reviews about that afternoon in Greenville.

As Robinson is entering Week 2 in his role as ECU execute associate athletics director for external operations, he already has given some glances to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and envisioned the excitement of a similarly great crowd.

It hasn’t been easy in recent years for the Pirates and their fans. A harsh reality happened on Sept. 8, 2018, when the Pirates beat the Tar Heels again — 41-19 — but with an announced attendance of 39,298 at Dowdy-Ficklen, which is being renovated this offseason and should have its new look completed by August.

Optimism has been sparked since the start of December with the hires of AD Jon Gilbert from Southern Miss and football coach Mike Houston coming to ECU from a thriving James Madison program. Gilbert’s first two administrative hires were Robinson and Caroline Bevillard as senior associate AD for administration and senior women’s administrator.

“Jon Gilbert wants the East Carolina fan base to hold us accountable, because everybody is here to do a job and we have to win the fans back,” Robinson said. “You do that through trust and relationship building. I understand it when you lose, and I looked at a stat the other day that during the last nine years, we had been down 10,000 season-ticket holders.

“I haven’t looked at all the reasons and I know there have been some coaching changes, but we have to get that back up. It is also exciting because it shows you that (potential) is there.”

One snag in the football attendance and marketing relationship right now is ECU trying to finalize a final nonconference opponent for this year. A scheduled marquee home game against Virginia Tech was wiped out on Dec. 22 when the Hokies announced they will not come to Greenville in 2019, 2023 or 2025 for football games at East Carolina.

Many signs are pointing toward the Pirates replacing the Hokies with a Football Championship Subdivision team, mainly because of the lack of top-tier schools available to play.

“The hard thing with the timing of when they choose to do it is there are only so many opponents out there that have any dates, I mean nationally, because we looked everywhere from Hawaii to here,” Houston said before Friday’s Eastern North Carolina Football Coaches Association clinic in Greenville. “We have one or two really solid options that we are pretty far down the road with, so I would say in the next week or so you’ll see us solidify an opponent. Certainly, I hate that the (Virginia Tech) series made it to what it did, because it would have been a great series.”

ECU sold 22,832 football season tickets in 2011. Last season’s total was 12,792, and the Pirates finished with a third straight 3-9 record under coach Scottie Montgomery, who was fired and officially replaced by Houston on Dec. 3.

“We have to be unique, because this is a unique place and we have to treat it like that,” Robinson said. “That goes along with football season tickets and that is a focus right now obviously that goes with completing the football schedule, and we need to find a game and hopefully get that out by mid-February to build off a lot of the momentum that Jon and coach Houston brought here. … With our season-ticket holders, we have to look at what kind of value they are getting, and are we charging too much or do we need to lower prices? I think as a season-ticket holder you have to get value and there has to be a reason to sign up.”

Robinson, whose role in overseeing all external areas includes social media, ticket sales and promotions for the Pirates, spent four years at the University of Tennessee and most recently worked with the Emerald Youth Foundation in Knoxville, Tenn.

He spent 10 years working with the Jacksonville Jaguars (director of public relations) of the NFL and also the Indianapolis Colts. He also was executive director of Peyton Manning's PeyBack Foundation from 2001-05.

“The only time I’ve never seen (attendance) be a problem somewhere is when I worked with the Colts and we played in the RCA Dome with three gentlemen, one named Peyton Manning, one named Edgerrin James and one named Marvin Harrison,” he said. “Everything was sold out. People have options, and I think you do have to respect that.”

Bevillard spent the last two years at Southern Miss with Gilbert in the same senior associate athletics director for administration role she now has at ECU.

Gilbert, Robinson and Dave Hart, who is a special athletics adviser for the Pirates, all worked together previously at Tennessee.

“This is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in and I don’t want to get the Tennessee people riled up, but this is an SEC-type fan base and there is a passion and a great knowledge that is going on,” Robinson said of ECU. “I think the main thing that I have learned from everywhere I have been is how important culture is. You have to stabilize your culture and then everything you are looking for is sustained success. You don’t want to be the one-hit wonder.

“I think coming in now is such a great time because obviously (basketball) coach (Joe) Dooley is building his culture, and you have coach Houston and also the baseball program is phenomenal. Jon’s priority is to get that culture and that we are going to communicate and be transparent.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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