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UL students stand in the new student section during the game against Texas Saturday Feb. 16, 2019 at Russo Park Park.

It’s been a persistent issue over the decades for the Ragin’ Cajuns athletic department.

How can the university get more student-athletes involved in attending athletic events on campus?

Deputy Athletic Director for External Operations Nico Yantko, for one, is excited about the department’s most recent venture.

For the first time, there’s a student section at Russo Park, and it was a big hit on Friday’s season opener against the Texas Longhorns.

“We had 500 students here for that game,” Yantko said. “We’re excited about it. I’m not going to say that we’ve got the silver bullet here, but I certainly think we’re on the right track.”

To be more specific, it’s actually a tailgating area, located around the pavilion adjacent to the Cajuns’ bullpen down the leftfield line.

Throughout the season, any UL-Lafayette student with a university ID will get a free ticket into the game. Once there, they’ll be given several $5 combo option unique to this student section, including such things as hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and nachos.

Students attending the game Friday also received a free Ragin’ Cajuns T-shirt.

“They were all gone is about 20 minutes,” laughed Yantko.

Students also will have access to purchasing $2 beers in that area.

“This goes back to our intent to work with student engagement with our relationship with SGA (student government association),” Yantko said. “We’ve had a lot of good engagement to find out what their appetite is for game-day presence and it’s been exactly what we’ve been delivering on.”

Yantko said plans are already underway to enhance the maiden voyage of this new concept, such as upgraded the speakers in that area in hopes of providing live pregame entertainment there.

The athletic department hopes this will spread to other sports, as well.

“I’d like to find a way to do this over at softball, so we’re identifying some space in the outfield area there as well,” Yantko said.

Increased student attendance at football games is also sought.

“Football is going to be the next step,” Yantko revealed. “We’re probably going to move the tailgating back closer to the venue. It’s creating these type of environments at each one of our venues where it gives them the opportunity to have fun and have a student-friendly pricing menu and an area to engage with the game as part of the experience.”

The vision, however, goes much deeper than that.

Soon students will be given the opportunity to get even more involved with the athletic department, potentially getting on the ground floor for future RCAF participation before graduation.

“Ideally, this will slowly roll into our student group that we’re going to develop,” Yantko said. “It’ll be the first student organization really ever focused on fan engagement with awesome benefits and rewards that could potentially roll into RCAF to where when they graduate they’ve already built some equity in investing into the program.”

In addition to hopefully creating future donors to the university, the department hopes to build lifetime Ragin’ Cajuns fans.

“Part of it is building a stronger relationship between our students and our student-athletes, but also focusing on building a multi-generational fan, where years from now they’ll be sitting in the grandstands and in the suites.

It’s all part of growing the brand, locally, regionally and nationally.”

So far the feedback for this new idea has been good, Yankto said.

“Absolutely, 100 percent satisfaction,” he said. “We bounced some ideas off them. Overall, there’s a strong appreciation for making the attempt to cultivate a student focus with student-friendly items in a way they’ve never had here at Russo Park.

“We have to continue to focus on ways of building relationships with our students and listening to them. We want to know what they’re excited about and what experiences they want to have on game days, just like we did with the rest of Cajun Nation.”


Follow Kevin Foote on Twitter, @FooteNote.