The question of how was almost immediately put on the backburner.
It didn’t take many discussions with UL students for the new athletic department’s marketing group to recognize what was needed.
The idea of the student’s tailgating area for Ragin’ Cajuns home football games being at Bourgeois Park — across Cajundome Boulevard from the Lamson Park/Bourgeois Hall parking lot — just no longer made sense.
“I think they felt disconnected,” said UL Director of Marketing and External Engagement Connor Whelan, who first arrived in Lafayette in April 2018.
“We got a lot of feedback on student tailgating,” Whelan said. “Attendance (at sporting events) was an issue — both in the media and folks talking about it here particularly regarding students — so adjusting to student needs is something we felt like we had to address.”
Student tailgating for UL football home games will return for the upcoming 2019 season.
So earlier this week, the athletic department made the decision to officially return student tailgating to Cajun Field. The location will now be near the southeast ticket booth entrance into the stadium, and will feature music and food vendors.
“It was a challenge to logistically figure out how we were going to do it, but we knew we were going to do it,” Whelan said. “Once we made our mind up on that, it was just a matter of figuring it out.”
And every indication is the perfect solution was settled upon.
“We don’t have a lot of tailgating over in that corner,” Whelan explained. “It was a space that was generally unused. We’re not going into a handicap area and we’re not going into a paid tailgating area. We’re also not infringing on parking. We will give students select parking areas. It’s not going to chew up other inventory that we have, but at the same time, it gives a couple of students the opportunity to park in that area. It makes it easier to transfer supplies or what have you.”
Even better for the students, it’s located adjacent to the student seating.
“On top of that we’re opening up the South end zone,” Whelan added, “so they’ll have access to restrooms and those are the nicest ones on all of campus. On top of that, we have the red zone bar, so they’ll be able to come in, they’ll be able to buy drinks, they’ll be able to buy food. You don’t have to grill or anything. You’ll have student-friendly pricing right inside the venue.”
According to new student government president and reigning homecoming queen Rachel Lautigar, this week’s announcement is a huge step forward.
“Moving tailgating back to Cajun Field is exactly what the students have been asking for since we were moved the first time,” she said. “There was a disconnect. It was harder to get into the games, whereas this tailgating area will be extremely easy to walk into the field. It’s basically going to have everything the students have been asking to happen for the last two years is happening this season. We’re really excited about it. I think it’s going to increase student attendance into the games.”
It’s actually just the first part of the athletic department’s two-step process to improve student engagement. The second one is “a new student organization that we’ll be rolling out over the next two months.”
The athletic department will now be able to monitor students’ participation at athletic events and reward them for it.
“It’s unique,” Whelan said. “We did it in Arkansas. It’s almost like a rewards group. We scan your student ID. We have your information, ‘Hey, you were at this football game.’ It enters you into drawings for all sorts of prizes, as well as different rewards perks whether it’s sitting courtside at basketball or something of that nature. We just want to reward students those students that are frequently attending our games.”
It'll also serve to increase communication with interesting students and perhaps fans in general.
“We’ll have contact information,” Whelan added. “We’ll have their cell phone, so we can text them on game day. A common complaint — not only from students but in general — is they just didn’t know this or that. So now we’ll be able to text them that information on game day.”
While the jury is out on how much long-term success these initial changes will enjoy, Lautigar is thrilled with the early returns of the dialogue she’s had with the athletic department.
“The fact that we gave feedback and we’ve seen adjustments and change in this short amount of time makes me hopeful that we’ll continue to be able to work together toward this common goal,” Lautigar said. “We’re on the same side.”
If all goes as planned, the new student group will also have more access in future game-day decisions.
“The goal is to get more increased buy-in,” Whelan said. “There’s definitely no perfect way to do this. There are 130 FBS programs. How many have manufactured good student support? I would argue that zero have. The intention is ownership. Here’s a platform, so we need you guys to take ownership and run with it.
“What’s been so awesome about this process is there have been a lot of students come forward and said, ‘Hey, we want to help you grow this thing.’ So we know there are kids ready to take ownership of this. They just didn’t have a platform to do that, though.”