KNOXVILLE — John Currie could have called in a favor to a corporate partner or industry connection to snag a box seat. At the very least, he could have afforded to buy a desirable ticket from the box office.
As an athletic director of a power conference university — Kansas State at the time — Currie was in Minneapolis to speak at a conference and had plenty of status as he walked out of his hotel room toward Target Field that night a few years ago.
"Instead, I figured I would just do it like a fan does sometimes," Currie recalled in an interview with the Time Free Press. "I bought a ticket from a scalper. It was the second or third scalper I saw. I talked them down a little bit."
Currie does not remember who the Minnesota Twins' opponent was that night, because he never locked in on the game. He found himself roaming the ballpark and taking mental notes on what drew the attention of the fans.
The term "fan experience" is broad, but it has become a common catchphrase in major collegiate and professional sports offices, and it is coming into focus as a Currie priority early in his tenure as athletic director at Tennessee.
During eight years at Kansas State, Currie launched facility makeover projects with the goal of providing the best fan experience in the Big 12.
Now, at Tennessee, his goal is to create the best fan experience in the nation.
Currie counts that night at Target Field as an "aha moment" in his grasp of the modern game-watching experience that he will seek to provide to Volunteers fans.
"Walking around that stadium on a pretty night with a competitive team, half the people — and it was a good crowd — were not really watching the game," Currie said. "They were congregating in different areas, or in bars or restaurants and hangout spaces. It was one of those moments when I kind of saw it: Part of what we need to be providing when we have a space is more than just a game."
Currie's objective to create the nation's best fan experience at Tennessee has not been heavily marketed, but it was stated clearly when the university announced the hiring of Janeen Lalik to the position of senior associate athletic director for strategic initiatives on July 7.
"We aspire to be the national leader in fan experience and customer service," Currie said in a university release about Lalik's hiring, "and Janeen's fresh perspective will benefit our fans, student-athletes and the University of Tennessee community as a whole."
He reiterated the goal a day later in a letter to the fan base posted at utsports.com, writing that "the best fans in the world deserve to enjoy a world-class experience when they travel to Rocky Top for a game — we have work to do in this area, especially for our fans who currently sit in the south and east areas of Neyland Stadium."
Currie has rebranded Tennessee's athletic marketing and promotions department as the "fan experience" department and openly discussed the looming challenge of major renovations to Neyland Stadium.
Detailed plans to improve fan experience have not been laid out yet, but a few of Currie's highlights at Kansas State included the installation of publicly accessible wireless internet networks at the football stadium and basketball arena, and experimentation with beer sales at baseball games.
Those measures coincided with large-scale construction and renovation projects that Currie oversaw while focusing on fan experience during his eight years at the school. He began as athletic director at Tennessee on April 1.
"It started with John's leadership and establishing a culture where that was going to be one of our main priorities," said Scott Garrett, the senior associate athletic director for external operations at Kansas State. "As John laid out the mission and goal for the department, for us to put in writing that we wanted to deliver the best fan experience in the Big 12, that set the bar, both internally with staff and communicating that externally to all of our fans, donors and alumni. It established what our goal was. To put that out there and put ourselves on the line and be able to deliver that was pretty significant."
Garrett said that under Currie's leadership the KSU athletic department staff weighed decisions with a single question in mind.
"We always looked at each other and asked, 'Does that accomplish delivering the best fan experience in the Big 12?'" Garrett said. "And that really started with John's leadership."
Currie entered the job at Tennessee with the university already slated to begin phase one of Neyland renovations in 2019. That anticipated $106 million project will focus on overhauling the south side of the stadium, including "basic enhancements" to fan experience, like more entry points to the stadium, larger restrooms and more concession stands.
"We've got to change how that looks and, more importantly, we've got to change the way it functions," Currie said. "Right now, the experience we provide is not sufficient from a basic customer-service standpoint."
Future phases of the Neyland renovations, or renovations to other facilities, may allow Currie to pursue more creative fan-experience enhancements, although it's worth noting that SEC rules, for now, still prohibit alcohol sales at games.
Still, there appear to be few matters too small to warrant addressing Currie, who was spotted roaming Tennessee's softball stadium and speaking to fans during the postseason this spring.
"If we think we're going to expect our fans to just come and sit still, we're not very smart," he said. "We need to be creating an experience that allows people to have a good experience here. I've walked around stadiums and seen moms sitting on the concrete feeding their kid a hot dog. Why can't we have a picnic table somewhere for mom or dad to feed their kid a hot dog?"
That night in Minneapolis helped further cement an industry catchphrase as a clear mission for Currie.
"I realized, 'Boy, I really am seeing one of the trends,'" Currie said. "One of the trends people have talked about for the last five years or so is how when people come to games, they're really coming for more than just the game."
When Kansas State officials announced a contract extension for Currie in 2015, they credited his fan-experience goals with overhauling the department's marketing and fundraising efforts.
"It wasn't just, 'Hey, we're going to provide a great fan experience,'" Garrett said. "It was time invested and showing our staff and fans that 'Hey, I'm invested in this and it's a long-term thing.' It was not just something that was marketed that the athletic director was interested in.
"It was genuine, and I expect that he'll continue to do that in Knoxville."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones was asked about fan experience during SEC media days this past week. This was his response:
“We have some of the best traditions in all of college football. We have great pageantry at Neyland Stadium. It starts first and foremost with the best fan base in America. It gets back to an experience. The fans in today’s world of college athletics and college football have a lot of options. They can sit at a sports bar; they can sit in their living room. So when they choose to come to our venue, it’s got to be an experience. I know that’s something we’ve spoken about and will continue to grow and evaluate. I’ll tell you what, we’ve had great home-field advantage in terms of our crowd and all that. The thing you can’t put a price tag on is the pageantry and traditions that surround game days at Tennessee.”