By Dan Fleser
KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s football team will host a “Fan Day” on Aug. 4 at Neyland Stadium that will allow the Vols faithful to watch a preseason practice free of charge and line up for autographs afterward.
The athletic department, meanwhile, will get a much-needed mulligan on its “Summer of Smokey”
Gate 21 will open at 1:30 p.m. and practice will start at 2:30. Concession stands will be open on the stadium’s lower level and the official UT athletic team store will be open at Gate 20.
The autograph session will follow practice at approximately 4:30 p.m. To participate, fans must get a wristband when they enter at Gate 21. They will be distributed on a “first-come, first-served” basis according to a UT release and will only be available while supplies last.
If inclement weather forces the practice session to be moved indoors then the autograph session will be cancelled.
If I were an athletic department official, I would lobby for a generous supply of wristbands. I might consider saying a prayer for fair skies on Aug. 4, too.
In past years, announcements regarding an event of this nature warranted little more than reporting the particulars involved. Not this time, however. The event amounts to a marketing correction after the usual Big Orange Caravan stops of the spring were replaced with a pep rally tour of the state.
Instead of rubbing elbows with UT’s coaches, fans have been treated to a visit from Smokey, the athletic department’s costumed mascot.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who appeared at all five caravan stops last year, actually endorsed the concept as a way to reach more fans in more parts of the state.
“When we initially discussed a temporary departure from our traditional Big Orange Caravan, my main concern was ensuring that our summer tour maintains its impact as a meaningful way to show our appreciation for our fans,” Fulmer said in a university release in May. “Our team has put a lot of thought and effort into the Summer of Smokey and we believe it will allow us to reach more fans in more areas all throughout the state of Tennessee.”
Think again folks. No matter how many miles you log, there’s simply no substitute for interaction between the fans and Tennessee’s coaches and players. No sport needs that more than football, which is trying to sell tickets after a second consecutive losing season and six of the last nine under .500.
I spent an afternoon earlier this year in Fulmer’ office, talking with him about enhancing the fan experience inside of Neyland Stadium. He had traveled all the way to New York’s Yankee Stadium to see what that legendary team had done to modernize its iconic venue.
But the conversation was all about what happens after the ticket has been purchased and the turnstile has been spun.
At this point, Tennessee needs to be equally concerned with getting fans in the stands in the first place. Until the win-loss ledger is better balanced, the best promotion is the team itself, no matter how brief the encounter.
One day in August spent mingling with Tennessee’s football team will be worth a lot more than an entire summer of Smokey.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org