From "P.O.T.T. to "TIDE PRIDE" (Part One)
There was a day, back in the spring of 1987, when the Crimson Tide could’ve gone to pot. As you read on, you’ll see how.
If walls could talk, they say, those in the small conference room on the second floor of what’s now the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility would have quite a story to tell. Even to this day, this spot is still popular for meetings among athletics administrators, guests, vendors, and the like.
During my almost 33 years in the Athletics Department, I sat in that room numerous times for various meetings, but none were more impactful than those throughout 1987, the year TIDE PRIDE was created (for the 1988 football season). Today, the origins of what’s turned out to be the most successful ticket priority program in the nation seem like ancient history, which I guess is true. So go ahead, put me in the “ancient” category.
This communique will share some insights on how TIDE PRIDE came to be. I know there’ll be at least two parts to my story, so who knows where this’ll go.
Oh yeah, as promised, I’m even going to tell you how we narrowly avoided going to pot.
Before I go down that path, though, I want to share a couple of important caveats.
First, no one athletic administrator or group of administrators are responsible for TIDE PRIDE’s unprecedented success through the years. Even though it had to start somewhere, and several people were involved in making the decisions on how the program would be administered, the fans of Alabama football are the ones who’ve made TIDE PRIDE what it is today. It’s the fans – no, fanatics – who’ve poured their heart, soul, and pocketbooks to support their Crimson Tide during all these years. It’s those whose love for the University’s rich football tradition almost equals their affection for God and family. (Hold on … I know what you’re thinking.)
Second, even though TIDE PRIDE didn’t officially kick off until fall 1987 (for the 1988 season), the concept of implementing a new ticket priority program was already in place when Steve Sloan became Athletics Director in January 1987. Coach Sloan and his close friend Tommy Limbaugh, whom Coach Sloan brought to Alabama as Associate Athletics Director, inherited from outgoing Athletics Director (and Head Football Coach) Ray Perkins several file folders of research conducted in 1986 by Dr. Jay Sterling, a University of Alabama marketing professor.
Sterling’s charge had been to survey several other major college football programs to see what they were doing in their donor programs. Besides all 10 Southeastern Conference institutions, other schools surveyed included Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Florida State, Penn State, and South Carolina.
In the survey were questions regarding donation levels, quality of seats, ticket costs, how donors were recognized for their giving, social opportunities for donors (e.g., pre-game meals), game day parking options, etc. The idea was simple: The Alabama Athletics Department wanted to take the best benefit from one school, along with a perk from another school, along with a couple of quality amenities from yet another school and implement all these “best of” benefits into Alabama’s new football ticket priority program. And ultimately, that’s what we did.
At this time, the only revenue sources for Alabama Athletics over and above ticket revenues were the Educational & Athletic Scholarship Program and the Student Information Fund. If I remember correctly, total revenue from these two programs was no more than $2 million per year, not counting ticket revenue. And during those days, the Athletics Department was not allowed to solicit philanthropic gifts from donors; this responsibility was handled exclusively by the University’s Development Office. (In exchange, the Athletics Department was able to control 100 percent of all football tickets.) In other words, no one from Athletics could go out and “knock on doors” and solicit major gifts. (That would change ten or so years later in the late 1990s.)
For Alabama to keep up with other football programs in the post-Paul W. Bryant era, much more revenue needed to be realized, especially with a $24 million debt following construction of the much-needed Football Building and the Indoor Practice Facility. Plus, the west side expansion to Bryant-Denny Stadium had already started, and debt payments on that would begin shortly thereafter.
The numbers didn’t lie: Something had to be done to generate more revenue. Without the ability to go out and raise philanthropic monies, the Athletics Department had no choice but to start a ticket priority program. The responsibility of taking on an assignment certain to be filled with controversy and hurt feelings fell on Coach Sloan, his top assistant Tommy Limbaugh, Executive Athletics Director Jim Goostree, and the Ticket Office staff.
Messing with someone’s tickets is a risky business. Ranked right up there with spouses and children, Alabama football tickets are about as prized a possession as one could have. Unfortunately, with this new program on the horizon, just about every Alabama football season ticket holder was about to experience change, either in their seat locations, the cost to obtain tickets, or both.
Needless to say, the first year was quite a wild ride.
On May 1, 1987, I joined the Ticket Office staff after serving five years in the Alumni Office. In just a few days, I was caught up to speed on Dr. Sterling’s research and all the work done thus far on the new program.
Misinformation Leads to Backlash
Perhaps the most basic concept in the advertising and public relations business is “control the message.” But what if the message gets kidnapped before officially going public? That’s exactly what happened to us in April, about three weeks before I started my new position.
In response to weeks of rumors about a new ticket plan being devised, on Monday night, April 13, 1987, a rough draft of the program was presented to members of the Educational & Athletic Scholarship Program. Needless to say, the questions were many, and because so much of the plan was still being developed, there were many that just couldn’t be answered. I’m not sure if this was in response to the meeting, but the next day, the Athletics Department made the official announcement of a “New Ticket Program” coming for the 1988 football season.
The next day, Wednesday, April 15th, though, is when things went south. Really south. The Tuscaloosa News, whose publisher had attended the Monday night meeting, published a lengthy story on the new program, based on information shared at the Monday night meeting and from the previous day’s press release. Sports editor Billy Mitchell also wrote a column on the proposed plan.
There was really nothing in the articles that were in error; however, perception is reality. By the time the story hit the Associated Press wire, the perceived message to thousands of Alabama fans was that we were about to charge $2,500 per-seat/per-year for Alabama football tickets. And that was only partly true, but only for the 300 or so seats in the Ivory Club.
Never mind the fact that the Century Club — at a very affordable $100 per-seat/per-year — had in its inventory more tickets than any other club, or the fact that only 35 percent of the stadium would be set aside for this new program, or the fact that the National Alumni Association’s active members – as well as football lettermen, faculty/staff, and students – would still have a priority to order season tickets. For most of the season ticket holders, they just couldn’t get past the $2,500 figure.
In their eyes, we had gone crazy.
So there we were, having to defend a program that hadn’t even been fine-tuned yet. For the next four or so months, we spent as much time on damage control as we did actually working on the program.
Tommy Limbaugh hit the road running, appearing on every television and radio show he could. His planned 30-minute appearance on the T.C. & John Ed Show (whose hosts Tommy Charles and John Ed Willoughby were huge Alabama fans) turned into a full three-hour segment. Letters from angry season ticket holders, who were under the impression that “Bear Bryant promised me these tickets for life,” poured in. (For the record, there was no such promise.) Calls poured in with questions that we just couldn’t answer yet.
I will say that every call was taken, and every letter was answered, either by a return letter or by a phone call. We did the best we could to calm the masses and explain why such a program was being instituted and how it would work. We really emphasized the program’s goals of providing scholarships, funding capital improvements, retiring our indebtedness, supporting the Million Dollar Band, and endowing all athletic scholarships.
And get this – the program we were so passionately defending didn’t even have a name yet.
What’s in a Name?
I’m not sure of the exact date, but at some point in mid or late May, a handful of us gathered in the previously mentioned conference room to come up with a name for this new program. Even though we were more than a year away from the program’s first official season (1988), we were facing a strict deadline to send out the first informational brochure. We wanted to give potential donors/members several months to look at the details, ask questions, and make decisions regarding their ticket needs. Our goal was to send out this brochure by the time the 1987 season kicked off, then follow it up with the official application brochure by early December (to allow donors to take advantage of the year-end tax deduction).
One small problem: This program had no name, and we needed one quickly. The need for a name was certainly not an afterthought; months earlier, the Athletics Department had hired an out-of-state public relations & advertising firm with Alabama connections to come up with one. And it was in this meeting when we considered their recommendation: “Pride of the Tide.”
Ugh. No one liked the name. It was perceived to be too long, not catchy enough, and just too ordinary. I’m not sure what we had paid that firm to come up with a name, but whatever it was, it was WAY too much.
I may have forgotten a lot of things through the years, but this meeting was one I’ll never forget. While discussing the name, I stood up, walked over to the dry erase board and wrote out the words “Pride of the Tide.” I then circled the P, then the O, then the T, and finally the last T.
And in plain view, there it was: P.O.T.T.
We had already soured on the name “Pride of the Tide,” but when we saw what the acronym spelled, we were aghast.
“There’s no way we can call it that,” we surmised. “As soon as the football team has a bad season, people will say we’ve gone to pot.”
But serendipitously, there was hope in this name. After some discussion, we made a simple flip of the words and came up with “Tide Pride.” It was short, easy to pronounce, rhymed, and powerful. Most importantly, it incorporated our famous “Tide” and the affectionate word “Pride,” symbolizing Alabama fans’ pride in their (Crimson) Tide.
Bingo, we had a name. And to go a step further, to make an exclamatory statement, we decided to put the new name into all caps. So, in all text “Tide Pride” became “TIDE PRIDE.”
The Nuts & Bolts of TIDE PRIDE
OK, so our baby now had a name, but the baby wasn’t even to the crawling stage yet. Other than some general concepts of what we wanted to offer and the results gleaned from Dr. Sterling’s surveys, all the intricate details of TIDE PRIDE still had to be worked out. And, we had less than three months to get it right.
The original team who put together TIDE PRIDE in 1987 from the Athletics Department consisted of me (as Ticket Manager); Tommy Limbaugh; Coach Jim Goostree, who was instrumental in the early sales phase; and Brenda Mills (later Vaughn). From the UA System Office’s legal team were Cindy Waid (as the primary contact), Glenn Powell, and Robert Potts. And charged with designing and printing the TIDE PRIDE brochures, as well as creating the iconic TIDE PRIDE logo, were Hershel Pickett and Alton Gibson from EBSCO Media in Birmingham.
Rarely, perhaps never, were all these folks in the same room at the same time, but all had important roles in TIDE PRIDE’s origins.
So, over the summer of 1987, here are just a few of the items that had to be decided, and quickly: (See the original TIDE PRIDE brochure’s chart below.)
It had been decided from the start that TIDE PRIDE’s donation structure would be based on a per-seat/per-year basis. That way, someone sitting in his or her seat would know that the person sitting next to them had donated the same exact amount to sit there. It was touted as the fairest way for all involved.
The clubs had already been named before I started working in the Ticket Office, and I don’t recall any particular reason they were named what they were, other than the Century Club (to match the required $100 per-seat/per-year donation) and the Ivory Club, signifying a highly prized commodity. The names – Century Club, Bama Club, Touchdown Club, Crimson Tide Club, Scholarship Club, and Ivory Club – remain to this day. (Thankfully, the Touchdown Club’s original name, the “Big Red Club,” was changed just in time.)
The required donation amounts for each club were a bit of a guess. We knew the amount of revenue we needed to raise, and we knew the number of seats we were dealing with, but the questions remained: Would our Alabama fans pay what we were asking? Were we overpricing any clubs? Were we underpricing any clubs? Were we allocating the right number of seats for each of the clubs? Were we setting a fair price for the yard lines being offered?
As a stab in the dark, the per-seat/per-year prices were set at $100 (Century Club), $200 (Bama Club), $300 (Touchdown Club), $500 (Crimson Tide Club), $1,000 (Scholarship Club), and $2,500 (Ivory Club).
Yard Lines & Matching up Bryant-Denny Stadium and Legion Field
Determining the “value” of a goal line seat versus a 25-yard line seat versus a 50-yard line seat was our most difficult challenge. And then the issues of upper deck seating had to be addressed: What’s the better seat, a 35-yard line chairback seat ten rows up in the upper deck, or a corner end zone bleacher seat in the lower deck? And for those upper deck seats, at what point in the afternoon will the sun be casting a comforting shadow? What row does one have to be on to not only be in the shade, but out of the rain? Although Bryant-Denny’s west upper deck was more than a year away from completion, we had to look into our crystal ball to make these type decisions.
Then, there was the issue of matching up the seats in Bryant-Denny Stadium with the seats in Birmingham’s Legion Field. Since 1927, Legion Field had been the Crimson Tide’s primary home stadium for three reasons – it had a larger capacity, Birmingham was the University’s largest alumni base, and the Birmingham area was a prime recruiting hotbed. After all, it was the “Football Capital of the South.”
So, regardless of our thoughts about Alabama’s long-range future at Legion Field, we had to make some speedy decisions regarding our matching up the seats in both stadiums. After all, the Tide was set to play at least three games in Legion Field for years to come, including the Iron Bowl when it was our home game. (That’s a whole different subject for a different time.) In establishing these clubs and prices, we wanted to ensure that, for example, a Touchdown Club quality seat in Legion Field was similar to a Touchdown Club quality seat in Bryant-Denny. (Further complicating our mission were the more than 5,000 prime Legion Field seats owned by Birmingham Park & Recreation Board Warrant and Certificate holders, of whose tickets we had no control.)
I’ll never forget my and Tommy Limbaugh’s many trips to Legion Field in the hot summer sun with stadium charts in hand, climbing up and down rows for hours and going from section to section trying to determine things like, “If a 10-yard line seat in Section D in Bryant-Denny is in the Bama Club, what options do we have for a comparable seat in Legion Field?” Or “If a Scholarship Club member is sitting on the west side in Bryant-Denny, will he be upset if he’s sitting in the sun on the east side of Legion Field?” Or “Because the west side sections at Legion Field have so many more seats than the west side sections at Bryant-Denny, how are we going to match up the seats for each club?”
We wanted all TIDE PRIDE members, regardless of their club level or donation amount, to have more than just seats in the stadium. Offering amenities to donors was certainly nothing new for us or any other school. We were already providing pre-game meals and the ability to order road game tickets to those in the Educational & Athletic Scholarship Program, but we decided it was important to offer some amenities to all members.
So, depending upon one’s club level, amenities included parking passes, pre-game luncheons, spring practice invitations, football practice passes, recognition in the game programs, football media guides, window decals, membership cards, membership plaques or certificates, and the ability to order road game tickets.
The most unique amenity – the TIDE PRIDE car tag (see photo above) – became quite a hit. Before long, thousands of cars around the state were sporting the tags while providing incalculable publicity for the new program.
As tempting as it was to commit the entire summer of 1987 to planning and kicking off the new TIDE PRIDE program, we still had a football season to play. And for the Ticket Office, that meant the customary distribution of tens of thousands of tickets to season ticket holders, faculty staff, alumni, and students. And with that came all the usual customer feedback, delivery issues, and normal responsibilities on game days.
These two major tasks – getting out tickets for the 1987 season while at the same time creating and implementing the new TIDE PRIDE program – made the summer of 1987 extremely challenging for our Ticket Office staff. I can’t begin to thank all those dedicated souls who worked day and night for months to ensure all season tickets, parking passes, road game tickets, and single game tickets were printed and distributed in an efficient manner.
The 1987 season, Bill Curry’s first as head coach, was quite unique. Due to the west side expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium, which included the construction of the new Ivory Club, President’s Box, Press Box, and an upper deck, all home games in 1987 were played at Legion Field in Birmingham.
During the week between the Tide’s 38-6 opening victory over Southern Miss and the 24-13 upset of Penn State in State College, Pa., more than 100,000 TIDE PRIDE informational brochures were mailed to athletics donors, season ticket holders in every sport, football lettermen, faculty/staff, and all alumni.
Once those brochures were mailed, TIDE PRIDE was official, ready or not. The clock had started.
And 34 years later, that clock is still ticking, stronger than ever.
(C) 2021 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved
Next Month: Part Two of “From P.O.T.T. to TIDE PRIDE”