Fresno State’s million-dollar question: How to get Millennials, Gen-Xers into Bulldogs sports

Terry Tumey knows how to work the gray hairs, and that would include me.

The Fresno State athletic director belly laughs at everyone’s stories. He gives agreeable nods when it’s their turn to talk, his head titled just so. And eye contact? My own wife doesn’t peer that unflinchingly deep into my soul when she lets me get three words in.

It’s a great way to keep the old money arriving in the mail, which would be great if there was enough old money to float today’s account-payables.

There’s not. The Fresno State sporting goods department comes up millions short every year. This is unsustainable, because The Boss at the university president’s office is about done paying off the annual credit card for you.

Tumey has got to get into new pockets to fix this money-losing proposition. Great guy, as loveable as he is huggable, but he’s got a job on his hands, and is going to need taller boots for it.

That much was clear this week.

Hey, it’s only Jeff Tedford

Tumey and some of his ball coaches did the Caravan Thing around the Valley, feeding hungry boosters and thanking them for their tax-deductible donations. Tumey called them the “old, faithful, diehard Bulldogs fans,” and he does great to thank them for all they do.

Monday’s stop at Stacked Bar & Grill in Visalia drew about 30 friends of the program, most who appeared to be working the second half of life’s century. One talked about the good old Selland Arena days. These are the ones who kept giving even when they hated what they saw, because they are loyalists and good Bulldogs.

Thirty feet away, inside the crowded bar, sat dozens of 30-somethings who had neither interest nor clue what was going on at the Fresno State party. These are Millennials and Generation Xers with body ink, mortgages and well-funded careers who came to watch the Golden State Warriors game on 20 big-screen TVs.

Think about it. These are people who grew up here in Fresno State country. The Bulldogs are the only meaningful show that does not require a full tank of gas to attend. And few of them could be bothered to get up from their stool and ask Jeff Tedford for his autograph.

Did you catch that? The most successful coach on campus is standing there with a Sharpie and free Fresno State football posters, and all these young sports fans with money to drop on mind-smashing beer wouldn’t even get up for a local celebrity.

That doesn’t say anything about Tedford, Tumey or the rest of the Fresno State lot.

It says everything about the up-Kilimanjaro climb they all face in reaching enough new fans to cover the 21-sport, $41 million bill of lading.

What more can Tedford do, win 13 out of 12 games next time out?

This job belongs to Tumey, who is wearing out his sneakers on this crumb-less trail. Our favorite part about the new guy? The back of his blue blazer was a wrinkled mess. We like a guy who looks like he’s been driving all over the place in his car.

Attracting Millennials

We also like a guy who realizes he must find a way to engage those sports fans at the bar, because they have to become the present if the Bulldogs want to have a future.

Tumey talked about what Fresno State can offer that a sports bar can’t: the live experience of a sporting event, the rush of being there when the winning pass is caught.

Here’s the problem: this generation, which will be the largest work-force group out there by 2020, is cool without the crowded stadium and parking lot traffic.

They are a screen-locked generation that would just the same watch the game on a live-stream app for free before they drop thousands on season tickets. They are digitally connected like no generation before, and yet more disconnected socially than you could ever fathom.

Tumey knows that, and that’s a start. He talks about getting people from the screen to the stadium just once, and hoping that’s enough to get them to come back for more. He says they need to figure out how to win new families to the family, and talks about finding the right pieces to that puzzle.

We’d have preferred Fresno State hire someone who already had those answers, but we like Tumey’s ambition enough to give him more than the first 11 months on the job to work it out.

If he’s looking for ideas, here’s one. Next time you hit the road, forget happy hour with the always-weres and pull up a stool next to the never-beens. Because, if we learned anything the past school year, it’s that winning in football, basketball and baseball does nothing to win people who see no reason to come in the first place.

Let them hear your oversized heart for themselves. If nothing else, they’ll come back just to hear your outsized laugh.

David White is a former Fresno Bee staff writer and NFL beat writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, now a pastor and Sunday sports columnist for The Bee:, @bydavidwhite

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