Putting Fans First is Job One

Aug. 11, 2011

Suzy Mason sometimes is a “firefighter,” constantly putting out fires. Other times she’s a bit of a social psychologist trying to delve into the group psyche of a 50,000-plus crowd that fills Arizona stadium.

Or she could be using musicology chops, collaborating to select big band sounds for Softball or a contemporary tune appropriate to be played for a first down during Football.

These are a few everyday tasks of Mason, the whirlwind Associate Director of Athletics, Management and Media Relations. All event management of on-campus, football, basketball and other ticketed intercollegiate sports (excluding aquatics) in about eight venues are under Mason’s watchful eye.

From the big picture, overall experience of a sporting event to the minute details of facility conditions, security, safety, ticket taking, concession queues, ushers and so much more, Mason said the focus is always on fan enjoyment and safety. “Planning makes game day events fun,” said Mason. “If we’re going our job, you won’t know we’re there.”

Cross-campus coordination is essential, said Mason. A preseason football planning session involves about 48 people whose departments or groups will be involved with or affected by a football game.

Mason and her 10-member full-time team pull together, consider and plan all the details and every scenario. For example, Mason said for an atypical Thursday evening football game, Mason’s staff must assess the impact on classes and conflicting events and parking needs of other departments. Community factors, such as the TUSD release times, also are in the mix.

Her department aims to create and maintain a safe and enjoyable atmosphere for all. There’s a game-day checklist for every event. She works with officials on safety issues — such as the delaying kickoffs during the last two football seasons due to lightening and threatening weather. She hears ticket –takers sharing information via radio about someone trying to slip in an event with an expired ticket. She makes sure that ushers smile and greet fans.

Fan-on-fan interaction is the biggest challenge. Fans who leave their good behavior at the gate can create a volatile situation if a “mob mentality” sets in. Mason said there is a sophisticated, tiered system of identifying potential problems in place. The mantra is “All eyes up. All eyes on fans.”

Mason said she has never sat and watched an entire UA sports event. She is in constant motion, zipping around the facilities checking crowd flow, concession queues and event staffs, and analyzing the event.
And she’s listening to feedback about the event.

Her heart leapt when she heard a father who had brought his three girls to a Friday evening gymnastics meet say: “This is so much better than a movie.” She was thrilled that the group had enjoyed the whole event — competition, family interaction, and the tiny, difference-making details, such as having the glitter the gymnasts wear in their hair available for the young fans.

“We tailor the event to the fans,” said Mason. For example, music must fit the clientele. A play list is developed for different sports. During a softball game you might hear big band music, while current music is more appropriate for a football game. “We have a great environment and atmosphere, and a great value,” Mason said.

Her department gathers ideas and best practices when traveling to other schools and venues. For example, the women’s basketball coach loved the video that showed the team members personalities at a California school. A similar concept was implemented here and it was a hit with the crowd.

A student athlete, Mason, raised in Canandaigua, N.Y., played basketball for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. where she her bachelor’s of science in Communication in 1994. Tired of shoveling show, she came to UA sight unseen in 1996 and completed her master’s in Exercise and Sports Science with an emphasis on Sports Administration in 1996.

She is married to Marvin Mason and has two children who “grew up in McKale,” she quipped. Midnight phone calls apprise Mason of an intruder alerts. Her round-the-clock job often starts with a 7 a.m. football game day phone call and ends two hours after the last whistle. On any given home football game day, she’s responsible for up to 400 people, and about 200 on a basketball game day.

The demanding pace and the job are a good fit, said Mason. She enjoys the coaches, the staff and the student athletes who “keep you young.”

“Every day is different — it’s an adreneline rush,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine a job where you do the same thing day after day.

The Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament is on Mason’s planning board. McKale Center is hosting eight teams in the first and second rounds of tournament in March 2011. Mason is creating checklists to ensure every detail is attended to, every fan enjoys the event and that she has few fires to put out.

At the top of the list, as always, is creating an enjoyable, safe atmosphere and experience for fans.