Nashville might be in the middle of SEC country but Todd Stewart believes there is room for the Hilltoppers.
Stewart, in his second year as Western Kentucky’s athletic director, says it is his job to make sure those wearing the red and white in Nashville aren’t forgotten.
“If you have 7,000 alumni here I don’t think you can come here too much,” Stewart said. “They have to feel like we care also. If we are going to grow our fan base and have sellout crowds and expand our [Hilltopper Athletic Foundation] membership, we’re going to have to do it outside of Bowling Green. Nashville, to me, is a very untapped market for us.”
The Hilltoppers have made a concerted effort to meet top-tier programs halfway and bring intriguing matchups to Nashville.
On Aug. 31, Bobby Petrino will make his debut as WKU's football coach when — for the second time in three years — the Hilltoppers open the season against Kentucky at LP Field. It will mark the end of a four-game series between the schools. But Stewart is optimistic the rivalry will pick back up in a couple years and can include another game in Nashville.
He also wants to continue playing premier basketball opponents in the Music City. In five of the last six seasons, the Hilltoppers have played Louisville (twice), Tennessee and Vanderbilt (twice) in Nashville with four games at Bridgestone Arena in downtown.
“We’re always looking at opportunities to play in Nashville in sports in addition to football,” Stewart said. “Certainly we’ll try to have a basketball game here.”
But beyond bringing sports events to town, Stewart and Petrino want fans and alumni in Nashville to know how much they appreciate their support.
Stewart believes in the past the athletic department unintentionally relied on emails and advertisements to connect with its Nashville fan base. Last week’s Toppers on Tour stop at Jonathan’s Grille in Green Hills offered fans a chance to mingle with Petrino and men’s basketball coach Ray Harper and women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard in an informal setting.
Stewart says more face-to-face meet and greets are essential to tapping into a thriving alumni base.
“I think as an athletic department we kind of fell into a rut of thinking that because we have a website that if we emailed people and we had a billboard we’ve kind of done all we need to do,” Stewart said. “And I don’t think that works anymore. I think you actually have to get out in the community and engage people. Sometimes it is large groups. Sometimes it is small groups. Sometimes it is just getting together with eight or 10 people. But I think just a visible presence in addition to all the other things you have to do is really the way to go moving forward.”