Chris Grosse said the idea actually started with his wife.
Over the summer, when college basketball season was just an abstraction, his wife Natalie would remind him to disconnect from his cell phone every once in a while and be present in the moment.
It’s an oft-repeated refrain: stop looking at your phone. The number of people in the United States who own a smartphone has more than doubled since 2011, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, from 35 percent of the country to over 75 percent in late 2016. Grosse is just one of many.
MORE: How a Wofford junior became one of the best three-point shooters in NCAA history
But Grosse, the assistant athletics director for marketing at Georgetown, has a penchant for taking cultural conversation points — like the familiar “stop looking at your phone,” or “darn millennials" — and turning them into events.
Grosse is the man behind Georgetown athletics’ various outlandish promotions since he was hired in 2014, including this Saturday’s Actual Reality seating section for Georgetown’s home game against St. John’s.
The Actual Reality promotion will be a designated seating section where cell phones are a non-starter. Those participating will check their phones before taking a seat; they’ll also pick up their tickets in physical form rather than using an eTicket, use a Polaroid camera on site if they’d like a memento from Saturday’s game, and have the opportunity to write a physical letter to a friend about the experience instead of firing off a quick text.
With the world trending towards Virtual Reality (VR), we ask you to take a step back and experience the @GeorgetownHoops Actual Reality (AR) Seating Section!— Georgetown Hoyas (@GeorgetownHoyas) January 10, 2018
No cell phones allowed
Letter writing station
Actually talk face-to-facehttps://t.co/QjHjrnOwUk pic.twitter.com/2endSMPOFJ
Grosse, who teaches a digital and social media grad class at Georgetown, said he feels like his students talk every week about virtual reality’s impending arrival in the sports world. An authentic sports experience from your couch instead of from the bleachers?
“That kind of scares me, as a sports marketing person,” Grosse said. “My job is to get people to come out to arenas. It kind of grew into, how can we use this thing, call it actual reality? Throw it back to the days when you didn’t spend the game with your head in your phone?”
The creativity started flowing for Grosse when he was working at Navy in 2014 in a similar role. He came up with what, at the time, he thought was a pretty plain idea: any fan who beat Navy’s mascot, Bill the Goat, at rock-paper-scissors before their Feb. 5 game against Boston University earned free admission to the game.
We had some fun in 2017! Got a few more things up our sleeves coming in 2018 pic.twitter.com/V4VCygSHLs— Chris Grosse (@Chris_Grosse) December 31, 2017
“It was really simple, just a kinda fun idea for the kids who come to the game, and all of a sudden I was getting calls from ESPN, from Yahoo! Sports, the Washington Post,” Grosse said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, there’s something here.’”
Grosse said these days he likes to choose conversations people are having in everyday life, ones that are polarizing — “but not so polarizing, like politics or religion” he adds — and use them to get Hoyas fans talking.
Take the Millennial Day promotion he organized in August, when the men’s soccer team handed out participation trophies to attendees when the Hoyas faced No. 15 UCLA. The press release Grosse sent out featured some stereotypically millennial language, including hashtags and dabs:
“At #MillennialDay, you can expect only the most #awesome giveaways (because millennials expect everything to be free) and the most hella cool activities. So that everyone feels welcome at Shaw Field, a #dabbing safe space will be roped off, as well as a halftime naptime break if you ~can’t even~ stay awake for the whole game.”
He’s also behind Georgetown’s “Hail to Kale” night, where the superfood was front and center, and an evening when the lacrosse team “retired” cargo shorts, among others. Grosse said the ideas normally come from conversations with his interns.
“Things start in our office, and we’ll just throw ideas around,” he said. “When we have something we think is good, we propose it to our external relations team, which is my boss, Dan O’Neil, who oversees things, and our ticket people, our communications people, our sponsorship people. We present the idea, and if they think it’s good, we start digging in and building out the whole promotion.”
One of his more inspired ideas was an in-laws promotion for a game over Thanksgiving break in 2015. The basketball team allowed fans to invite in-laws to a game, and then seat them across the arena.
MORE: A week with Oklahoma's Trae Young, the hottest name in college basketball
“It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and at that point we thought you want to get out of the house, but you’ve been with your in-laws for so long that you might need a little separation,” Grosse explained. “We came up with the deal where you could sit with ‘em or sit without ‘em, and there were two separate promo codes you could use.”
Of course, not every idea Grosse & Co. come up with is a winner.
An Adele night a few years back didn’t move the needle the way he’d hoped. He tried to put together a ‘Dumb and Dumber’ appreciation day because the 1994 movie is one of his favorites, but he later realized some of Georgetown’s students weren’t even born when it came out.
“So it flopped,” Grosse said, chuckling.
One of my fave promos for two years back: We let fans to bring their in-laws to a game over Thanksgiving break and they could choose to sit next to them, or sit across the arena from them. Cause we all need some space. pic.twitter.com/quXeyXcyoq— Chris Grosse (@Chris_Grosse) November 24, 2017
A few days before the Actual Reality promotion, Grosse’s desk was overflowing with a Polaroid camera and film, name tags, and everything else he bought through the Amazon account he set up for his eccentric events.
Organization for these events can mean extra work for his interns, his athletic director, and especially the ticketing office.
But Grosse said he knows each one is more than worth it.
“What’s great about being here is my boss, and the AD, they appreciate innovation and creativity,” he said. “They understand that if we want headlines in this town, we’ve got to be creative. They see the value in pushing the envelope.”