Sean Kimball sat down on his couch after a day at the beach and opened Instagram on his phone while at his home in Laguna Beach, California, last week. The typically monotonous act of scrolling through photos was interrupted by the first picture on his feed. The photograph Kimball saw, posted by the official BYU Cougar account, featured a blue cardboard box on a hill by Kimball’s house.
Curious about the box, the BYU junior hopped into his car barefoot and drove toward the location shown in the picture. He said on his way he saw about five other cars head the same direction. When he got near the location, he parked the car, hopped out, saw the box and ran. Kimball was the first person to reach the box, so he got to keep the box and all the BYU football swag it held.
The box was a part of BYU football’s countdown treasure hunt: BYU50.
BYU50 is a countdown campaign intended to build fan excitement for the upcoming football season. Beginning 50 days before kickoff, one state at a time, boxes full of BYU football swag are placed in secret locations, clues about the boxes hiding spots are posted on BYU Cougar social media accounts, and then the fans come, often in large groups.
“It’s totally unique to BYU, and when you think about the other schools in the country, nobody else can pull it off because nobody else has the network of fans that we do in every state,” said Chelsea Fairbourn, BYU athletics marketing assistant.
David Almodova, director of BYU athletics marketing, said every school has a way to countdown to football season. Most simply post on social media. “Our thing was: let’s post that (countdown), but let’s create an experience with it,” he said.
What started three years ago as a one-day, 20-box scavenger hunt in Utah has quickly grown into an international fan experience.
“We thought at the time that was super crazy, then David (Almodova) got the idea the next year to take it nationwide,” Fairbourn said.
Almodova said after the Utah scavenger hunt, fans from all around the country requested box drops in their states. From there, BYU50 was developed. It would be a 50-day countdown to fall camp with a box delivered to all 50 states.
Every year the hunt has evolved a little more. This year instead of 50 days before fall camp, the promotion started 50 days before kickoff, and, in addition to all 50 states, various countries like Australia and Costa Rica were added as drop spots.
“The one in Utah went so well, and we got so much feedback from Cougar fans across the nation, that we decided the next year to go nationwide, and that went so crazy that we decided this year we’d do it again and we’d do more boxes,” said Stuart Call, BYU athletics director of social media.
On July 17, fifty days before kickoff, the first box was dropped in Alabama. At least one box will be dropped in every state, and the promotion will end in Nebraska on Sept. 5.
Pulling off an international promotion like this takes months of planning. Bryce Lake, BYU athletics marketing coordinator, said the team started the conceptual talks for BYU50 last December.
“It’s definitely a beast to try to put together, but it’s so worth it to see how connected our fan base is,” Fairbourn said.
Almodova said coordinating BYU50 is intense. The marketing department uses connections among its employees to find volunteers in each state who can be trusted with the boxes. The boxes are shipped to the volunteers, and they work with Call. The volunteers send Call pictures of the drop sites, Call posts them to the Cougars social media, and the race is on.
And a race it is. In some cases, like Kimball’s, someone finds the box within a couple minutes of the social media post. Call estimated that the average time is under 10 minutes. None of the boxes have taken longer than 20 minutes to find.
“Essentially it’s a super basic scavenger hunt,” Call said. “It’s not meant to be hard or take a long time. It’s pretty simple: see the picture, know where you need to go, first one there wins.”
Not only do BYU fans quickly find every box, but up to 40 people arrive just after the winner.
“There’s always a huge crowd, which is really cool,” Call said. “The fact that there’s runners up is just as cool as the fact that there’s a winner so fast.”
Dana Eyerly won the box in Jacksonville, Florida, by waiting for five hours in the Florida summer heat with her husband, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
“It was really an exciting time for our family,” Eyerly said. “Even though we were waiting in 90-degree weather for five hours, it was worth every minute of it.”
Fans are strategic about finding the boxes. When people learn that a drop will be in their state, many call their Cougar-fan friends and coordinate plans.
Ultimately, BYU50 shows the reach of Cougar Nation. Not only does every state have a volunteer who is willing to drop the box, but people look for the box at every drop site.
In Delaware, a state not typically assumed as crowding with Cougar fans, the box was found in under seven minutes, Almadova said.
Bronco Mendenhall, BYU football head coach, was headed to Costa Rica, so a box went with him. A Cougar family on vacation located the box in less than 10 minutes.
“I think BYU50 has done a fantastic job of showing the passion of Cougar fans,” Call said.
Fairbourn agreed. “It’s really, really cool to drop a box in Maine or Alaska or these really obscure states and have someone find it in minutes.” She said one thing she likes about BYU50 is that every person has a story for why they are Cougar fans or why they decided to look for the box.
As a way to share all the individual stories, the marketing team developed the BYU50 website, BYU50.com. The site has the dates of the drops, maps, pictures and a blog section where volunteers, winners and searchers share their experiences with the promotion.
The Aug. 8 drops will be a little different than other states due to the heavy concentration of BYU fans in Utah. About 30 boxes will be dropped from St. George to Ogden. This scavenger hunt will include small competitions at the drop sites. The first few people who arrive will all have a chance to win, Almadova said.
The entire BYU50 promotion is unique to BYU.
“We figured we’re the only school in the country that could pull this off,” Lake said. “We just wanted to reward our fans and let them know that we recognize them wherever they are and give back to them as they show their support from every state.”