Whether promotions on the radio or advertisements in a local magazine, if an ad about FireLake Casino is out there, chances are that you’re hearing work shaped by Kevin Huffine. The Anadarko, Oklahoma, native began working as the casino and bingo hall’s marketing manager in 2015.
After Huffine graduated from Anadarko High School, he walked on as an outfielder at Redlands Community College in El Reno. He studied history, hoping to become a teacher and coach. However, an injury to his pitching shoulder ended his playing days. Following his graduation from the University of Central Oklahoma with a history degree, Huffine decided against pursuing a teaching career.
Using the writing and research skills that he learned in earning a liberal arts degree, he took an internship in sports marketing for a Triple-A baseball team in the Colorado Rockies organization in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I literally sent out a resume to every major and minor league baseball team. So, I got an internship at Colorado Springs and went on from there,” said Huffine.
For six years, he worked his way across the lower tiers of professional baseball as a sports marketing staffer. When competing for viewers or game attendees who can sit at home and watch Major League Baseball, marketing professionals must be creative. Huffine and his colleagues developed many creative, and sometimes too successful, marketing ploys to draw attendance to the ball parks.
“In Colorado Springs, our promotions director was actually the first person that came up with the idea of an ‘All-You-Can-Eat Night’ at the ballpark. It packed the park, but it got so crazy that people actually brought in trash bags and filled them with anything and everything they could get at the concession stands,” he said. “Let’s just say that we didn’t do that night again that season.”
After Colorado Springs, he worked in Utah where he arranged a visit for the Utah Jazz’s professional mascot to attend an event and gained a whole new appreciation for the person behind the mask.
“Little did I know, but some professional mascots make six figures a year to be the mascot, and it’s their full-time job,” Huffine said. “We had the Utah Jazz bear at a game in Salt Lake City. Not only did he have his customized van, he also has his own customized Harley. And he goes so far to hide his identity, he has to go in a secured entrance and have a private locker room so no one knows who he is in real life.”
Huffine’s next stops took him to Tennessee and California where he worked for farm teams of the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays.
“In Tennessee, I had a burger franchise as a client, and I made two huge foam hamburgers for our promotion. We had huge foam buns, burgers, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes,” he said. “You had to not only race around the bases, but once you got to home plate, you had to put together the burger in the right order.”
Division 1 Athletics
Despite enjoying the experience, including an opportunity where he met his favorite player, Tony Gwynn, Huffine sought a bit more stability in his life.
“It’s one of those sports that to move up, you have to move quite a bit,” Huffine explained.
“I’ve got a daughter that lived out in Texas, so it made sense for us to move at the time down there,” Huffine said. “I wanted to be closer to family here in Oklahoma and in Texas, so I took a job in sports marketing at Baylor University.”
Huffine oversaw marketing duties for the women’s volleyball team, men’s basketball and men’s baseball teams. The latter was in the first year following the Dave Bliss scandal. Bliss, the former head coach, was involved in a cover-up of NCAA rule violations. Those violations came to light amidst a murder investigation into the death of one of the team’s players by a fellow teammate. A cloud hung over the program despite a new coach, staff and players.
“It was challenging, and there were times where, I mean, we would have a conference game towards the end of the season. The doors are open and you’re wondering if people are going to show up for the game that night. So it was it was pretty tough,” he said.
In light of the challenges, Huffine looked fondly on his time at the Waco university.
“When I took over men’s basketball marketing, it was the first year that they actually got to play a full, non-conference schedule after the Dave Bliss stuff. So, I got to see the football program and men’s basketball program go from doormats to making it to the bowl games and making it to the Elite Eight for men’s basketball,” he said.
For a person who grew up playing and watching sports, Huffine’s time at Baylor was just as satisfying as his time working in the minors.
“I have met a ton of famous athletes — got to pose with Robert Griffin III’s Heisman trophy, watched KD (Kevin Durant), Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Epke Udoh and other first round draft picks from courtside at Baylor,” he said. “I got to attend two bowl games with Baylor football after a long drought of not going to a bowl game.”
Huffine tapped into the innovative streak he honed while working in minor league baseball marketing by arranging a basketball game at Baylor with mascots from across the state playing at halftime of a college game. On another occasion, he helped organize a military appreciation weekend for troops and their families stationed at the nearby Ft. Hood
Army Base. He cites it as one of his favorite promotions.
“I always sat aside one weekend during the season to have a military appreciation weekend. Our team wore camo uniforms, and I was fortunate enough to work closely with the Warrior Transition Unit at Ft. Hood and brought a busload of wounded warriors and their families to the games,” he said. “I was given a patch and a warrior transition coin from the commander of the unit, which I still have today.”
Covering sports marketing duties for a college athletic department team in a major conference does not lend itself to a normal nine-to-five schedule. Despite enjoying his six years at Baylor, Huffine eventually looked for an even more stable regimen.
“You’re working a lot of hours with very little time off, so you kind of get burned out,” Huffine said. “And it was just an easy transition to be able to move back up here.”
He landed back in his home state, promoting the now-defunct minor league hockey team, the Oklahoma City Barons. His year working for the hockey team in Oklahoma allowed him to see the growth in tribal gaming and the marketing campaigns involved in promoting the industry.
With the closure of the Barons franchise and a brief stint marketing for a local construction firm, Huffine applied at FireLake Casino. Hired in 2015, he enjoys the unique differences that come with promoting a tribal gaming experience.
“I worked in sports for 12 years,” he explained. “After a while in promotions and sports, you kind of beat the dead horse, and everybody’s doing everybody’s promotions.”
Huffine focuses on a new generation of patrons. He has overseen a renewal of the casino’s social media marketing campaigns. His work also focuses on navigating the generational shift underway in gaming, where members of the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers age out and Gen X and Millennials become the next solid consumer base.
He described emerging industry trends, which include games of chance that more closely resemble console and computer gaming compared to the traditional reel and touch screen machines that line casino floors.
“There’s one game that I played out in Las Vegas where you actually go around and shoot zombies and earn money off of that,” he said. “(Customers) are really starting to turn to more interactive games … and that’s what we’re trying to do. FireLake is getting some of those interactive games in to bring the younger crowds in.”
During the same visit to a conference in Las Vegas, Huffine also described a growing interest in sports betting that is no longer limited to betting on teams. Now, individuals can wager on specific players and non-traditional competitions.
“Another thing that people don’t think of is actually the electronic sports … you can go in and bet on someone actually playing a video game,” he said.
Those possibilities may be a long way away from viability on a large scale in his home state though. Huffine recognizes the nuances between what works in a place like Las Vegas or Atlantic City and what will work for a tribal gaming operation here.
“In Oklahoma, it’s definitely a lot different than any of the other states that have gambling. But to me, it’s more like what the players like in here,” he said. “A lot of our players like being able to come in on a continuity program and get rewards over a course of a month.”
In Las Vegas, the casino is part of the overall experience patrons visit the city for, but in Oklahoma, gaming marketers like Huffine need to build a rapport with regular customers.
“I would say FireLake Casino here in Shawnee is more like Cheers because we know everybody that comes in. The challenge is figuring out what players might like,” Huffine said.