Fun & Friendly
By Kenny Berkowitz - Assistant Editor at MomentumMedia Sports Publishing.
A look at what happens when six college athletic marketing departments let their imaginations go wild.
Pink pompoms. Reality TV shows. Thirteen-year-olds calling play-by-play. What do any of these things have to do with collegiate athletics? Plenty, if you're trying to market your teams in innovative ways.
At Texas Christian University, a benefit for breast cancer created new partnerships in the community. At Southern Methodist University, marketers recast Donald Trump's management practices into a testing ground for basketball fans. And at Rice University, Houston-area kids are given control of its ballpark once a year.
Whether you are appealing to families, students, or long-time fans, coming up with new ideas is the name of the game in collegiate sports marketing. In this article, we tell you about six promotions that stirred up fan support on specific campuses.
When Brian Pracht looks at a three-year-old photograph of Wichita State University's Koch Arena, he sees a handful of fans wearing Shocker yellow, surrounded by people wearing every other color imaginable. Two years ago when the department launched its "Wear Your Shocker Colors" promotion, that started to shiftbut still, there was no clear color consensus in the stands.
So this year, gearing up for national exposure from two regular season men's basketball games on ESPN, the department decided to simplify its palette, switching from "Wear Your Shocker Colors" to "Wear Yellow." The result: increased apparel sales, re-energized fans, and a sea of supporters dressed in Shocker yellow.
"We thought yellow would stand out much better for the television viewing audience," says Pracht, Associate Athletic Director for External Operations. "So early in the season, we encouraged fans to wear yellow at a couple of home games, and in conjunction with that, we created a yellow uniform for our team to wear on special occasions. The response was unbelievable. The amount of yellow in the stands really stood out, it looked great on television, and we received lots of comments from peers around the country.
"The lesson," he continues, "is that if you ask your fans to participate in a promotion that sets your program apart from others in the country, you can really make a difference. We wanted to blanket the stands in yellow, and our fans responded tremendously."
A run of 1,500 yellow T-shirts quickly sold out, followed by positive responses to the department's yellow headbands, earbands, jackets, pullovers, men's dress shirts, and women's blouses. Sales steadily increased through the season and have been booming since the team won the 2006 Missouri Valley Conference title and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Division I men's tournament.
Though the athletic department started it as a promotion for only two men's basketball games, Wichita State marketers have increased the use of yellow in all their printed and online publicity materials, and intend to keep encouraging fans to wear yellow to every sporting event. "It's about more than selling T-shirts and reaching new fans," Pracht says. "Wearing yellow shows campus pride and community spirit, and we think it will continue to grow and even help attract student-athletes to the university. When recruits turn on the game and see 10,500 people in the stands all dressed in yellow shirts, waving yellow pompoms and really supporting our team, chances are they'll want to be a part of it. It's a simple promotion, but it's going to have long-term effects."
Currently in its fifth season, "The Apprentice" is one of television's most successful reality shows, especially among college-age viewers, drawing an average of 10 million fans each week. So when an athletics marketer at Southern Methodist University suggested putting their spin on a homegrown version, the room lit up.
"As a staff, we like to brainstorm new ideas and challenge one another to come up with the best concept," says Shawn Heilbron, Associate Athletic Director for External Relations. "That's where this idea was hatched, and as a group, we discussed how it might work and decided to go forward. We wanted to make it challenging for the students, entertaining for the fans, and fun for everyone."
Two years later, SMU has finished its second season of "The Big Shot," a high-energy, interactive marketing competition among students. Co-sponsored by SMU's business school, "The Big Shot" pits 12 students against each other in a battle to promote Mustang men's basketball. For each game, contestants are split into two teams and given a marketing assignment. Then, at scheduled time-outs during the second half, one candidate is eliminated by a panel of judges (which includes marketing professionals) until at the end of the season only one is left. The winner takes home a prize package, worth about $3,000, of two round-trip tickets on American Airlines, a mobile video phone from Nokia, four tickets to a Dallas Mavericks game, and gift certificates to local restaurants and retailers.
With help from the University's Cox School of Business (CSB), the department starts with about 30 applicants and whittles that group to 12 after a brief series of interviews. CSB and the athletic department design the challenges together, which grow increasingly difficult as the season progresses. Tasks include concession sales, product promotions (with the sponsor acting as a judge), and generating a pre-game buzz on campus. For the 2006 final assignment, working with a small budget from the department and meeting with athletic marketers beforehand to fine-tune their strategies, Heilbron split the arena in half and charged each candidate with creating the most energetic, enthusiastic cheering section.
Between games, fans keep abreast of the competition with recaps on the department's Web site. SMU also set up a special message board for fans to send their comments.
For the 2007 edition, Heilbron hopes to make "The Big Shot" even more like a television show, using SMU's video production students to shoot, edit, and produce weekly episodes to run on the school's cable station. That way, fans can see even more about the processand become more excited to attend games to cheer for their favorite candidates.
If the promotion sounds like a lot of work, it is. But Heilbron is convinced it's worth the effort. "It's enabled us to create a partnership with the business school and get more students to our games," he says. "And our contestants give us a rare opportunity to see things through their eyes, which is what we always try to do as marketers."
At Texas Christian University, marketers wanted to reach a different segment of the community. They also wanted to show the athletic department's charitable side. They found the perfect means by partnering with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which holds a Race for the Cure in Fort Worth, drawing 15,000 participants.
Aiming for the largest audience possible, TCU decided that football and breast cancer awareness could combine for the perfect win-win situation, no matter how unlikely it sounds at first. "For us, football was just a natural fit," says Jeff Crane, Director of Marketing at TCU athletics. "We knew football had the greatest mass appeal, and if we were going to do this promotion, we wanted to do it big."
In its first year, TCU's "Pink Out" raised $16,000 for the Komen Foundation's Tarrant County affiliate, which uses the money to provide medical care for underinsured breast cancer patients and promote breast cancer awareness and education. Half of the price of every ticket sold was given to the foundation, along with proceeds from the sale of 2,000 pink T-shirts and other Pink Out merchandise.
Crane started building relations with the Komen Foundation by contacting its local affiliate, which agreed to share its database, promote the game to its donors, network to provide additional support for the event, and lend its logo for a TCU/Komen Foundation T-shirt to promote the Pink Out. From there, Crane partnered with two groups already involved with helping the Komen Foundation. The school's Zeta Tau Alpha sorority chapter coordinated publicity among fraternities and sororities and sold pink T-shirts and caps before and during the football game, and the local Coldwell Banker Real Estate office sponsored a tailgate barbecue for 1,200 breast cancer survivors and their families.
Game day began with a family-friendly tailgate party, complete with face painting, clowns, jugglers, carnival games, live music, a classic car show, and a "Doctor Is In" booth to provide information about breast cancer treatment and prevention. Before kickoff, breast cancer survivors created a tunnel as the football team ran onto the field wearing pink stickers on their helmets. At halftime, survivors in the stands were applauded during a recognition ceremony.
The promotion drew about 4,000 more fans than average at Carter Stadium. Many of the 36,000 people in attendance wore pink clothing and shook pink pompoms. Next year, Crane is expecting to increase those numbers, and plans to include an expanded educational presence before the game, exclusive ticket promotions for Fort Worth's medical professionals, partnerships with local retailers to sell advance tickets, and sponsorships with area hospitals. In addition, Head Football Coach Gary Patterson and his wife have become co-chairs of "Tailgate for the Cure," the party that kicks off the "Race for the Cure."
"The first year took a lot of work," Crane says. "But it was well worth it. The event connected TCU to a whole world of non-profits and exposed TCU football to people who might not have come to a football game.
"Once we got the momentum going, it surprised me how excited people were," he continues. "I wasn't expecting men to buy into this, but they did. I wasn't expecting students to buy into this, but they did. No one had ever done anything like this around here, and the whole day was a synergy of all the right people working together for all the right reasons."
STUDENTS IN THE ZONE
At California State University-Fresno, there had never been an organized student cheer group. That changed when a handful of enthusiastic students approached Paul Ladwig, Associate Athletic Director for External Relations and Broadcasting.
"I met with the key student leaders and gave them a vision of what we thought their group could do," Ladwig says. "We provided some start-up funding, promised to supply them with cheer paraphernalia, kicked around a couple of different names for the group, and made it clear we wanted it to be as simple as possible for students to join. They took it from there."
That handful of boosters at the first men's basketball game of the 2005-06 season grew to 50 by the next game, 150 by the game after, and almost 1,500 before the end of the season. For the first few months, Ladwig met almost weekly with the REDZONE leadership, developing strategies to attract new members, choosing seats in the arena, holding ticket giveaways, creating a REDZONE logo for booster apparel, and finding a corporate sponsor for the first T-shirt printing.
But most of the work was done by the students themselves, which was Ladwig's plan all along. "It won't work unless you involve the students from the beginning," Ladwig says. "They got stories in the student paper, created the database, e-mailed the student body, and initiated the cheering. If you involve students in the entire process, they'll take ownership of it. You want them to build their own spirit group, with your department helping and advising them."
After getting its start during men's basketball, REDZONE spent the remainder of its first year spreading to the rest of Bulldog athletics. For 2006-07, Ladwig and REDZONE are collaborating on a direct appeal to freshmen as soon as they arrive on campus. Their goal is to enroll at least 3,000 freshmen as the core of a spirit group and grow the group steadily, one freshman class at a time, until a tradition is firmly established.
"We're telling freshmen it's a great way to meet people, hang out with your peers, and get the best entertainment value as a student at Fresno State," says Ladwig. "It's the thing to do on our campus."
By late spring of 2006, Ladwig and REDZONE had begun the department's push for the football season with a promotion called "100 Days to Kickoff." Getting a boost from REDZONE's growing database and word-of-mouth, the department will issue a press release every day with a new promotion, using video streaming, ticket packages, player profiles, Web auctions, online chats, radio station appearances, and regional tours.
Ladwig encourages other schools to start a cheer group, even if it means at first seeking out a base of only five or six committed student fans. "If they haven't come to you, there are always ways to find them," he says. "All of us see a core group of students who come game after game, week after week. Ask them if they want to take on something like this, and let them know you will help. Really, we've always had students like this, and the only difference now is that they're becoming organized. With a little help from the athletic department, they're able to create the kind of enthusiasm we all want."
PROMOTING A PERSONALITY
At the end of 2004, coming off its 11th consecutive losing season, Indiana University football didn't have much to brag about. Attendance was dropping, especially among students, and the revenues the sport should have been generating were seriously lacking. Its solution was to market the football program around its most sellable asset: new head coach Terry Hoeppner.
"We couldn't tie the campaign to our performance on the field and we couldn't wait until the team improved before we started drawing a crowd," says Director of Marketing Chad Giddens. "We really felt Coach Hep was the most marketable part of the program. He's from Indiana, has always been an IU fan, and he's really excited to be here. To him, this is the best job in the world, and we wanted to communicate that to our fans."
Doubling its marketing budget to $300,000 and working with an outside agency, Indiana created a coordinated campaign that used print, television, radio, and billboard advertising to convey a single message: Before the team could improve, it needed fan support. In its first of two television ads, called "Rose," Hoeppner talked about the importance of fan support in Indiana's last Rose Bowl appearance, which happened 38 years ago. In the second spot, called "Promise," Hoeppner sat in an empty stadium and outlined his coaching philosophy, promised that the team would show up every week, and asked fans to join them.
On a dozen billboards around the stateincluding several placed in its rivals' hometownsthat message was echoed with the slogan "Crowds help win games." On campus and in local newspapers, Indiana featured a takeoff on the famous Uncle Sam recruiting poster, with a photo of Hoeppner pointing his finger and the tag line, "Coach Hep wants you."
The department made Hoeppner available to the public with a weekly feature on its Web site called "Ask Coach Hep," where he answered e-mailed questions. Hoeppner also made frequent appearances on campus, introducing himself to the crowd at Hoosier basketball games and emphasizing the role of student support in building a winning football team.
To broaden the impact off campus, Indiana took Coach Hep, then Head Men's Basketball Coach Mike Davis, and Head Women's Basketball Coach Sharon Versyp on a six week, 12-stop Coaches Tour of the state, working with development staff to stage public and private events at the school's major markets. As part of the tour, Indiana included a traveling tailgate party to appeal to families, turning a meet-and-greet into a chance to experience football game-day atmosphere.
"We've done dinners, lunches, and golf outings for years, but they've always been centered around donors, and we wanted to do something a little different," says Giddens. "So we took our tailgate party on the road to show families what game day is like. We served hotdogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and iced tea, and we brought our KidsZone, which has interactive games for kids. That way, kids who have never been to Bloomington can create a positive connection to the school, and that may help them convince mom and dad to take them to a game. And in the long haul, when they start thinking about going to college, they may think of us."
It worked. Season ticket sales improved 39 percent over the previous year and student season ticket sales improved 106 percent. Though the team ended the season with a 4-7 record, football produced record revenue.
"The key was that we were able to tell people what they wanted to hear, and we didn't lie to them," Giddens says. "In his 'Promise' spot, Coach Hep spoke about the core values of working hard, playing hard, and giving your best--things that Hoosiers are generally fond of. He didn't promise to win X number of games or score X number of points, but he talked honestly. And when we combined that with all those opportunities to meet him in person, it made people feel good about the direction of the program."
At Rice University, which consistently ranks near the top of NCAA Division I baseball attendance, marketers rely on many of the same family-friendly tools as their counterparts around the country. They give away caps, bats, baseball cards, and ice cream sundaes. They hold trivia contests and on-field promotions, offer discount packages for tickets and food, and host birthday parties.
Then they take it to the next level. Once a year, for their Kids Take Over the Park promotion, Rice turns over the management of a college baseball game to a group of children, ages six to 13. "Every single thing adults would normally do that day is handed over to kids, with adults giving them on-the-job training," says Mike Pede, Associate Athletic Director for Marketing and Media Relations. "They take the tickets, usher people to their seats, work the souvenir stand, hawk programs, prepare the field, mark foul lines, address the crowd, measure pitch speed, run the scoreboard, play music between innings, and handle radio play-by-play. Everything that has a human component, they do."
The promotion draws over 100 kids, who sign up on the department's Web site ahead of time, listing three job preferences and agreeing to come to the ballpark half an hour before the game. (Another 20 or 30 usually decide to join sometime that day, and are quickly fit into the schedule.) When the kids arrive at Reckling Park, they're given T-shirts, name tags, and assignments, which generally rotate from one inning to the next. In a short meeting, staff members explain the do's and don'ts of stadium behavior, introduce kids to their adult trainers, and get them started on their first tasks.
The game begins with kids singing the national anthem and ends with kids running onto the field for an autograph and photo session with the team. Half an inning before their scheduled tasks, kids congregate in a staging area, where they're given free pizza and soda. And after some of the tasks, like calling play-by-play, which is recorded onto a CD, kids are given a souvenir to take home.
"A lot of work goes into it," says Pede, "but at the end of the day, there's a smile on the kids' faces that makes us all want to do it again. For a kid to go on the radio or run the PA or rake the field is incredibly exciting. And for each kid, there's a parent or grandparent following with a video camera. It's organized chaos, but it's a lot of fun."
Since starting this promotion in 1998, Pede has helped other schools copy the idea. The most important elements, he says, are to clearly explain the rules at the beginning of the day, pick only the jobs that staff members are willing to part with, and keep on-the-job trainers focused on making the tasks enjoyable for everyone.
"We've had many schools take the same idea and run with it, and it's been just as successful," Pede says. "Any great idea in marketing is one worth borrowing, so if you find a school that's doing something well, call them and ask them how they do it. Try something newit's certainly better than doing nothing."