From the past nine years of selling sponsorships across college athletics and professional sports, there have been notable key differences between these two massive ecosystems. In terms of the actual partnership sales cycle – from exploratory conversation to proposal, negotiation to contract, activation to renewal – these stages remain the same. The real name of the game is relationship building.
Decision makers do business with people they trust, particularly sellers who understand their goals, objectives, and pain points. If the seller can prove the team or organization has the right audience, where the audience is attentive to the company and its products, and that they will be able to create a partnership that generates awareness and engagement with the company’s target audience(s), then there’s assurance the relationship will maximize the probability of increasing revenue for the partner brand.
All this being said, these are the key learnings I have discovered along the way that can help sellers establish meaningful marketing partnerships at the collegiate level:
What is your story?
Everyone loves a good story. But what is your story? Understand the narrative of your university and college athletic department, while providing research supporting it in a direct way. You must have the ingredients to tell a breathtaking story with tremendous characters and compelling content. The quality of your storytelling will be directly proportional to the value of the partnership. Are you a nationwide powerhouse with an enduring global audience because of your alumni base? Are you a regional presence with a strong hold across a five-state footprint? Are you a local entity that is seen as a strong pillar in your community? Do you graduate students into certain industries more than others? Is your fan base multi-generational?
Knowledge of who you are before you understand who the client is of the upmost importance because that story will need to be in alignment with the company and the goals they are looking to accomplish. (Side note: If it so happens you work for a third-party collegiate multimedia rights holder instead of in-house, share that too. You will be able to add to the story and share the plethora of resources you have at your disposal to be a true swiss-army knife of integrated marketing solutions from an emerging content standpoint. This gives the client confidence you are an expert on how the brand can gain access to a high concentration of recurring, captive college athletic fans 24:7:365.)
Focus on the benefits
We have all been guilty of this before, regardless of if you are in college athletics or professional sports. We focus on all the cool features of the marketing asset, but not necessarily the why and the business impact it will have for the partner brand. For example: in-venue signage. Long gone are the days of packaging a partnership around a particular set of in-venue assets, throwing in some tickets and hospitality, and calling it a day. But the specific case of in-venue signage is a strong illustration for college athletics compared to professional sports. The NBA, specifically, has done an incredible job in evolving its game presentation because the fan experience is at the heart of every decision the league and their respective organizations make. This means less in-venue signage and more maximizing brand visibility through the limited, extraordinary assets it has inside the arena. You can go to a global brand and discuss the benefits of TV visible signage when it comes to the primary audience (national audience, opponent audience, in-stadium audience) and secondary audiences (auxiliary highlights on global broadcast networks, highlight reels on social media channels).
"Most companies want the brand association that comes with Football and Men’s Basketball due to their robust scale and reach, yet the one-on-one touchpoints at other sports can allow clients to breakthrough even further because of the vigorous number of home games."
Not to say the same cannot be said for college athletics, but college sports are endemic to American culture. In college athletics, many Football and Basketball venues are historic in nature and will never be demolished. Of course, there might be significant upgrades and renovations over the years. Simply put, college athletic venues have gone in a different direction and continue to add in-venue signage opportunities when it is not necessarily needed. The end game has become the selling of a particular asset, not for the benefit of the client, but just because it needs to be sold to justify its means. Unless the goal is impressions in front of a sizable audience for brand exposure, a sign is not going to produce measurable positive results. On the other hand, leveraging signage as a supplemental piece to create a call-to-action – whether it’s an in-market or digital activation – is how we become better at leading with the benefits and how it will impact their company.
Understanding your sports on-campus
Here, college athletics has an upper hand to professional sports. If your college athletics department has a comprehensive list of sponsored sports, sellers can create year-round activations through live sporting events on-campus from early August to late May. Nothing can recreate the excitement and drama generated from live sports. We are still human beings, and we yearn for that collective human engagement of being around others – regardless of if you know them or not – and we root for the same common purpose.
This is where you need to understand the audience makeup of the game attendees by sport. Not just basic demographics, but their psychographics and behaviors. Think of it this way when it comes to professional sports. For instance, Verizon has a league partnership with the NFL. They choose to activate with a handful of teams based on priority markets and the unique differentiators those organizations have to initiate a personalized conversation with their focal audiences. The same can be said for college athletics in terms of year-round programming and the various sports on-campus. If you are a Power 5 school, there is a chance Football and Men’s Basketball are your anchors to pull game attendees on a regional and statewide level. In the likelihood these might be significant sponsorships from an investment standpoint at your school, they are probably utilizing other various sports on-campus to aim for micro-targeted, engagement-driven opportunities. It is not necessarily the quantity of those engagements, but the quality of those interactions.
"College athletics is a one-stop shop representing youth, students, families, and alumni. It provides just about the right audience for any company looking to make an impact. It enthralls, it provides pure entertainment, and it offers a place to be a part of something bigger than yourself."
Most companies want the brand association that comes with Football and Men’s Basketball due to their robust scale and reach, yet the one-on-one touchpoints at other sports can allow clients to breakthrough even further because of the vigorous number of home games. College athletics might be the big fish in the little pond when it comes to universities located in smaller markets in comparison to professional sports. But there’s immense value there to uncover. Understanding the types of fans coming to your sporting events can be a huge advantage for you.
No geographical limitations
Professional sports leagues set marketing territories for each respective organization to not infringe upon the grounds of other teams that might be in the same region or state. Two years ago, the NBA granted rights to allow its clubs to sell a select number of international sponsorship rights for use at retail locations on the sponsor’s owned digital and social platforms to take advantage of the leagues global reach. But for everyone else? Domestically, they still must abide to a policy limiting teams to a X-mile marketing territory. In college athletics, promotional rights for intellectual property and partner designations are held at the school level – not with the NCAA – with limited-to-no geographical restrictions. Based on fan following and the prowess of your college athletic department, partnerships at the collegiate level can work well for clients who want to develop a regional or statewide campaign in major markets where you have a strong affinity of fans located. For that reason, you have the chance to become efficient, scalable, and competitive for a brand marketer’s budget. College athletics provides an incredible opportunity for clients to leverage your college athletics department as a singular point of entry to gain access to key markets in a responsible manner.
The passion of the college fan
The infatuation and fever of the college athletic fan is unrivaled. First-party and third-party data can provide analytics all day about the propensity for a college athletic fan to support a sponsor because of the passion they have for their favorite college team and what this means as far as purchase motivation, finding out more information, etc. Personally, I still think it is very difficult to measure how enthusiastic a college athletic fan might be about their favorite team. Consequently, the client has unlimited potential to unlock a fan’s passion point and earn their trust – establishing the true meaning of partnership. The mechanics of how clients can gain attribution from a college athletic event and its fans is what it is all about. It does not matter if your college athletic department is not grabbing national headlines…or is not featured on sports networks consistently…or is not with a conference that has its owned dedicated cable network. It does not even matter if the team is a winner on-the-court/on-the-field. Why? Because you are sitting on a goldmine.
For brand marketers – local, statewide, regional, or national – college athletics are appealing because you have zealous fans across a variety of demographics - Millennials, females, annual household income of $100K+, highly educated. And of course – college graduates. Sellers have the great fortune of representing universities with large enrollments and these universities pump thousands of graduates into the marketplace each year. Guess what? These allegiances stay with them for a lifetime. Think of it this way. A child might have three different Kevin Durant jerseys in his closet for every team Durant has played for in the NBA. He is not a fan of the teams Durant played for. He is a fan of the player. In the college landscape, future undergraduates are choosing where they want to spend their life for the next four years or even more. They chose the university you represent from a college athletics standpoint. That is real value. It is one of the most powerful emotional drivers in all of sports.
In looking back on my career in sponsorships for college athletics, I have represented an FCS-football school, a mid-major NCAA conference, and a SEC school. Believe me when I say this – partnerships in the college athletic space are significant because of the craze of the fan. A fan is short for fanatical. And it will never go away. College athletic fans are loyal, spiritual and look at their team as a lifestyle choice.
College athletics is a one-stop shop representing youth, students, families, and alumni. It provides just about the right audience for any company looking to make an impact. It enthralls, it provides pure entertainment, and it offers a place to be a part of something bigger than yourself. College athletic fans will invest precious resources – attention, time, and money – all in the pursuit of their favorite team, and this makes college sports a powerful and compelling medium for your clients to reach these audiences.
Chris Walker was appointed Senior Manager of Business Development for Florida Gators Sports Properties @ Learfield IMG College in July 2019. Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Chris received his undergraduate degree in sport management with a minor in mass communications at the University of Florida, and then went to pursue his MBA at the University of Alabama. With more than nine years of experience in the sports industry handling corporate partnerships, sponsorship strategy, contract negotiations, account management and premium seating, Chris' responsibilities include connecting brands with passionate Florida Gators through multi-dimensional, fully-integrated marketing partnerships based on specific business and marketing objectives. Before assuming his current role, Chris was previously with the Orlando Magic from January 2016 to June 2019 as a Partnership Development Manager. Chris got his start with Learfield Sports in three separate capacities from May 2012 to December 2015: Corporate Sales Assistant at Learfield Sports headquarters in Plano, Texas, Account Executive at Coyotes Sport Properties in Vermillion, South Dakota, and then Business Development Manager at MVC Sports Properties in St. Louis, Missouri. He is also a mentor in theClubhouse and you can schedule a 1:1 call with him here.