Friday, May 3, 2013

NCAA Ban on Field-of-Play Ads is not the End of the Game

The NCAA has earned a reputation over the years as a vigilant creator and enforcer of rules. Some would say the NCAA's practices amount to selective creation and enforcement, but that is a question better left for another time (better yet for another blogger to take up). The most recent case in which the authority of the NCAA to govern the practices of its member institutions arose this week.On Wednesday, the NCAA rules committee decreed that advertising on the field of play would be prohibited. There are a few exceptions (venue naming rights sponsors' names can appear in no more than two places without logo and names/logos of title sponsors for postseason bowl games can be placed on playing surface).The prime victim or the new rule is an institution's placement of URLs and hashtags on the field or court. The practice has not gained widespread use yet (and I suppose it will not now for sure); Mississippi State was the first to paint Twitter hashtags on the field in 2011 and have also appeared on other fields including Michigan, Arkansas, and North Carolina State.

Protecting Brand Identity- But Whose?
Reaction to the NCAA's new rule has been somewhat predictable- this issue is not a priority, the rule denies institutions leeway to engage in marketing as they see fit, and it is another step toward sanitizing college football that makes it more like the NFL (aka the No Fun League). Some observers even wonder if placing restrictions on social media tactics in this way might nudge college football's elite programs closer to breaking away from the NCAA altogether. This view might be extreme, but at the very least the question raised- why did the NCAA take this action? Simply put, it is to protect brand identity. There are multiple brands that must be managed: the NCAA brand and the brands of the member institutions. One might say that the new rule is to protect institutions from themselves. The practice is relatively minor in scope now, but as budgets continue to be strained and new revenue streams are sought the temptation to sell real estate to the highest bidder might be too great to resist. Maintaining a disciplined approach to branding might erode slowly if more hashtags and URLs appear on the field of play. It was wise for the NCAA to address the issue now before it moved beyond novelty and gained traction among more schools.

Not the End of Marketing as We Know It
As a marketer, I cringe at the idea of restrictions being placed on creativity by an external body like the NCAA. But, I also cringe at marketing run amok, and I worry that creative integration of social media into the field of play would sooner or later lead to a controversial, ill conceived idea that would give a bad rap to the practice in general. It is important to remember that the NCAA did not ban the use of hashtags, only the placement of marketing messages on the field of play. Venue signage and communication are still fair game and offer ample opportunities to connect with fans. Besides, the hashtag and URL are not magical tactics whose absence on a football field or basketball court will cause irrevocable harm to an athletic program's marketing strategy. What is important is how people are engaged once they are driven to follow a Twitter hashtag or join an online community.

Chalk up the new NCAA rule prohibiting on-field advertising as an effort to control the NCAA brand and save schools from straying too far from their current brand messaging. The NCAA cannot be faulted for wanting to achieve those outcomes. Placement of hashtags and URLs was clever and refreshing while it lasted. Now, it is up to schools' sports marketing staffs to develop new ideas for bringing their digital media platforms to their fan base.

CBS - NCAA Rules Committee Bans Hash Tags, URLs from Football Fields"