Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Are College Athletic Programs Fumbling Corporate Partnerships?

Excitement is in the air as a new college football season is days away. College football's popularity in the United States is solid. A 2016 Harris Poll found college football to be the third most popular sport in the country, trailing only pro football and baseball. Interest in football and collegiate athletics in general makes college athletic programs attractive to potential corporate partners. Brands value the affinity many people hold for their favorite college sports teams. Sponsorship of collegiate athletics is a vehicle for reaching consumers by associating with something with which they have an emotional attachment.

A key to sponsorship effectiveness is communicating the association between brand and sponsored property. Sponsorship impact is one outcome for which a well-kept secret is not very helpful. The link between sponsor and sponsee should be made known for sponsors to receive maximum benefit from the association.

The Internet as Sponsorship Promotion Channel

An asset sports properties have to offer corporate sponsors is promoting the partnership on their websites. A selling point that can be used with prospective sponsors is access to fans visiting a property's website. The web gives sponsors an always-on platform that reaches a larger audience than possible at live events. This characteristic of the Internet as a sponsorship promotion channel should motivate collegiate sports properties to develop innovative ways to help sponsors reach fans. Unfortunately, such best practices are happening infrequently

An Analysis of Sponsor Integration

How do college athletic programs integrate sponsorship into their websites? An analysis of the websites for all 128 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions I conducted July 25-August 24 examined three aspects of corporate partnerships for college athletic programs:
  • Dedicated corporate partner content
  • Exposure in form of sponsor names or logos on website
  • Sponsorship solicitation for potential sponsors
Findings of the analysis suggest college athletic programs and their agency partners are misplaying opportunities to create value for their corporate partners.

Dedicated Partner Content

A surprisingly low number of college athletic programs have a page dedicated to corporate partnerships. Only 23 of 128 institutions (18%) had a page featuring names or logos of sponsors. Many websites had pages with titles such as "Corporate Partners" or "Sponsors," but in many instances these pages were for sponsor solicitation; they did not feature current corporate partners.

Sponsor Exposure

A lower bar for sponsor integration on a property's website is placement of logos on site pages. Brands appearing in these placements usually were not identified as sponsors, but it was evident that their presence was consistent with that of a sponsor, not merely Internet ads. Sponsors were much more likely to be featured in this manner as 68% of institutions gave sponsors exposure, usually at bottom of pages on their sites. Still, nearly one-third of institutions did not give their corporate partners any exposure on their official athletic department website. 

Sponsor Solicitation

Websites were more likely to have sponsor solicitation information than any other type of sponsorship-related content. Nearly three-fourths (73%) of websites had a page for sponsor solicitation. Often, the link for this content takes a visitor to an external website of the sponsorship management firm (e.g., IMG College or Learfield) with general information about sponsorship opportunities available. 

Does Power 5 Membership Matter?

In addition to analyzing sponsorship-related practices for FBS institutions as a whole, additional analysis compared institutions from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC) with non-Power 5 institutions. Findings of this comparison include:
  • 27% of websites for non-Power 5 institutions (17 of 64) had dedicated corporate partner content; only 9% of Power 5 institutions (6 of 64) featured corporate partners with a dedicated page.
  • More Power 5 institutions gave sponsors a presence other than a dedicated page than non-Power 5 institutions, with 39% of Power 5 institutions placing sponsor logos on their site versus 25% of non-Power 5 institutions doing the same. 
  • The practice of having a sponsor solicitation page did not differ depending on whether an institution belonged to a Power 5 conference or not as 72% of Power 5 institutions and 75% of non-Power 5 institutions had a solicitation page on their official athletics website.

Are Sponsors Being Served?

College athletic programs may be fumbling their relationships with corporate partners. Sponsors are a staple for sports properties, but many college athletic programs are not effectively communicating their partnerships with companies and brands. Of course, website presence is but one element available to communicate a sponsorship. Properties may put greater emphasis on giving sponsors exposure in venues at sporting events as well as an on-campus marketing presence. 

That said, the relatively low number of programs touting corporate partners in the form of dedicated website space and content is surprising. The low percentage of institutions communicating their corporate partnerships is also surprising given that many of the sponsor solicitation pages reviewed touted website integration as a benefit sponsors could enjoy. The analysis conducted suggests there is much work to be done in fulfilling the promise of using college athletic program websites to communicate corporate partners' involvement.