SBJ/October 15 - 21, 2001/Opinion

College marketers: Students are consumers, too

When you think "college sports marketing," what does it mean? Is it a marketer using college sports to reach consumers? Or does it mean the marketer uses sports to reach college students?

I believe it can mean both, but you had better know who your target consumer is before entering the college sports arena. I was not surprised that the recent special sections of Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal primarily dealt with just one of these approaches — using sports marketing to reach consumers.

But what about effectively reaching college students on-campus through sports?

Marketers looking to reach 18- to 24-year-old men and women must look beyond intercollegiate sports. Intercollegiate athletics is merely an alternative to sponsoring professional teams, leagues and events. Student athletes are playing in front of a very diverse audience including many alumni, supporters and college sports fans who are out of the target consumer range. On a cpm basis for consumers in the 18-24 age group, there is a tremendous amount of waste sponsoring traditional college sports.

Over the past 20 years we have been preaching a different kind of marketing opportunity on the college campus, also loosely under the heading of college sports marketing. In our version, 18- to 24-year-olds don't play for a big audience, can't get a scholarship and won't get cut from the team.

On an average campus of 12,000 students, only a few hundred compete on varsity teams and no more than half actually attend or watch games, while as many as 10,000 participate in recreational sports and activities. On a bigger campus, the disparity in numbers between varsity athletes and the remaining student body is even greater.

In our divergent approach to helping corporate clients communicate with college students through sports, we create and manage on-campus marketing campaigns. By sponsoring recreational and intramural sports, companies can be a part of the student's lifestyle. Sponsors can endear themselves to the students and administration by providing financial support for school offerings that are fun, unique and exciting.

The most popular programs on campus are three-on-three basketball, four-on-four flag football, volleyball, softball and a variety of fitness activities. One of the great things about this approach is that you can create an event to match your brand. We have even developed scavenger hunts and tugs of war to match a brand's positioning.

Companies that invest millions of dollars in college football and basketball advertising without taking the next step onto campus are fooling themselves if they think they are marketing to 18- to 24-year-old consumers. There is a tremendous opportunity to extend the reach of their brand messaging where students live, eat, sleep, play, study, relax and compete by implementing a grassroots sports program as an extension of their ad campaign, which we call "narrowcasting."

The college campus has the ultimate captive audience, and many companies have been successful in sponsoring activities and programs that speak to the passion and interest of college students. By sponsoring a program on campus, marketers can build their brand, conduct research, drive Web site traffic, test markets and sample products.

College students are the upscale consumers of the future who are building lifelong brand decisions for this first time. For a fraction of the cost of a mass market advertising campaign, a marketer can reach a desirable, yet elusive consumer with a cost-efficient expenditure.

If you need numbers to back up the popularity of intramural and recreational sports, USA Today provided information in an April cover story dedicated to the subject of intramural sports: "There are 15 million college students with 30-50 percent of them playing intramural sports and up to 80 percent engaged in either intramurals or other campus recreational activities."

Colleges and universities are open to corporate-sponsored programs. Despite the new multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art fitness facilities, their budgets have been cut and they need programming. Sure, in some high-profile categories such as credit cards, beverages and footwear, companies are locked out by competitors. But there are hundreds of campuses where these conflicts do not exist and dozens of product categories are wide open. You just need to be the brave brand manager who exchanges a few 30-second spots for an on-campus marketing initiative that has real impact.

To better understand our philosophy, think back to your college experience and what motivated you. If it was TV ads, you missed a big part of college life. Although much has changed on the college campus in the past 20 years, one thing has not. College students want to have fun.

By being a part of their fun, you become a part of their lives and their brand of choice. Isn't that what marketing is all about?

Michael H. Goldberg is CEO of National Media Group (www.nmgsports.com), a sports marketing and PR agency in New York City and Princeton, N.J.

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