SBJ/August 22 - 28, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Sponsors seek permission slips from schools

Sponsors who want to get involved in high school sports on a larger scale must convince state associations that their projects will pay off.
The promotional material that accompanies a pitch from Cleveland-based Home Team Marketing includes a breakdown of the audience the company says it will reach for sponsors and advertisers as its sports program grows.

That audience, which the company projects to exceed 160 million, betters the annual combined attendance for Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL.

“This is not only a larger audience, but a better audience,” a narrator says on the company’s promotional CD. “Unmatched fan loyalty and passion. Superior reach into local communities. Broad appeal with a high level of access. Tremendous frequency.”

The pitch goes on to point out that 86 percent of consumers say they will switch to brands that support causes they care about.

No, it’s not NASCAR. Home Team Marketing sells high school sports, cobbling together sponsorship and advertising rights of school districts across the country to deliver audiences large enough to merit the attention of major brands, thus far including Allstate, Century 21 and BlueCross BlueShield.

This year, Home Team expects its programs, built around sponsor signs placed at high school fields and gyms, to reach schools in 40 states. Some school districts within the Home Team portfolio also offer radio and TV advertising and promotional opportunities. To get to 160 million sets of eyeballs, the company says it will have to make it into 4,000 schools.

About 25,000 U.S. high schools field sports programs.

“We’re not IMG or Octagon,” said Peter Fitzpatrick, who launched Home Team Marketing four years ago, working out of his parents’ attic with his two brothers and a friend. “But we’re doing OK.”

With 15 employees at offices in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas and Seattle, Home Team is one of a handful of outfits that have locked into a message that resonates with both schools and brands.

Pinched by budget cuts, high school athletic programs and school districts in many states are increasingly receptive to sponsorship of their teams, facilities and events. At the same time, companies are searching for cost-effective ways to reach consumers — particularly high school-aged consumers — in ways that connect more closely than a pop-up ad or a 30-second TV spot.

High schools not only offer a desirable demo, but they allow companies to position themselves as aids in a local cause.

“The power of the high school market is the aggregate,” said Brad Williams, president of Huddle Inc., an Atlanta-based sports marketing company that this year will put the logos of brands such as Wendy’s and Nationwide Insurance on 86 million tickets to events at 4,000 schools spread across 23 states. “On that Friday night, you have all these communities across the country out at a football game. You add those all together by DMA, and that’s a pretty good number.

“If we can package these all together and sell a program that feels local, and then put it in the aggregate — that’s where the money is.”

The hurdle, of course, is expense. Aggregating sponsorship rights at the high school level means dealing with individual school districts, and managing the program effectively means contacting athletic directors at individual schools.

Those who think they can do it through state associations often find that they can help in a handful of states, but only the most aggressive and creative of them — North Carolina’s is the one mentioned most often — can deliver rights that extend beyond championship events. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) offers sound business-to-business opportunities for companies such as Rawlings, Gatorade and Daktronics, but it can’t get sponsors on the ground at schools.

Huddle’s program works, in part, because it is a simple proposition for schools. If your school is willing to put a sponsor’s logo on its tickets, Huddle will provide them at no cost. Most schools spend $500 to $1,000 a year on tickets, with the larger schools spending twice that.

Williams would not reveal the cost of the program, or the prices that sponsors pay for it. Neither would the Wendy’s executive who was the first to get behind the program, Dave Lierman, a regional market manager in the Southeast.

Lierman said high school sports appealed to Wendy’s because it connected the restaurants to communities effectively at a lower cost than pro or college sports. The tickets, which sometimes include coupons, not only drive traffic for Wendy’s, they also allow local operators a starting point for larger promotions with the schools.

“You used to tie in with a professional sports team and the visibility was good and it paid off,” Lierman said. “But now, from a cost standpoint, it’s not efficient. It’s more egos driving it than anything.

“Every little town in every state has high schools playing football on a Friday night. That’s the hub of the community. That’s where I want to be.”

Seeking approval

Steve Berrey is one of a handful of former employees of college marketing pioneer Host Communications — Hosties, they call themselves — who have been working the high school market in recent years, attempting to create value in those rights in the manner that their old boss, Jim Host, did for college athletic programs and NCAA championships in the 1980s.

Three months ago, Berrey launched his own firm managing sponsorships for state associations, starting in Florida, where he brokered a deal designed to put local State Farm insurance agents in front of schools statewide. He also produces a statewide TV show for the Florida High School Athletic Association and a syndicated Friday night radio show that runs down scores.

“When Jim Host created Host, he was at the bottom of the hill before the avalanche selling shovels,” Berrey said. “That’s exactly where high school athletics is today.”

It’s a common premise. Others familiar with Host draw the same parallels. They might be disappointed to hear that Host, who now works in the cabinet of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, does not agree.

He did at one time, though. In 1999, Host formed a company called I-High, which set out to build a sponsorship model for high schools in the same way Host had for colleges. It pitched the NFHS on the idea of national championships, which would be fed by state championships, creating a bundle of rights that sponsors could buy into.

Host said the NFHS was receptive, but the states were not, and still are not, even though high school athletic budgets are tight.

“A lot of high schools are struggling, and so they plaster signage all over the field, getting 50 bucks for this and 50 bucks for that,” Host said. “If they would pool their rights and then tie them into regional and state championships, they’d be worth more. If you added in a national championship, I think it would be a gold mine.

“But, I’ve thought it would be a gold mine for a while now. It’s going to take the collection of state associations to see the light and realize how much they can grow. They haven’t, and I don’t see it coming any time soon.”

Neither does Judy Thomas, who championed the idea as marketing director of the NFHS. Earlier this month, she left that job to work for the convention and visitors bureau in Indianapolis.

“Our membership does not want it; they don’t see the point of it,” Thomas said. “That’s where they see the commercialization. But, with us, from a national standpoint, who better to protect it and do it right and keep that from happening?”

The busiest, brightest week Thomas had at the NFHS came last October, after she was quoted in The New York Times, trumpeting the potential for high school athletics as the last, best untapped vehicle in the vast and cluttered world of sports sponsorship.

Her message resonated. Her phone rang.

“Cell phone companies, quick-serve restaurants, pizza — they were all calling, one after the other,” Thomas said. “Fortune 500 companies, with big budgets, calling us. I thought I was going to get all these things done.”

Nine months later, Thomas hadn’t gotten deals with any of them, mostly because the state associations that make up the national association are unwilling to come together in ways that a sponsoring company could benefit from — most notably, through national championships.

“We talked to major corporations,” Thomas said. “They’re willing to write checks to us for millions of dollars. But we have to make sure we are true to our membership. And they don’t want it.

“I don’t want to make it sound like they’re the devil. But they don’t see the value in it. And in the beginning, I didn’t either. But these programs may die. We have a chance to save these programs, and we’re turning our backs on opportunities.

“It just breaks my heart.”

Exploring options

Dave Stephenson started a sports marketing company in Texas two years ago because, in his prior life as publisher of a magazine devoted to Texas football, he encountered coaches and athletic directors who knew they had a marketable commodity on their hands, but didn’t know how to capitalize on it.

With school budgets tightening, the impetus is even greater.

“School superintendents are going to NFL games and college games,” Stephenson said, “and they’re seeing people stopping at Sprint kiosks and then getting a towel from a credit card company. They come back to campus and see 15,000 fans in the stands on Friday night, and they’re thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this? Where’s our piece of the pie?’”

Stephenson’s company, Titus Sports Marketing, delivers pie. He brokered a $1.9 million naming-rights deal for a historic stadium operated by the school district in Tyler, Texas, where he also created an annual football classic that fills the town’s hotel rooms.

That led to projects exploring sponsorship potential for two more school districts, including Carroll, home to Southlake Carroll, ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today last season.

“Every superintendent in Texas has in his files a contract from Coke or Pepsi or Dr Pepper that runs 10 years for seven figures,” Stephenson said. “They have that. Now they want to know what else is out there.”

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