SBJ/20080107/This Week's News

Sponsor debate divides NCAA

A controversial proposal by the NCAA has university leaders debating where to draw the line on the use of student athletes in commercials and promotions.

When the NCAA convention convenes this week in Nashville, Proposal 2007-26 is sure to be a popular, if not heated, topic. If passed, it would grant sponsors a new level of flexibility to use student athletes in their ads, as long as the student athlete isn’t directly endorsing the product.

NCAA guidelines don’t permit sponsors to use highlights of student athletes who currently have eligibility in commercials or promotions, but under Proposal 26, sponsors would be able to use game footage, audio and photos of current athletes. These sponsors would have to identify themselves as a corporate partner of the school in the ad or promotion; universities would maintain veto power over any creative they didn’t approve.

“We’re trying to allow some flexibility while protecting our amateur standards,” said Chris Plonsky, the director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas. Plonsky chaired a committee that has spent the last year studying the issue and writing the proposal.

Another proposal, 2007-28, would allow media organizations to use a student athlete’s name or likeness in promoting upcoming coverage. It has not met the same scrutiny as Proposal 26, which appears to face stern opposition from the presidents who would ultimately have to approve it.

“There’s not much presidential support for the way it’s written and I think we’re better off keeping our student athletes out of advertising rather than encouraging it,” said Georgia President Michael Adams, a member of the NCAA’s board of directors, a group of university presidents and chancellors who would have the ultimate vote.

The set of NCAA rules that govern sponsor activity was written some 20 years ago, when the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist. Plonsky’s committee was charged with making the language of the rules applicable to today’s media, while offering sponsors more room to operate.

Updated rules theoretically would help university compliance officers make their own decisions instead of calling the NCAA for an interpretation every time a sponsor presents a new idea. Some schools complained that the interpretation one day was different the next.

It was through these repeated requests from their member schools that the NCAA saw the need to modernize their rules.

“The idea was to see how we can move forward,” said David Berst, the NCAA’s vice president for Division I. “You’ve got commercial entities whose interest is business, and our interest is educating student athletes. We needed to take a closer look to figure out if these two worlds intersect at all.”

In the past, corporate sponsors who used game footage or photos in their creative have had to use material at least five years old to ensure that no eligible athletes were visible. Or, they simply removed all identifying marks from helmets and uniforms.

Under current rules, the only time eligible athletes are allowed in ads is when they promote teams or universities, as they do on schedule cards or team posters.

“I think with the sponsors, the current rules are viewed as being so difficult, some are not even willing to try (the college space). It’s too much of a hassle,” said Mike Rogers, a law professor at Baylor and a member of the committee that studied the proposal.

Proponents of the proposal say that student athletes would not be directly endorsing a product; only their highlights would be used. They wouldn’t be involved in the filming of a commercial or a photo shoot. The broader leeway for sponsors might help universities attract and keep corporate partners at a time when schools are seeking new revenue streams.

Of course, these amateur athletes also would not be paid for the use of their likeness in an ad. It remains to be seen how schools would price their corporate sponsorship programs under the new proposal and if they would charge more for the use of an athlete’s likeness.

Opponents say that even though student athletes might not hold up a product and espouse its virtues, the presence of their highlights in a commercial is a tacit endorsement, and therefore violates the NCAA’s amateur standards.

“I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do,” Adams said. “That’s what a pro athlete does, not an amateur athlete.”

To better understand the needs of sponsors, the committee invited multimedia rights holders, NCAA sponsors and TV network executives, among others, to weigh in on the proposal. They concluded that schools could benefit from looser restrictions without exploiting the student athletes.

“We’re not looking for Vince Young to hold up a Coke can,” Plonsky said. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about allowing our partners to help expose the great stories of our student athletes. We’re just trying to tell a story using the media muscle of our partners.”

Part of the subcommittee’s task was to establish real-life examples of how the new rules might be applied.

The change would allow, for example, Tyler
Hansbrough to promote a coming
game on ESPN.

What if a sponsor wanted to use an ad to tell the story of LSU basketball player Garrett Temple, whose father, Collis, was the first African-American basketball player at LSU and whose brother, Collis III, played for the Tigers five years ago.

“If a sponsor wants to tell the story of generations of student athletes playing and graduating from the same school, what’s the problem?” Plonsky said. “As the rules are now, a sponsor couldn’t do that because the student athlete (Garrett Temple) is still eligible.”

When the Division I Management Council, a group of athletic directors, conference commissioners and other university leaders, meets in Nashville this week, no vote is expected, but the group does intend to offer its initial review of the proposal. Berst said the council will be asked to table it for further evaluation.

For the proposal to be enacted, it would have to pass the Management Council and ultimately the board of directors. A presidential task force is being formed to review this proposal and others over the next nine months to develop guidelines for advertising and tune-ins (Proposal 28).

If Proposal 28 passes, ESPN, for example, might use an interview with North Carolina’s All-America basketball player, Tyler Hansbrough, to promote a coming game on that network, with him saying,“ESPN, home of the Tar Heels and ACC basketball.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Plonsky said. “Is it so heinous that a student athlete says, ‘Watch this broadcast’? Under the letter of the rules currently, that’s not allowable.”

Adams said the presidents he’s talked to aren’t as bothered by Proposal 28, but they’ll need plenty of convincing before they pass Proposal 26 as it’s written.

“I simply have some concerns with the proposal as presented, and many of my colleagues do, too,” he said. “A good part of the concern is whether we’re extending excessive commercialism on the backs of our students.”

Rogers, the faculty athletic representative at Baylor, joined the committee to study Proposal 26 as a skeptic, but has since become a supporter.

“These highlights are already on TV in the public domain,” he said. “There’s no time commitment from the student athlete and they’re shown in a positive light.”

An advertiser on the team schedule poster is OK,
but it isn’t always OK — got it?

What’s clear, Rogers said, is that the rules must be made easier to understand for the schools and their sponsors.

To highlight the confusion, Tennessee, an Adidas school whose athletes wear Adidas marks on their uniform, cannot sell an ad on the team’s schedule poster to Adidas. It would be perceived that the players are promoting the shoe company. But Tennessee could sell that spot to practically any other company not otherwise on the poster. In that scenario, the athletes would simply be promoting their team — not a sponsor — on a schedule poster.

The NCAA’s top sponsors, Coca-Cola, Pontiac and AT&T, all said they’d be opposed to using student athletes as spokespeople for their products, but the ability to use game footage featuring current players would enhance their spots by adding authenticity.

AT&T was one of the sponsors involved with the committee’s vetting of Proposal 26. Tim McGhee, AT&T’s director of national sponsorships, said current game footage would be one more element for the company’s ad agency, BBDO, to incorporate into the creative process.

Using highlights of current athletes “is something we’d like to have the opportunity to consider,” McGhee said. “But we’re really taking a wait-and-see attitude. We certainly never want to be construed as using these athletes to endorse our product.”

While the rules are designed to keep eligible student athletes out of ads, Pontiac is one sponsor that’s found a way to make current highlights the centerpiece of its “Game Changing Performance.” Working with its Chicago-based agency, Leo Burnett, Pontiac structured a promotion that awards $100,000 in scholarship money to the school whose football team has the year’s best “Game Changing Performance.”

Online voting determines the winner at the end of the season. Don Peasley, vice president and account director at Leo Burnett, said the $100,000 scholarship is paid to the winning school’s general scholarship fund, not the athletic department.

“When the ‘Game Changing Performance’ logo is delivered, we’re not talking about a car, we’re talking about a scholarship program,” Peasley said. “The NCAA reviews everything to make sure there’s a very clear separation between the footage and our product. And, we’re emphasizing team plays, not specific athletes.”

So, where does marketing end and exploitation begin? Are athletes representing a product if they’re scoring touchdowns in a commercial, or are they simply representing their school? Those are questions the NCAA hopes to answer in the coming year.

“We’re not waiting with bated breath for substantial changes in the way college sports are marketed,” said Greg Brown, president of Learfield Sports, which holds the multimedia rights to about 40 universities. “Most sponsors are pretty well-educated about student athletes not being a part of a campaign. But like most others, we’re curious to see what happens.”

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