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Volume 22 No. 23
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Colleges find revenue stream in social media

The “Drive to Kickoff” launched as a simple social media campaign counting down the days to the University of Southern California’s 2013 football season. But at the bottom corner of the infographic was something new for USC’s social media messaging — a small Audi logo. It marked the first time the school and its rights holder, Fox Sports, had sold a sponsorship on one of the school’s official social media accounts.

From that seemingly innocuous trial, USC has expanded social media sponsorships into a significant moneymaker.

Once considered added value or even a throw-in for corporate clients, social media sponsorships have now become a staple of USC’s corporate partnerships. Fox Sports, the school’s rights holder, says revenue from social sponsorships is approaching mid-six figures annually, or close to 5 percent of the property’s total revenue. That’s up from a zero line item just a few years ago.

The official USC Athletics account on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat sends about a dozen or more sponsored messages each week across each platform. USC has close to 500,000 followers across the mainstream social platforms, which puts the Trojans in the upper echelon of schools in the power five conferences.

“It was something that we really wrestled with at first because, at the time, it was uncharted territory,” said Jose Eskenazi, USC’s associate athletic director for marketing. “Now it’s seen as really valuable inventory. It’s not just a throw-in. It’s a chance for brands to interact with our fans.”

On the Trojans’ official social accounts, United Healthcare sponsors the pregame and postgame graphics; Smart & Final, a grocery chain, sponsors the final score graphic; and Jack in the Box sponsors the Trojan of the Game, to name a few. In all,

close to 20 companies are now sponsoring social content on USC’s accounts, mostly in football. But some, like BMW, also sponsor Olympic sport scores or updates in the Crosstown Cup rivalry series with UCLA.

Some of those social sponsorships are part of larger buys, but Fox has found that it

Sponsored tweets, like these from USC, UCLA and North Carolina State, connect sponsors with fans and can generate revenue.
also can sell them a la carte, like a 30-second TV spot.

“Sure, you can get a big following and build critical mass on social, but what are you going to do with it?” asked Jordan Moore, USC Athletics’ director of social media. “We’ve tried to use that to sell tickets, but we’ve seen only limited success with that. It’s really in the area of corporate sales where we’ve seen the most progress.”

Fox and USC have seen no evidence that the presence of sponsor branding turns off the Trojans’ fans. Moore said it’s the content in the graphic that drives views, whether a sponsor is present or not.

The final score graphic posted on Twitter at the end of the Trojans’ season-opening victory generated 1,290 retweets and 1,051 favorites, reaching an audience of 199,718 people, the school said. During a recent game weekend, the USC Athletics account on Instagram posted 15 images or videos and generated anywhere from 3,374 likes on the low end to more than 10,000 likes on the high end. Some, like JetBlue’s countdown to kickoff, were sponsored, while others weren’t.

Collegiate rights holders such as IMG College and Learfield Sports say social media sponsorship sales are still in the development stage. Some schools prefer to keep their social feed clean of advertising, while others are experimenting with using their official social accounts as an asset or an activation in larger corporate sponsorship packages.

North Carolina State found a connection with a midweek tweet that reveals what uniform combination the Wolfpack will wear in that week’s game. Belk, a southeast U.S. department store, sponsors the uniform unveiling.

At N.C. State, a Learfield school, the sponsored tweets and posts are considered part of a sponsor’s activation. The school hasn’t applied a specific value to sponsored social yet, said Fred Demarest, the school’s associate AD for marketing and communications, but the Belk-sponsored uniform unveiling “is a good test, and an area that we’re monitoring very closely.”

In other examples, Academy Sports has bought the final score graphic for multiple schools, including Louisville and Texas A&M.

“It’s got to be good, meaningful content,” said Joe Ferreira, chief content officer for Learfield Sports. “You don’t want it to just be an ad. It has to be contextual and the sponsor is just along for the ride. That’s when it makes good sense and it becomes inventory you can charge for.”

USC has put such an emphasis on selling social that both of the athletic department’s social media experts, Moore and Sarah Bergstrom, now accompany Fox Sports on sales calls.

“If you sell something and then go barging into the social media office, that doesn’t work,” said Dan Shell, Fox’s general manager of the USC property. “We’ve taken the approach to involve them from the very beginning of the sales process and to work together to build the social strategy. That leads to more success and a more authentic feel.”

Andrew Judelson, who oversees national sales for IMG College, said the combination of digital and social is “1A or 1B” on the list of priorities among most brands.

“We’re probably just in the second inning and understanding how big social can be for sponsors, but it’s quickly accelerating and everyone is recognizing the importance of it,” Judelson said. “There has to be a comfort level and we’re seeing some people dip their toe in the water before they go swimming. But brands want to know what kind of social assets we’re able to deliver.”

Moore and Bergstrom said the fact that their USC Athletics social posts are sponsored puts more pressure on them to come up with creative and compelling content each week. They say schools also have to be thoughtful not to just slap a brand’s logo on a photo of an athlete, which could be perceived as exploitative. Eskenazi said any USC athlete has the right to not participate in any of the social media programs if they choose.

“It really highlights the importance of the partnership between the school and the rights holder,” Shell said. “But we’re now getting deals that we wouldn’t have gotten without social.”