Gig ’Em Aggies: Size, appeal of Texas A&M a natural fit for Learfield IMG College’s Campus+
On a ridiculously hot 100-degree summer day at Texas A&M, the school’s uniformed corps of cadets are easy to spot. They’re the only ones not wearing shorts and T-shirts.
The corps’ tan-colored uniforms and headwear are a strong and visible connection to A&M’s past when it was a small, men’s-only military academy.
Today’s A&M, however, is a much different place. The university’s enrollment will approach 70,000 graduate and undergraduate students this year, making it the largest in the country, not counting online students, the school said. That’s a staggering increase of 45.8% in the last decade.
The ratio of male students to females is 53% to 47%, a statistic that surprises many visitors who still think of A&M as a military school, even though only 2,500 of them are in the corps.
Balancing the institution’s rich history with a desire to show the world what the new A&M looks like is one of the school’s challenges. It’s far removed from the agricultural-based ROTC school that grew tired of playing little brother to Texas and split for the SEC in 2012.
“People have no idea,” A&M’s Shane Hinckley said of the school’s transformation. “They literally don’t know the size and scope of what we are.”
Hinckley is A&M’s vice president of brand development. For most of the 11 years Hinckley has worked at A&M, he’s been known throughout college sports as one of the leading thinkers in licensing and branding, even though he works in the president’s office, not athletics.
Now he finds himself at the forefront of shaping A&M’s evolving brand and capitalizing on the school’s upward trajectory — taking some cues from athletics along the way.
When he began thinking about how to message A&M’s modernized identity, Hinckley looked at how athletics and its multimedia rights partner, Learfield IMG College, sold sponsorship as a means of generating more revenue, but also to grow A&M’s sports brand through corporate partnerships. Let the sponsors help tell the story, he figured.
A&M’s brand strength came through recently at an Adidas activation at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Houston. The Aggies and Adidas, their shoe partner, became the primary brand and team in its store, Hinckley said, “not the Texans, Astros or Longhorns.”
A&M subsequently adopted a campuswide sponsorship model that combines marketing assets in athletics and across campus. The school is working with Learfield IMG College’s Campus+ division to identify events that might be sponsored, such as move-in day, new-student orientation and Midnight Yell, as well as traditional categories.
Wells Fargo and Aggieland Credit Union are A&M’s first official sponsors of the university — each signed 10-year deals.
“We looked at their sponsorship model in athletics and said that’s what we should be doing on the campus side,” Hinckley said. “Why are people experiencing the A&M brand only on game days when we’re in business 365 days a year? So we’ve brought that kind of corporate approach to our branding and marketing.”
It’s easy to understand Hinckley’s interest in the revenue and sponsorship model in athletics. The Aggies ranked second nationally in total revenue, bringing in $212.4 million in 2017-18, behind only the Longhorns. That’s roughly double what the revenue was before joining the SEC.
Ross Bjork, the Aggies’ new athletic director who started in July, spent the last seven seasons at Ole Miss in the same division of the SEC, providing him with a front-row seat to the Aggies’ growth.
“It gave A&M a chance to really break free, if you will, and go to a whole other level,” Bjork said. “We can do things that I don’t think the university could do, probably, before that.”
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A&M’s 87-year-old Jack K. Williams Administration Building is the first indication to visitors that they’ve arrived on campus. The 14 round, white columns across the front of the building give it that iconic academic look and are a tip of the cap to the university’s history.
Inside that collection of old school rooms, though, is a team of seven marketing executives who are focused on A&M’s future, not its past.
Hinckley assembled them over the past year to help sponsors navigate the complexities of such a massive campus. It was a piece that Hinckley thought was missing when the school first embarked on a campuswide marketing plan.
Those seven executives, who work within the larger marketing and communications department, essentially form A&M’s own in-house marketing agency. The Aggies have marketing assets all over campus, some of which are still being identified. Hinckley’s model of a centralized agency to work with brands is a commitment the school believes is unique to A&M.
“This is a new way of doing business, so everything is so green,” Hinckley said.
Pam Batalis, a former Learfield executive who is now Wells Fargo’s vice president of college sports and local market sponsorships, said A&M has built a model “that’s on the cutting edge of where universities need to go to optimize Campus+.”
Essentially, Campus+ does the selling and A&M’s marketing team works with sponsors to find more marketing opportunities on campus. Categories could range from office supplies, to travel, or even the school’s official doughnut, in addition to events.
“We’re doing some things at A&M that we’re not doing everywhere,” said Andy Rawlings, Learfield IMG College’s chief revenue officer. “You have to understand that we’re not out there going after schools like we do with multimedia rights. Not every school is ready and that’s OK. We’re not after a land grab. This is going to move slower so that we get it right.”
Those two banking and credit union deals combined are valued at around $2 million annually. That’s all new revenue at a time when colleges across the country are fighting decreases in state funding.
“There’s a lot of political pressure, tuition pressure and enrollment pressure,” said A&M CFO Jerry Strawser, an 18-year veteran at the university.
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While campuswide marketing has been a trendy concept in college athletics for close to five years, big wins have been fairly limited. Wells Fargo had done one Campus+ deal — North Carolina — prior to A&M.
The campus deals are more complicated and require more university leaders around the table. But many universities are willing to figure it out because of the additional revenue at stake.
Take the banking and credit union deals. Those required input from student affairs, finance, marketing and communications, Campus+ and Texas A&M Ventures, Learfield IMG College’s local property.
Part of the attraction for the school was knowing that its banking partners on campus would be offering no-cost or low-cost banking services for students. A&M, in turn, insisted that it wouldn’t take what’s known as bounties — a bonus paid to schools when students sign up.
But other categories like office supplies are challenging because each university department has its own vendors. Strawser, the school’s CFO, lamented, “It’s just not worth the trouble.”
“There is a real educational process that has to take place,” Strawser said. “We have to let people know that, yes, we are going to commercialize some aspects of campus, but we’re going to do it tastefully. It’s not going to turn into a NASCAR race.”
About a dozen colleges have signed up for Learfield IMG College’s Campus+ program, ranging from mid-majors such as Colorado State, Long Beach State and San Jose State to power five schools Missouri, North Carolina, N.C. State and A&M. JMI Sports, a competitor to Learfield IMG College, also has brought campuswide marketing to its client at Kentucky, so the concept itself is not completely new, although it remains in its infancy.
Still, Hinckley would like to see Learfield IMG College step up its Campus+ commitment, especially given the resources A&M has already devoted to its marketing team.
“We need Learfield to get a little tighter with us,” said Hinckley, who envisions a day when Campus+ embeds a sales team at A&M just like Learfield IMG College does for athletics. “We feel like we’re doing a lot of the lifting ourselves.”
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Hinckley believes that A&M’s marketing muscle comes into play when sponsors see that 10,000 freshmen and 2,000 transfer students enter A&M each year, the kind of numbers few universities can match. Midnight Yell draws 40,000 fans, Ring Day brings in the families of 10,000 graduates and Aggieland Saturday, a day for campus tours, attracts nearly 100,000 people.
Hinckley has spent two years working across departments so they understand the marketing potential that comes from numbers like that. At the same time, he’s worked with vice presidents to identify marketing assets that could lead to new revenue. They also set some ground rules.
For example, Hinckley assured athletics that if one of its sponsors wants to spend money across campus, it could not take funds out of athletics and spend it elsewhere. The campus spend has to be in addition to the athletics spend.
Departments of the university will have the opportunity to benefit financially if they bring marketing assets to a deal. On any Campus+ deal, 30% of the rights fee goes to Learfield IMG College. The remaining 70% stays with the school and can be distributed based on which department contributes the assets.
“A lot of the work on these deals is breaking down barriers,” Hinckley said. “Some people still think we’re going to have lectures presented by AT&T. It’s not like that.”
Editor’s note: This story is changed from the print edition.