By Dan Kozlak, Senior Director of Analytics, IEG

College football is back in a big way in 2021 as we’re rekindling our love of the game day atmosphere, pageantry and packed stadiums. The iconic visuals and enduring traditions conjure up a strong emotional response that sponsorship has been built to tap into.

If done right, sponsors can heighten the fan experience and ultimately positively impact their brand health (e.g., Home Depot and College Game Day). But if properties slip into the trap of over-commercializing these hallowed grounds, it can reach a point where it diminishes the character and authenticity of game day experience. Rather than extracting profit in the short term, schools, conferences and multimedia rightsholders should take a longer view to ensure value is maintained or strengthened for generations to come.

The energy emanating from college football stadiums this season is making up for lost time. And, I have noticed something else this year – a greater presence of sponsorship branding. This is a byproduct of two different factors. (1) Rightsholders are becoming more aggressive and creative with branded offerings to recoup lost revenue due to the pandemic through additional signage and promotions. (2) Broadcasters are attempting to maintain as much margin as possible from the ever-increasing television rights investments.  However, collegiate sports need to be careful to not over-saturate events and landscape with branding to the point of disrupting the sacred atmosphere. It’s beginning to slip away at the school and conference levels, as well as the athlete level with NIL allowing a wide array of uncontrolled commercialization to seep into the space.

There needs to be a balance between generating the revenue schools need to operate their programs, while not beginning to chip away at the visuals and experience.

A great example of this came from Major League Baseball’s production of the MLB Field of Dreams presented by GEICO. The film made its debut 32 years ago, yet the iconic visuals borrowed for the production were unmistakable. It drove rave reviews because it was nostalgic, familiar and close to the hearts of millions of baseball fans. GEICO’s presence walked the line of being subtle and tasteful, yet prominent. The popularity of the concept for the game not only attracted massive ratings, but the clean visual landscape helped create the link to GEICO and then supercharged the goodwill transferred from the event to the brand.

A school’s identity, traditions and entrenched tribal fan base are ultimately what give it its value, and schools cannot lose sight of this. On the other hand, it’s important to secure the revenue needed to finance programs to attract the best students, staff, coaches and faculty. The balance comes in by providing more with less. Oversaturation of sponsorship can encroach on a school’s brand identity. Not only does it disrupt the visuals and character of the school’s intellectual property, the more brands you hang on a school, the less power it has to transfer its affinity and identity to those brands.

IEG recommends the sponsorship strategy of fewer, bigger, better.

  • Sponsors get a greater share of voice and therefore higher memorability and stronger association to the college program
  • Schools can command higher sponsorship rights fees through more premium opportunities with a greater return for sponsors
  • Schools can maintain their unique and powerful identity-equity while building it for years to come

A strategic, long-term approach considers what best sustains the unique identity and culture of a property before selling any sponsorships, intellectual property.

Fewer, bigger, better
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