A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine decided he was going to start a sports apparel company. Like most new businesses, he was starting with nothing. He had no facility, he had no customers, he had no product. He just had an idea.
Oh, and he had one more thing. He applied to a program through the SBA that provided him with a steady stream of potential customers with built in brand loyalty to his new company. He didn’t have to do a single thing to create that brand loyalty. This program was revolutionary. The government would take large groups of young people and spend four years slowly building an affinity within them for this guy’s brand. They’d give these kids free product, they’d surround them with this company’s logo and they’d teach these impressionable young minds songs that furthered a love for this guy’s company. And every year, after spending four years instilling passion within these potential customers, the program would release thousands of them into the world where they would make more money than nearly half of the population.
Needless to say, my friend’s company was set up to be a smashing success. Every year from the start of his company until the end of time, he had 5,000+ people who automatically loved his brand. All he had to do was supply them with a good product. Some of these people were more passionate than others, of course. And he couldn’t retain them all. But what he found was that for the rest of these people’s lives, they had at least some affinity for his product. On top of that, their ability to afford his product was better than average. So of course he was incredibly successful…how could he not be?
What was the name of this company? It doesn’t matter because I made it all up. That is, I made up the idea that this was someone’s company that couldn’t help but succeed. The rest of it happens every year at hundreds of organizations.
On average, about 1.8 million people receive bachelor’s degrees from colleges and universities in the United States. The vast majority spent about four years being surrounded by that university’s brand every single day. They walked past hundreds of signs, pole banners and trash cans all bearing that institution’s logo. They sat next to thousands of other students wearing t-shirts with that university’s brand across the front. They were taught the history of their school, songs they will never forget, and traditions that reinforced their love for their school. And then, after four years of this indoctrination, they are released into the world with the ability to earn an average of $18,000 more per year than those who did not attend college.
Can you imagine what Nike would do for that kind of exposure? What do you think Nike would pay to have their logo on every banner, trash can, building and sign on a college campus? The value of that level of exposure to a brand is incalculable. As a business owner I can tell you that I would have killed to have been able to start my business with a group of customers that already loved my company.
Those of us who work in collegiate athletics are spoiled. We’re playing with a stacked deck and we’re still losing. We have something Nike would pay millions of dollars for and that businesses everywhere dream about. I’ve used the number 5,000 in talking about the number of graduates that come out of a university each year. Some are less, obviously. But some have double or triple that number. The point is that collegiate athletics departments have four years of free marketing opportunities handed to them on a silver platter, and there are thousands of people graduating from universities every year who have will have some level of affinity for their alma mater for the rest of their lives.
No other industry in the world has this advantage. No one ever says, “Well, I wear Adidas because my grandpa wore Adidas and my dad wore Adidas.” Even professional sports teams have less of an automatic fan base and less built-in loyalty than collegiate athletics.
If you have empty seats at your stadium or arena, you have no excuse. Or at least you don’t have nearly the excuse that organizations in every other industry has if they’re failing to bring in customers. If alumni aren’t coming back to support your athletic program, it’s because the product you’re asking them to support isn’t good enough.
Winning Isn’t Everything
The argument can be made that fans would come if the team would win and that as marketers, we can’t control the product on the field. But the decrease in attendance among collegiate athletics isn’t isolated to losing programs. Winning teams are losing fans too. The product on the field is great but fans are still choosing to stay home.
At home, the beer is cheaper, the couch is more comfy and the temperature is always a nice 72 degrees. That’s hard to compete with, but not impossible. Because we do have an advantage: they already love us. They spent four years seeing our logo, wearing our clothes and singing our songs.
We might not be able to control the product on the field, but there’s a lot more to the home-or-stadium decision than that. We can control ticket prices. We can control advertising. We can control strategically targeting the fans most likely to attend and understanding what makes them tick. And we can control the gameday experience.
So what about my theoretical friend and his theoretical business? Was success really that easy for him? Of course not. He had to work at it. He had to realize that he couldn’t rely on the same old tricks to get fans to the stadium. He had to stop taking his steady stream of brand loyalists and their disposable income for granted, and start doing more to give them a product that is better than staying home. That was when he started succeeding. And if he didn’t do those things and ended up failing even when the deck was stacked in his favor, then he had nobody to blame but himself.