The old fashioned college campaigns for awards are few and far between. Cutbacks in budgets, a move toward easier and more flashy digital campaigns, and sometimes a lack of time to effectively execute a campaign promoting a player or a series of players has left many writers mailboxes empty, leaving them to cull over stats and hopefully feature stories as the season rolls along. It is difficult to cut through the clutter and find ways that effectively promote and raise awareness, but every once in a while a campaign starts early on that has the right feel and the great spin to harken back to the old days of mailings, and stunts that schools could effectively pull off.
One of those throwback campaigns has been effectively launched by Northwestern University in its desire to get proper attention on its stud quarterback Dan Persa and what could be a Heisman-like season for their signal caller. Now the Wildcats have had their great years and even some good ones since the days in the ’70’s when they were a Homecoming trophy for everyone in the Big Ten. They reside in the number two media market in the country, and have a list of outstanding alumni in sports and entertainment media as good as anyone. However all that, and the fact that they are the smallest school in the Big Ten, does not make them media darlings. They don’t have the blue field of Boise State, or the blue and maize of Michigan, but they do have a strong entreprenurial following. So in the quest to break through the clutter, the Wildcats, led by marketing chief Mark Polisky and with at least some of the blessings of the coaching staff and Persa himself, got out of the gate first and fast with their push. The early campaign has included billboards not just in Chicago but near ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, as well as a nice gift mailing to over 80 key writers of a Persa kit, replete with two seven pound dumbells as a reminder of his number and stature. They have also branded Persa “Chicago’s Heisman candidate,” another smart move to have a city rally around a student-athlete at a school the city may not always fully embrace as their own.
Now while some may say that a cool digital campaign is all that’s needed, and gimmicks don’t effect writers these days, they may be wrong. Saturday’s New York Post had columnist Lenn Robbins devote a whole column to Persa and the campaign, along with a pledge from Robbins to carry the dumbell around with him every weekend this fall, and tweet about Persa regardless of what game he is covering. Others may say that the campaign is added pressure on an athlete who needs the support of everyone and doesn’t need a bullseye or bulletin board fodder placed on him by opponents. However these are the days of little secrets and lots of trash talk, so the campaign won’t place any more pressure on Persa than his team will themselves. What if he fails or comes up injured? Not relevant to the branding campaign Northwestern has done. What is relevant is that the Wildcats have shown an interest in being different and one that supports a potential bigger than life star. They have created a differentiator, one in a world of “what’s next” should hopefully have other schools thinking about what fun promotions they can do to get recognition…not just for the Heisman but for athletes of all levels.
Yes college sports is big business. But it is also great fun and it is full of entreprenurial spirit when given the chance. The Wildcats, their athletic promotions staff and their star QB “get it,” and hopefully the “it” will be great recognition and a fun and expanded campaign throughout the fall that is worth following. Great job Northwestern.