One of the more entreprenurial hustles in sport branding is finding ways to creatively capture lightning in a bottle, a few minutes of exposure as a result of timing, luck and smart thinking. Such is the case with people who were able to cash in short term on the Jeremy Lin craze, with websites, bootleg t-shirts and other offers to a public that could not get enough of the Knicks sudden star. In racing, brands may take advantage of last minute dormant advertising spots with a driver to make a quick splash when they could not afford a full season ride, hoping to capitalize on the fortunes of an under-performing driver, or one who may even end up in a tangle on the race course that gets their brand splashed all over the cameras following along. In individual sports like tennis or golf, small brands troll the matchups and the draw sheet, looking to make a quick sale on a patch or a hat for an athlete suddenly paired with a superstar in a foursome, or facing a large name in the early rounds of a nationally televised tennis match. Boxing and MMA present their own canvas, literally the body, where ads can be dropped for many brands who have no shot at spending the big time activation dollars for a full UFC sponsorship. In team sports, sometimes a brand can grab the limelight with a hat or teeshirt deal with an athlete before they break through, getting a sudden star like a Tim Tebow to endorse the brand on national postgame or practice coverage. While the onfield rogue brand would be policed out by a league, the open area of the lockerroom still presents interesting opportunities.
So now we enter the unltimate David vs. Goliath matchup, the NCAA Tournament. Can a little brand find a way through the clutter and the battle of household names to make a big splash? While the pristine area around the court and the postgame pressers make a one-off splash almost impossible, there will be some new names that shine through, and they will come in the form of apparel or sneaker brands that have taken a longer term gamble on some schools to engage over the period of a season. Many times these brands are willing to go a little further with smaller schools to provide some additional dollars or support, or will look to service not just a men’s hoops team but other parts of the athletic department. For schools scratching for cash, and with the major apparel companies like Nike and Reebok and adidas concentrating on larger schools with high exposure, an enterprising start up can break through if Cinderella comes dancing. Brands like And One, The Rock, and Crons, even Under Armour as it made its way into college hoops from football, found schools that peaked at the right time, and gave their smaller brands some solid exposure during the first few days of the tournament, both in game and in the exposure of a heavy media environment. A first round win grows the exposure exponentially, and can position the brand for growth that was worth the gamble. Now such a stance is always risky…teams can falter in a conference tournament and blew the investment the brand has made, consistent success makes the school vulnerable to a more lucrative offer from a major brand to switch and close out that market, and coaches at smaller schools who are successful can move to a larger school and not take the supportive brand along for the ride, but in many cases the risk and the gratification for those smaller brands is worth the reward. The window for such brands is very, very narrow. Student-athletes cannot endorse a smaller brand themselves like a pro athlete could, and coaches are limited in what they can wear and display in public settings, so walking into a press conference with a can of Minster Energy Drink will quickly be swept away. There is no patch a supplement company can slap on a coaching jacket either. None would make it to the stage.
So as the first round unfolds next week and teams are awash in bright new neon yellow (Baylor) and hot red (Louisville), look for the little brands that may pop through. There may not be many but they are worth noting for their entreprenurial spirit and perserverence, just like the upstart teams they are probably working with.