The Ivy League certainly has the most elite group of Universities in the world, but in the sports marketing business, sometimes “elite” is not the word that comes up when talking brand sponsorships. “Creative” yes, “innovative” maybe. “Entreprenurial” for sure. Even with the successful intercollegiate hoops runs of Harvard and Cornell, and the consistent play over the years of Penn and Princeton, Ivy Sports overall might not be the first choice of the biggest and the brightest brands. Football has actually produced its share of NFL players, but even the annual Harvard-Yale game does not draw the mega-crowds and media exposure that it used to.
So if the brightest of lights still don’t shine consistently on the Ivy athletic elite, what does a school like Columbia do when looking for brand sponsors? Improvise and innovate. Now the Lions have not roared in football in, well. lets say a long time. Men’s hoops is on the upswing again, but still is chasing the top echelon of Ivy basketball, which is made tougher bu the lack of a post-season tournament to garner hope for those not at the top. Still, the Lions are situated as the only Division I athletic program in Manhattan, have a strong alumni base, and a student body that may not be totally engaged in athletics but surely is supportive. They also have the crowded New York marketplace to deal with, so what’s the answer to have brands engaged and create effective promotions? Find a unique balance.
This year Columbia will again go out to find brands that may offset hard costs that the University has to outlay for its teams while using both high volume trade opportunities and cold hard cash. It is a balance that gives Columbia the chance to bring new brands into sports marketing who may not get the dollars or huge exposure at other schools, but brands that are quality (s0metime startups) and are looking to engage with a young, eclectic and athletic audience.
The latest example was announced this week with a brand called Rockin’ Refuel. Owned by Shamrock Farms, Rockin’ Refuel became the “Preferred Protein Drink of Columbia.” The company got to test market the brand last year with Columbia athletes, who chose the product over other bigger names in the category. As a result of the buy-in from athletes and trainers, and the fact that the product is NCAA complaint, Columbia came up with a hybrid deal for exposure, promotion and dollars that would offset a huge outlay the school would have to make in the product category for 2012-13. The result is a platform for unique promotion (Rockin’ Refuel is a GNC Store featured product) as well as an amazing test market for the product with an engaged audience, in a controlled sample of probably several thousand students and student-athletes.
Now is it a sampling of 100,000 at Michigan Stadium or 50,000 at Yankee Stadium? No. But it is a great micro-test of a brand looking to break through, with a case study at an Ivy League institution that could lead to bigger deals down the line. Could Columbia have taken the easy road in the category and just accepted product from a larger brand in exchange for some coolers and exposure as others do? Sure. However it would not have been as worthwhile for the program or for the brand. ow all is not done in Lion-land. Athletics will look to find other alternative brand categories in the coming weeks, each with a bit of an edge and a different story to tell in a world where traditional sports marketing was never in vogue, but innovation and ROI is.