Big East vs. American Athletic…The Digital Reboot

In some ways it is like the expansion Cleveland Browns starting after the “Browns” moved to Baltimore, or Twinkies re-launching after a short time going out of business. What is the equity in the brand name and who is your core when the dust settles. That is what the “Big East” is going through under new commissioner Val Ackerman after the messy split that saw the American Athletic Conference…the former Big East…be re-invented under Commissioner Mike Aresco with very few of the old faces that the Big East was known for.

When the dust settles at some point in 2014-2015, the landscape will hopefully be a little clearer; with the basketball-majority Big East schools back together while their football playing partners are off in other places like the ACC, the Big 10 and the AA.  The core of the Big East really remains the same.

What didn’t remain the same is the digital brand equity that the conference built up over its existence…email lists, Facebook, twitter and other assets…they all went with the AA, even though many of those followers may be supporters of schools not in the AA now, but in the Big East…St. John’s, Villanova, Marquette etc. No matter, because when the change occurred, those assets stayed in Providence with the AA, and the Big East was left to start anew.

The loss of those followers is an interesting issue for who owns what in the digital space. Darren Rovell, the popular sports business reporter, took his legions of followers from CNBC to ESPN when he switched networks, a nice push for his transition and a nice bump for followers of sports business who loved Rovell no matter where he went. More recently, the New York Times will negotiate a settlement with ESPN so that Nate Silver can take all his followers with him as well as he migrates to his new deal with “The Worldwide Leader,” a value that had a clear price in the negotiations. The value is in Silver’s name and hos work, but it is also in his followers, a big number which had huge value to the Times and to ESPN and one which NYT will have to now try and replace and ESPN gains, along with his forward-thinking analytical work.

For the Big East the transfer of followers is not as essential…those who are loyal to schools will eventually catch up with where they can follow the league and their league, and the numbers were not huge…but it does pose that question as to who exactly owns what rights? Will the AA see a big drop off when followers of Big East schools see that they are following the AA now and unsubscribe? Will the incoming schools drive even more traffic, and will casual football fans give the AA a boost?  Will the Big East lose some space because their schools are not football playing and hence may have smaller digital followings…like a Xavier and a Butler vs. a Cincinnati and a Memphis…or will the fact that the league is so concentrated on hoops and hoops lovers provide more opportunity?  In some ways it is also very similar to an athlete moving teams.

Are people following him or her because he plays for a team or because they enjoy his or her story and his or her brand? Greg Jennings moved from the Packers to the rival Vikings and saw no drop-off, largely because of the quality of his followers who were as much interested in his persona and his off-field work as much as he was a Packer. A good guy with a good brand doing good things can transfer well. A guy with issues, maybe not so well. There is also the issue of people being a bit lazy in the social space. It takes time to “unfriend” or “unsubscribe,” and unless it’s because of a controversy or a passionate dislike, many people will be complacent and just stay on board.

That can benefit an enduring league like the AA, and doesn’t really help the ramp up for the Big East. It will take more work to re-gain and educate followers than to drive them away.

In the end, the true value is in the assets owned and those that can be secured. Trying to an entity and just posting for them usually means they own that information and those followers. Rovell always wrote under Rovell for example. It made for an easier move.  If you are writing as an employee of Sports Illustrated or ESPN or x company, and you go somewhere else, chances are you will either start from scratch or try and buy your way out, and in a world where digital assets are growing in value, that buyout can become costly, and the equity built can be challenging to recoup.

So what would have happened when the new Browns arose? Well tis is all new territory, something that didn’t really enter into major discussions three years ago, let alone 15. Then it was all about the name and the past equity vs. the future. And the assets were much more hard than digital or intellectual. Chances are they were starting from scratch, since the passionate Browns followers didn’t follow the team to Baltimore. For Hostess, the re-boot was a short time later and there was no one challenging the assets, they were purchased, so it was easier.

For the Big East? Different story. The good news is they have the luxury of some time, since they are not a football playing conference and their schools have a good social media presence they have held on to. Many of those schools, like a St. John’s and a Marquette, have been the leaders in digital investment for years, so best practices can be transferred. However it’s still not easy starting over, even with an established name and brand. The American Athletic lost the name but kept the assets, a nice settlement for them. Where both leagues grow from here will be worth following as casual fans return to campus and start the ramp up for college sports again.  

Can Army Football Be A Wild Card Again?

Two of the most enjoyable reads this past fall were Mark Beech’s book on the last undefeated team at West Point and Joe Drape’s work on some of the recent squads. Both pointed to the personalities, the hard work, the dedication and the sacrifice that goes into being a student-athlete at West Point and the great value that those leaders have beyond the gridiron.

As conference leaders go through the latest shuffle, with more to come as the remaining members of the Big East look west to solidify their conference members for their TV deal, the question of what could The Black Knights of the Hudson bring to the table becomes an interesting one, and one that albeit a gamble, could make for an interesting wild card play down the road, especially if the other two service academies who have been successful in football, Navy and Air Force, decide to work together in the not too distant future.

Why would Army make sense? Here are a few reasons.

Geography. University of Central Florida head football coach George O’Leary recently pointed out the schools are more intriguing now because of location than success. The ability to have a school even on the outskirts of a major TV market becomes a pill, which is one of the key things that brought Rutgers to the Big 10.  If Rutgers were in Albany, no matter how successful, the Scarlet Knight would not be heading to their new partners. Army, 40 miles from Manhattan, is the only other BCS school in the New York market. Even better is that they can go into New York on a yearly basis and fill one of the larger stadia like few other schools. Army in Yankee Stadium is 40,000 easily. Met Life, same thing. They fit the demo of pulling in the market, especially if successful.

Funding.  While Universities public and private still need to look to local government for funding, the Academies have a built in funding system that covers their great infrastructure. No need to go to taxpayers even more locally to fund stadium upgrades or travel, the raising is already done.

National Footprint.  With the exception of Notre Dame and maybe now BYU, there are no more truly national schools that the Academies. They draw wherever they play, whomever they play. They will not shy from matchups and even on their worst years will still attract a casual fan.

Sponsors support. There are few Universities that draw national attention for brands when positioned correctly than the Academies. Why? Yes there is the association of supporting a cause larger than football. However there are also large government contractors from every field who will support their commercial efforts by putting brand value toward the Academies. If you put Army into the mix, you now have a major annual draw in the New York area to entertain and activate against, which is an intriguing advantage that Big 10 schools and brands will use to their advantage with Rutgers as well. Add in one of the most attractive settings in the country for college football every fall, in a state of the art facility, and you have an attractive package at West Point.

Leadership and Tradition: The matchups for the Commander In Chief Trophy every year remains a hidden gem for support in collegiate athletics. Brands are able to align themselves with the Academies as they compete head to head, and with those matchups come the ideal of fair play, longstanding traditions and sacrifice. The tradition can pay even bigger dividends for brands down the line, as military families are NASCAR-like in brand support as they advance through their careers. There is little doubt that the cradle of future leadership, along with a long line of tradition, still has its seat in the academies.

Now are there issues? Yes. Navy and Air Force have found ways to be successful in football in recent years by finding a caliber of athlete that is gifted and is intrigued by the sciences and the lure of air and sea that West Point may bot have. Their campuses year-round are among the most picturesque anywhere, in Annapolis and Colorado Springs respectively. West Point, although beautiful in the spring, summer and fall, can be bleak in the dead of winter, and the offer of sailing the sea or flying thought the air following a service commitment is probably more desirable that what West Point will offer a recruit. It is no less valuable, but it does change the pool just a bit.

Also the lack of football success in terms of wins and losses can have a desultory effect on a conference position overall, which can offset the ability to draw TV viewers and those in the stands. If coach Rich Ellerson can continue his work to turn around the program, the value rises. A win over Boston College this fall helps, but it does not help as much as avoiding losses to a school like Stony Brook.  So while Air Force and Navy (which still has a commitment to the Big East for 2015 in football) remain in the mix for big conference expansion, Army is still on the fringe. Could it change not just for football but for all sports? Hard to say, but an uptick to competitiveness makes the Black Knights very intriguing as an addition.

So as 2012 comes to a close can Army find its way into the mix, especially if the other two academies align? Would conference talk help raise the Army football profile? Maybe. However for the right reasons…location, tradition, brand draw, passion…a successful Army football program would raise the profile of any conference, especially as the mixing continues into early 2013. West Point is not that far from Madison Avenue after all.



Change In College Athletics: The Risk Of Forgetting Who You Are

This past week college sports was again thrown into disarray as schools bolted from Big East to ACC to Big 10 to Conference USA to WAC to Sun Belt and back and forth. The jockeying and rumors continued, with those left as not moving felt hurt and disappointed while those moving looked to greener fields ahead. Greener in terms of dollars for most, if nothing else.

The nothing is really the concern. Certain schools talked about aspiring to be with more elite academic institutions (Maryland and Rutgers) while thumbing their noses at the elite institutions (Georgia tech, Duke, Georgetown, Villanova) they are leaving behind. Others (Grand Canyon) moved to a league even though they have never played at the level of any of their league partners, and unveiled plans to sell some sort of stock to raise funds. Still others (Cincinnati) spoke of defeat when they were not selected by a league while having a solid place in the league they are in. They need the money to balance the books after all. In the end, success on the field and core values with other schools seem to have little to do with alignment athletically these days, “It’s not about success it’s about geography,” Central Florida head coach George O’Leary said earlier this week, while the Washington Post’s John Feinstein pointed out on Sirius XM that the schools like Rutgers and Maryland talk about academics but they only reason they are of value is because of their location. If Rutgers was in Albany, NY, they could be the best program in the country and they would not be of interest to the Big 10.

So as Louisville, departing for the ACC and Rutgers (off to the Big 10) battled in an exciting game for the Big East title Thursday night on ESPN, I thought about when those schools in their new leagues might play for such high stakes again. It may be a while, if history tells us anything.

While schools that have bolted for bigger conferences have done so with much fanfare, few have been successful athletically. Boston College was a nationally ranked football team and had a basketball team that advanced to the Final Eight in 1994 before it left for the ACC in 2005. Miami won a national championship in football as a member of the Big East in 2001, has yet to win an ACC title since it left. West Virginia, which played in two BCS games and was picked to contend for the Big 12 championship, is 6-5 after losing five straight games. Virginia Tech is struggling, and Pitt and Syracuse are nowhere near where they were in football during their best Big East years as they transition out of the conference. Colorado in the Pac 12? More money and some bigger stages? Yes. But not a whole lot of equity for any of the schools that went elsewhere.

If you go back a little further there are even more examples of being careful what you ask for. Temple to the MAC? How did that work out. They are now back in a much better fit, the Big East again. How about a school like New Jersey Institute of Technology, who plays in the…Great West…with schools like Texas an American and Utah Valley…who they have a great deal in common with.

From personal experience I have my alma mater Fordham University, long the also-ran of the Patriot League and the doormat of the Atlantic 10. The Rams took their highly successful program in the MAAC and moved it to the Patriot League, which at the time was non-scholarship but more aligned academically with the Fordham. When that didn’t work out the school moved to the Atlantic 10, where they have had two winning seasons in…17 years. While it is true that Fordham has thrived academically it has died from a branding standpoint in athletics. Yes there are common bonds between schools like St, Joe’s and maybe even Duquesne and maybe Dayton, but there are no ties on any level to state schools like Charlotte or Rhode Island or in past years Virginia Tech or even VCU and Butler. No history, no common groups of alumni, no common academic platforms no rivalries. Football? Four winning seasons in 20 years, three of which were in a short stretch of prosperity under one coach, Dave Clawson. Prior to that, Fordham had great success in athletics with local and regional opponents in all sports, and enjoyed some solid national success while sacrificing nothing in academics. Better off now? Hard to see how. There certainly is no identity with their league opponents.

So that leaves us where we are today on a much larger scale. Do Wisconsin and Rutgers have any common ties? Maryland and Northwestern?  There was a point where the term “directional schools”  had a negative connotation…some land grant school that existed only to play sports. Now it’s a “locational school” that has great value, not for what they stand for but for where they are located.

So we forsake tradition and common bonds for the dollars…dollars which are seen as coming in to offset huge deficits that athletics drain. Instead of funding smart business practices to fund programs (some schools like the University of Michigan have hired smart business people to find alternatives to raise dollars and bring in brands to cover costs) schools act like startups…spending all the money until it runs out and then going to find more capital to keep funding the idea. It has started to change, but not yet to the degree it should.

Now maybe all of this talk about tradition and brand and core values is pie in the sky and gone somewhere else. Does it matter really if St Johns ever plays Syracuse in hoops again? Maybe in a bigger picture, a big time world of athletics today it doesn’t. It doesn’t if somehow those dollars brought in at the sacrifice of tradition go to pursuits that also benefit medical programs and the arts and technology…places where cancer can really be cured. Then the sacrifice of tradition is really for a bigger good. That remains to be seen.

In the end if all the movement is only a stopgap to balance a budget that will be thrown out of line again in a few years has expenditures grow and creative marketing and sales don’t then it will be a great tragedy. There are precious few major conference jumps…ones not with a shred of tradition tiring schools together that have really worked. For sure the global world of athletics could not rest on the past for all schools. Change and progress is inevitable. However when schools say they can move and break with all their ties of their alumni and their current athletes in a matter of days it seems something is amiss. Careful study and great reasons? For sure, let’s make it work. But a jump for just the dollars before someone else gets there is tough business planning for the long term.

Personally, I ache when I see Fordham getting waxed week in and week out but I also take pride in what was athletically, and what the University does in areas like business and science. It is a great school, even if its athletics (football and men’s basketball anyway) are lost in an ill-fitting sea.

This may all work out on all levels with all the change for these schools. Syracuse and Clemson alumni may start hanging out together; Rutgers staff will be welcomed with open arms in Lansing. Seton Hall may play a record setting and memorable volleyball match in Dallas against SMU.  Louisville grad students can do summer shares with Miami. The dollars for sure will flow and traditions can always be started anew.

What you don’t hope happens is the haves…the established schools with the established traditions, endowments, and rivalries…fully crowd out the new coming have-nots. The LA Clippers and Pittsburgh Pirates for sure get the Benjamin’s, but that doesn’t mean they are great brands who have enjoyed success. They benefit, save for some years of success, not because of what they have built but because they are in the club almost by default. Other members have to be tolerating them, but accept them as equals? Nah.

Sport above everything else is about tradition, passion and chemistry on the field. Without it you have fantasy sports. Looks great on paper, but making it work is a chore. On the college side, a person goes to a school not just for the programs but for the experience. It helps shape people into whom they become, and that comes from so many shared experiences socially, politically and academically. There is a ritual and a common bond. For those doing the shifting that common bond in many cases is probably leaving for now. Can it be replaced and does it have to be mark of the mix for success? Hard to say it doesn’t.

We live in a world today where sense of purpose and sense of self can get misplaced. Many of those touchstones that bring us back are formed during our younger years, many through the time and traditions spent socially on campuses and in dorm rooms and gyms and stadia. It molds who we are. Maybe it’s silly but for many people those simple traditions are what we can hold near and dear for years to come. Maybe the dollars and the new alignments can offset that need, maybe it can’t.

Maybe like Fordham, other institutions will find out that they can grow without successful athletics for the most part, that what happens away from the field of play is way more important, and those dollars to be doormats for big time football do flow to places that need the money. Maybe also like Fordham, people see the grass greener somewhere else and when you get there you see the field isn’t really grass, its synthetic turf and it’s not something the landlord really wanted to let you play on anyway.

Hopefully all the changes give schools that have moved a new sense of self, and for those schools who don’t move on find their own niche. The Patriot League and the MAAC have moved on to do just fine without my Rams, hopefully the Big East and Conference USA and whomever else will do the same without their old partners.

Yes college sports are big business now…bigger than ever. You just hope at some point that balance…moderation in all things as the great leader Ben Franklin preached…gives this process some sense of normalcy again.

The biggest mistake any brand makes is losing its core focus, and the curious shifting of some  in the collegiate circles can make one wonder if the dollars forsake the brand and with that, will the identity go too.

Hopefully in this case the movements will create the right mix down the line, but the danger exists in forgetting who you are and trying to be something you are not. It doesn’t work most times in big business, and it probably won’t work in the big business of college athletics, where sense of who you are as an institution is just as valuable as at any Fortune 500 Company.

You are molding the minds of our future, collegiate leaders, don’t let us down.

Does Being “Cannon Fodder” Cause More Brand Harm Than Financial Good?

Savannah State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, has been outscored by a combined 139-0 in its first two games this season. It was beaten 84-0 at Oklahoma State last week and 55-0 in a rain shortened game at Florida State Saturday. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member is collecting paychecks totaling $860,000 for the two games, which will help the athletic program meet its total budget of $5.1 million. So the question remains, when the dust settles, not just for Savannah but for FSU, OSU, their fans, their TV partners, the MEAC brand and for brand college football, what was gained and by who?

Now this is not new, it has always happened early in the college football season. It is also not easy for FSU or OSU to always find the right opponents to fill out a very difficult schedule. There is no doubt that college athletics is rising in brand value across the board. There is also no doubt that there are haves and have nots in the business, but for the NCAA to allow a school like Savannah State to just run around and pick up checks…putting kids probably at risk and arguably sacrificing the jobs of the coaching staff to balance the budget of other athletes and coaches, really calls into question what value being “cannon fodder” is for smaller schools. Savannah State coach Steve Davenport said afterward that he hoped these games were “learning experiences” and maybe down the road if the two schools play for the National Championship that Savannah gets some name recognition. Huh?

This was not about a subdivision powerhouse like Appalachian State going into Michigan with a chance at an upset, which is what happened a few years ago. It’s not like FSU or OSU showcased game plans in these games that will give a look inside to their future opponents. It’s not like the fans didn’t shell out high prices to see these mismatches. Maybe the two larger schools got to give some of their non-starters some extended time on the field which will be valuable down the line, but other than that the fans may benefit more from seeing the team scrimmage against themselves.

It is understood that small schools are still challenged financially to keep their intercollegiate athletic programs going, but two of these paydays with little ROI for the sport? That’s excessive. As the NFL looks to re-vamp the value and cost of meaningless preseason games, there has to be a better way to grow college athletics and find value than these mismatches. The two schools, FSU and OSU, are probably now the biggest donors to Savannah State’s programs, so why not just write them a check and move on. Maybe there are brands looking to activate in the space that would have an interest in the MEAC that could benefit all students vs. just going to get a payday in a football mismatch. Its archaic thinking, not innovative branding, and that’s what college athletics should be all about. Finding ways to do things differently, not just to get a check for showing up.

The MEAC as a conference has a great deal to offer brands collectively from their institutions, and no doubt the students at SSU do too. What they have offered the last two weeks was sacrifice with little good other than a check, and that’s not what any college experience should be about. It should be about learning and growth, both on the playing field and in the classroom. That growth and that passion is what is a draw for brands, and that’s what should be emphasized.

Here’s to better stories down the line.

Kickin Off The College Season With Some Good Ideas…

Many experts in the industry feel that the real brand value of  college athletics is still to come. From new television deals to the playoff system to schools taking control of their marketing rights and merchandising their assets, the future is bright for brands who want to go back to school to find new ways to engage to a loyal audience in a young demo. So as college football kicks into gear this weekend, here’s a look at a few smart deas that have come across the transom.

Zipping Open The Social Media Envelope: The University of Akron may not be championship caliber, but they will look to give their MAC fans some fun on the digital side when they get things started. The Zips will play host to its inaugural Social Media Night vs. Central Florida at InfoCision Stadium – Summa Field. Five randomly selected fans who buy a ticket through a special Facebook promotion will become eligible for media credentials and will then be asked to engaged social media channels from the press level of InfoCision Stadium. Additionally, invited members of the University student body will participate in the behind-the-scenes media experience, and those who cover the Zips for non-traditional media outlets will also have an opportunity to be involved. The group of correspondents will be provided access to the field during pregame warm ups and the postgame press conference with Coach Bowden. Twitter and Facebook content will be integrated with the traditional stadium gameday experience and fans will be asked to use the hashtag #ZipsGameday when tweeting about the game.

The social media theme will extend to “Hoppy Hour”, a pre-game professional networking event to be held prior to the game outside of the stadium. The Aug. 30 event will also be the first stop on the Mid-American Conference’s Football Social Media Road Tour, with a select number of fan correspondents covering via social media a game involving at least one league team each week throughout the season.  A smart, inexpensive way to test the waters and grant access to those who can becme brand ambassadors for the school.

USC Gives A Handle: Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans are starting the year number one, but that doesn’t men they don’t understand how much they have to do to embrace the media just a bit more. So USC has decided to list players twitter handles on their depth charts given out to media.  While it doesn’t go so far as to put a hash tag on the Rose Bowl sidelines, it is another step toward making social  media just that much more of a traditional media source for those covering the team. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are using twitter, its a nice touch.

Pitt Goes Outdoors: While the idea and the cost of staging hockey and hoops outdoors may have lost its mojo, the University of Pittsburgh found a way to take the beginning of hoops season to another level. On Wednesday, Pitt announced it will move “Midnight Madness” to the streets, bringing a wooden floor, portable bleachers and a video board near the Pitt Union. The event is being held during the football homecoming weekend — Pitt plays Louisville the next day at Heinz Field — and is being marketed as part of the school’s 225-year anniversary celebration. A fireworks show will be held at 9:15 p.m. with the men’s and women’s practices to follow.  Is there risk with weather in October? Sure. But by thinking outside, literally, the Panthers found a way to make a first practice just that much more special, get a little buzz and probably found a sponsorable event where there wasn’t much of one before. Great making of chicken salad by the Big East school.

Pac 12 Continues To Grab Digital Benefits: Last week the Pac 12 unveiled their new network, this week it is all about digital. The Conference has  launched  an iPad app that will let college sports fans follow all their favorite teams wherever they are. The whole thing was made possible because 18 months ago, the conference decided to consolidate all of its media rights, and launch its own sports networks for fans of its teams.

The Pac-12 iPad app will provide users access to all the same content as the website, and will include personalization features to let users decide which universities and which sports are most important to them. That includes an interactive programming guide that will show content tailored to them, as well as highlighting events that are live and those which are trending. By connecting with Facebook and Twitter, fans will be able to see what their friends are saying while watching live matchups. All  850 different Pac-12 events across all sports will be available on the web and on the iPad app.  It is a very progressive move for a conference steeped in Silicon Valley with tech savvy followers who will engage more and more online, with the traditional broadcast outlet still there for the taking.

So with all those pieces in place, and more fun to follow, let’s follow some college football.

College Football Takes New York…For A Week.

It is the rarest of rare events for a sport that is cult-like across the country but forgotten in Gotham. The first full week of December every year, college football takes center stage in New York. No, it is not because of a big game…Rutgers is Pinstripe Bowl bound, Army is prepping for their Navy battle this week but has had a disappointing year, and the City’s two college teams, moribund Fordham and downtrodden Columbia, went a combined 2-20 this fall and are both looking for new coaches. The reason is what will go on behind the scenes for marketers and admins across Manhattan.

Leading the week is the annual Sports Business Journal College Athletics forum, the best business to business event for those on the collegiate level. The event draw marketers and AD’s from across the country, and this year will draw a large slice of media because of the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse, the re-alignment of conferences and the state of the BCS. Then later in the week is the College Football Hall of Fame dinner, perhaps the most widely-attended event for some of the biggest names in collegiate athletics past and present, with several thousand people filling the event. Then on Saturday is the presentation of the Heisman Trophy, a three to four day event marked by presentations, meetings and sponsor activity. Around the week, most of the major conferences take the time to come in and meet with sales groups, networks, and other key media and VIP’s, all designed to help update Madison Avenue on the business goings-on of college athletics. Deals will be updated, college luminaries courted, policies discussed, media addressed, all in one place at one time as college football gives pause and college hoops cranks up.

There was a time when all fall was college football in New York, and other Northeastern cities, but those days, and many of the private institutions that dominated the early days of gridiron success, are a distant memory for their football prowess. The closest “rising” program to New York may actually by Stony Brook University on Long Island, which has put huge amounts of dollars into upgrading its athletic facilities and quality of play. Still for one week, the business of college comes full scale to New York, showing that the City is still the place where business gets done, and where if you are an athletic brand, you have to find a place to showcases your wares, whether they are in Boise or Miami and anywhere in between.

Pac 12’s Hashtag Battle Brings Life To A Lackluster Football End…

In the time since Larry Scott took over as Pac 12 Commissioner, the league has emerged as a leader and an innovator in virtually every area of the business of college athletics. League expansion, marketing to a larger fan base in the central and eastern United States, mew media deals, a strong push to have member schools do a better job of telling their success stories nationally, proactive sponsorship and partnerships that promoted both the academic and athletic side of the conference are all big steps for a league which was sometimes an afterthought in the competitive world of big business and college sports. Even with all that success, the first Pac 12 football championship promised to be a bit of a dud, pairing UCLA and its lame duck coach Rick Neuheisel against the high flying BCS bound Oregon Ducks on their home field. With a national audience on Fox on a Friday, what little things could the league do to draw some interest to a game which is supposed to create enthusiasm and celebrate all things positive about the league this year? How about a little twitter contest?

The league used their digital and social platforms to call for the casual fan, as well as those supporting UCLA nd Oregon, to get into a little hashtag battle. They aggressively promoted #GoBruins and #GoDucks to a national following, with the hope that the digital world would follow the back and forth and add a little spice to a contest which most viewed as a blowout. The result of the hashtag battle probably was more interesting that the result on the field, which Oregon predictably won 49-31. While the Oregon hashtag’s percentage dominated the matchup 85-15, the coverage that the following got was very notable, including a national mention on Fox as the game ended. The Pac 12 gained more casual followers and was able to take a good look at who the most ardent, and largest twitter followers who participated were, and those followers can be invaluable in garnering grassroots support for programs going forward. They also got to see how national a footprint the two schools have in social media, and are also able to use this contest as a litmus test for marketers looking to engage in a social media strategy going forward. Keep in mind this was not a key rivalry game. The social media battle for a USC-UCLA or Harvard-Yale or even Army-Navy (given the military’s international footprint) would be much more intriguing and probably a lot more valuable to a brand.

Regardless of the overall outcome, the hashtag battle was a great test for the Pac 12 to drum up a little more interest and test an idea with big upside and no downside. It showed brands and schools that there is fun and value in working to promote interest and even drive viewers by cross promoting, and the league probably learned more about who and where they are being followed. Needless to say this won’t be the last or the most sophisticated battle online in sport, but it was another smart next step for a league which seems to have a better grip on the future and on engagement than many of the others in the space. A win for Oregon, and a nice win for the Pac 12 as well.

Who Will Grab The Academies?

The continued scramble in the BCS-bound conferences moved Southwest again, with imminent acceptance of Texas A and M into the SEC. Much of the talk around A and M was the ability for the SEC to expand into another television area, the football crazy land of Texas. Last year the Big East went Lone Star State hunting, grabbing the fast-growing program at TCU to bolster its BCS standing in football and also give the conference added eyeballs in an area where Big East football runs behind Friday Night Lights in interest most of the year. It is all about market share now, much more than tradition, for the mega-conferences that continue to grow and squeeze out the have nots.

So with all the growing and expanding, when will someone grab the Service Academies? Outside of Notre Dame, when things are going right on the gridiron there are few collegiate brands more impressive or awe inspiring than Army, Navy and Air Force. Their pageantry, true national recruiting platform, tradition of academic excellence, appeal to brands, alumni base, well established alumni and their presence amongst casual fans is second to none. Factor in a solid tradition of coaches and winning programs at Navy and Air Force, and hopefully a fast-growing new success story now at Army, and the Academies should be of great appeal to a BCS conference looking to expand, especially one like the Big East with a diverse football following. The fixation on a major geographic market sometimes can be overstated. Does Rutgers truly get the Big East in New York or does TCU get the conference in Dallas? On good years, for sure. However on a consistent basis, the addition of the Academies…one or maybe all three…will give some conference a much larger consistent national footprint.

Is it an easy choice for the Academies or for a conference, especially when across the board it is unlikely for the schools to go full in? No it is not. Navy has built Bowl-eligible status over the years by taking on schools not in the greatest football positions…Rice, Duke etc…and then pulling off an upset or two. Air Force has taken a tougher road in conference play and fared well, while Army still relies on a non-Division 1-A football opponent or two to get themselves righted as well. The Academies also use the lure of Annapolis and West Point to play more home games than road games as well, and the independent football status gives them the ability for a choice of venue for certain opponents as well.

Even with the minuses, the lure of an Academy or two on the gridiron should be enticing to a BCS conference looking to grow sooner rather than later. A true national footprint, instant name recognition and probably a boost in presence in the boardroom make those schools very intriguing for added band value. Time will tell.

Does Being Cannon Fodder On The Gridiron Actually Help A School?

Opening weekend in college football saw some interesting and exciting early season games…TCU-Baylor, Brigham Young-Ole Miss, even Notre Dame’s upset loss to South Florida were a few of the games that had great drama amongst a sea of mismatches and tune-ups for those in the major football conferences. Then you have North Carolina Central, Indiana State, Chattanooga, and Fordham among others. These schools take a pay day to go out and try and be David against Goliath, and try and capture the one day where a major school may have a bad day and a team plays well above it’s level, recreating the landmark upset Appalachian State had at Michigan several years ago, a loss which really was more about the Wolverines downward slide than ASU’s rise (the school is regularly a national power at the college bowl subdivision level). Yet these schools talk about the experience and the great feeling it gives alumni and the unprecedented power that such a game has, making it more than a payday to subsidize an athletic department budget in challenging times. But is it, especially in football, where injuries and games are a precious commodity in the high pressure world of coaching and development?

Football is a different animal than its basketball cousin. Mid-majors can go and take a pay day and then bounce back, rarely without long term downward effects in hoops. The length of the season allows one if not more shots for teams to dance among the larger powers, and even an occasional major upset does not spell doom for even the most elite of programs. Not so on the gridiron. In football the size and speed difference can make devastating injuries a season-ender for top-flight athletes and can play havoc with the aspirations of young coaches. Elite football programs cannot allow even close games early in their schedules, so huge differences in scores, even wider than the talent gap, are not uncommon. Often times the “excitement” generated by the school coming to play the game fades very quickly with the result. There is a chance to play on a second tier TV schedule, some exposure maybe in a major market newspaper or two, but then things move on to whomever is next. Now if the game is part of a strategic move to a larger conference, one that say Villanova or Florida Atlantic or Florida International or Alabama Birmingham have tried over recent years, a steady scaling up to full-time 1-A status, that’s a different story. Usually what it means is a sacrifice of body and ego for a pay day, and the effects afterward are minimal. There is no “tradition,” since a rivalry can’t be built on a one-sided loss. The continual hope for that big upset becomes less and less over time with BCS conferences expanding their reach. Even media coverage in these challenging times is difficult, as many of the games occur at off-hours and outside of the league TV schedule, making the desire to put them on air minimal at best.

Yes these games can be a learning experience. From a business standpoint, smaller schools can use the games as a one-off on the revenue side, but also to build on an individual performance to get some added exposure for that athlete. Smaller schools can also learn about more best practices and effective game day management from being a part of the experience. Maybe there is a brand looking to gain up and coming exposure who can glean on to the larger game experience and leverage that experience in favor of the smaller school. However avoiding devastation and embarrassment seems to be more the norm these days in the big vs. little discrepancy of college football, and the gap continues to widen. Into that void falls the fodder, hopefully with better results ahead for when the schools play at the level they are designed to compete at.

No Bull…USF Looks To Lead In Social Media Coordination…

Trying to coordinate all the information in the digital space is akin to playing “Wack A Mole” many times. Assisting reputable bloggers, vetting newsfeeds, sending out promotional information, coordinating effective Facebook posts, finding new promotions, organizing fan groups and making sure all that information is correct, timely and up-to-date with a limited budget is a daunting task. In the college world, doing all that across multiple sports and seasons can be even more difficult, factoring in alumni groups, hundreds of athletes and other supporters from around the country that are all vital to one’s success. That doesn’t count league affiliations and also satisfying all the needs of sponsors, donors, and a casual fan base which, especially at the BCS level, is essential to fill the stands and keep programs afloat across the board, all on a very limited budget.

One University trying to take a leadership position in coordinating their digital assets, presenting a unified front, and driving dollars way in advance of the fall is the University of South Florida. The Big East Bulls, playing in the Tampa market with Raymond James Stadium to fill, have enlisted a multi-faceted online system designed to pull all information into one place, create promotional opportunities and give the University a one stop shop to assess and address all their digital assets, both owned and independent of their system. The system and the study is called Horns Up, and it creates a multi-layered information program for all things South Florida, from affinity groups to tickets sales, and builds in an expanded set of rewards for fans, alumni and students with an interest in South Florida, especially tied to football. The program ties in USF’s advertising campaigns across South Florida and unites all information in one place, with a string call to action. It also provides all levels of USF athletics the ability to reach thousands of fans at one time no matter where they are engaging in the brand, and gives the school the ability to track and promote new events at a moments notice. The case study can be viewed here.

It is a great example of unifying all news, information and promotion in one place, saving time, effort and dollars for a school that needs to grow its brand in a difficult marketplace and give all its supporters on every level, from the casual to the passionate, compelling content, added value and tailored information that is serachable and very coordinated. Nice job by USF, very proactive in a marketplace where reactionary sometimes rules the day.