How to Get a Return on Your Sports Sponsorship Investment

What’s true about the evolution of marketing tactics, just like in publicly traded stocks, is their value (or impact) changes over time.

Just 50 years ago the most valuable companies were department stores like Sears, industrial businesses like US Steel, and low-tech pioneers like Polaroid and Kodak.  

In the marketing world, the daily newspaper used to be the dominant source of information, and the most popular solution for advertisers.  

Today the most valuable companies are in technology, they make software like Oracle and Salesforce, or run digital platforms like Amazon and Uber — connecting people with information, products, and services.  

In the marketing world, the value (and popularity) of digital and social marketing has exploded, while the value of newspaper advertising has plummeted.

There is one marketing tactic that has stood the test of time, growing slowly in value like a long lost value stock — and that is collegiate sports sponsorship.

Why?  Because there has never been more demand for content — and there have never been more ways to consume content.  

What I mean by content is the entertainment you watch, and listen to, or read in various kinds of media like TV shows, movies, sporting events, concerts, viral videos, music from the radio or from streaming services like Spotify, articles from websites, blogs, apps, and other news providers.

All of it consumed on a growing number of devices and platform like our smart phones, TV’s, desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and even watches.

Therefore, the amount of money invested in content has never been greater, Netflix alone spent over $6 billion on entertainment for their subscribers in 2017.

ESPN, a part of Disney, spent about $6 billion on just the rights to air live sporting events — the most valuable of all content.

Tap Into the Power of Live Content

Live sports are the most valuable of all content because it’s rare today for people to share the same entertainment experience at the same time.

Most of us are plugged into our personal (on-demand) feed of entertainment, delivered by our favorite device.

Intelligent marketers covet reaching folks sharing experiences at the same time because it’s a more efficient and effective way of engaging customers. 

Think about the Super Bowl in 2019, advertisers paid over $5 million PER thirty-second commercial (in part) because over 100 million people were tuned in at the same time.  

Live sports, especially NCAA Football and Basketball, translate well to every media, they are safe for anyone to watch, and they elicit an emotional connection unlike any other type of content.

Sports work well in TV, Radio, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and are ideal for streaming.  Also, they provide compelling content and analysis for printed publications like magazines, newspapers, and programs.  

This means flexibility in creating effective and affordable campaigns for sponsors.

Collegiate sports are also blue chip and brand safe — meaning your business won’t have to worry about being associated with anything obscene or politically offensive — a growing concern especially in the digital marketing space.

Take the Shortcut to Becoming Unique and Compelling

One of the biggest challenges facing business owners today is figuring out how to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

How can your law firm, furniture store, HVAC company, or auto dealership stand out from your competition?

Most local businesses say the same things in their advertising:

  • How long they’ve been in business
  • They are a family-owned business
  • They are locally owned and operated

Rarely are these features unique, and rarely compelling enough (on their own) to attract customers. If you think about it, successful national businesses aren’t able to claim any of these features, instead they focus on benefits, and it doesn’t seem to be hurting them one bit.

Sponsoring a major college sports program is a shortcut to the hard work it takes to develop a unique selling point.  

You gain access to a team’s most valuable asset — their intellectual property.  This means you can proclaim your business an official partner and incorporate their logos into your own advertising.  

This creates instant credibility and a connection to their fan base, the community, alumni, university leadership, faculty and students.  

Nobody understands this better than the beverage industry.  

Pepsi may not taste like Coke, and Miller may not taste like Coors, but they are similar. 

That’s why these savvy marketers engage with college programs and professional franchises in just about every city — because it makes them stand out AND it instantly connects them with a large pool of customers.

Proven Marketing Success for your B2B

If you’re a business selling products or services to other businesses (a B2B), sponsorship is an especially good idea. 

B2B’s have a smaller target audience — other businesses. And there are fewer ways for them to advertise — which is why they often employ salespeople.

Many cities have no local business coverage, and if publications are available to advertise in, what can a business say that will resonate with their target customer, or make them stand apart from their competition?

Well, if you’re an official partner of a respected athletic program, and cleverly weave this into your marketing, suddenly you have a more compelling message.    

Ice Miller is a law firm based in Indianapolis, and they do legal work for most of the colleges in the state of Indiana.  

The ad below ran in the Indianapolis Business Journal — but I modified it slightly — I inserted the logos of four prominent universities above their headline “build partnerships.” 

Which version of this ad do you think has more impact? The one with or without the implied partnership and logos?    

If you sell services or products to a college or university, you’d be wise to invest in an athletic sponsorship.  

Why?  Guess who attends games and pays close attention to their athletic programs?  

University leadership, administration, trustees, influential alumni, and decision makers within each school or department.  Also, students, their parents, visiting teams, visiting administrators, fans who are business decision makers, and the community.  

If you want to do business with the college or university, you’d be wise to invest in an athletic sponsorship.

Why? A sponsorship with a college athletic program is the single most impactful and efficient way of engaging these decision makers.  Period.  

Furthermore, you can invest in hospitality opportunities where can meet and interact with these leaders and decision makers. 

Universities also have ENORMOUS economic impact on their communities.

If you operate a business in a college town, you’d be wise to invest in some kind of sponsorship — or risk having a direct competitor gain this advantage — and risk losing out on a large source of existing and potential clients.

Turn on a Fountain of Qualified Recruits

Historically low unemployment is a great thing for our country, but the number one complaint I hear from business owners is about their struggle to find and keep good people. 

It’s not exclusive to white collar employers; this problem spans the entire spectrum of employment. From retail to shift workers to truck drivers, all the way to professional service firms.

And perhaps the greatest resource for talent in the country are the undergrad and graduate students of our universities and colleges across America.        

These students need part-time work or internships to not only fund, but to complete their education, and gain important professional experience.  One of the best guerilla strategies for recruiting these students is to endear them through their beloved sports teams. 

Especially if you’re interested in recruiting any of the hundreds of elite collegiate athletes who are among the most disciplined students on campus. 

Sure, there are other ways of recruiting students like at career fairs and on-campus interviews.  But you will be surrounded by hundreds of other recruiters, and just like a needle in a haystack, you won’t be memorable, especially to graduates who truly have choices.  

But what if these recruits knew about your company BEFORE they met you at a career fair? 

Chances are, most students will have never heard about your insurance firm, or bank, or software company, or law firm … unless you’re a big national brand.  But you can set up a booth at any athletic event, expose yourself to students, athletes, parents of athletes, coaches, faculty, and more.  And you’ll likely have no other recruiters to compete with. 

Some of the most successful recruiting organizations in the world, like the Armed Forces, all wisely invest in this type of recruiting.

Even just one well placed sign at a sporting event will put you on the radar of more potential qualified candidates than any other form of recruitment marketing.  And likely be less expensive. 

This is pro-active recruitment marketing.  It’s about the long game. Because by the time you’re forced to spend money to keep your talent pipeline full, it’s already too late.

Collegiate sports sponsorship won’t flood your HR department with resumes. But in the long term, you’ll win by associating your brand with something near and dear to the hearts of thousands of future graduates and alumni. 

How to Get a Return on your Sponsorship Investment

This is the most common concern when it comes to sports sponsorship, how do you measure ROI?

The people investing in sports sponsorship are usually executive leaders or owners of businesses, and their decisions are often fueled by emotion.

They could be an alumnus, a donor, or just a huge fan. And that devotion can sometimes blind them from thinking strategically about the investment, or from assembling the resources needed to execute it creatively.

If you think about all advertising and marketing in the world, when something doesn’t work, it usually boils down to a lack of strategy and execution.

The strategy is determined by the goal of the marketing investment, the execution is strategy brought to life through research, creative development, and placement of media.

It all starts with your marketing goal, and nobody can determine that but you.

If you put your logo on a sign at a major college football stadium, and it gets exposed to an entire season’s worth of fans, gets captured in photos appearing in newspapers and online news sites, it’s visible on national television, and because there’s just a logo displayed, the success or performance of the investment is impossible to measure.

I’m not saying something won’t happen, people WILL see your logo. Some folks may engage with your product or service because they support sponsors of their team — think how loyal NASCAR fans are to their sponsors — but it’s still tough to measure.

Can your goal realistically be achieved based on your strategy and execution?

With that said, what sort of marketing goals or results CAN you expect from sports sponsorship?  At the collegiate level, or at any level?

Can it deliver name recognition? Sure, absolutely, but it’s not a very measurable type of goal.

Will the sponsorship money support the program or team? Yes, but if that’s your goal then it sounds more like a donation than a marketing objective.

Can sponsorship generate leads or drive traffic based on a compelling and specific offer? Yes, and it’s easier to measure. The execution requires a truly compelling offer that is frequently repeated, along with a way to capture contact information.

Can sponsorship help me develop relationships through hospitality? Yes, and it’s also measurable. As a sponsor you get access to VIP hospitality where you could meet the President of the University, or the Director of Athletics, or other business and political leaders, possibly leading to a business relationship or referrals. Or you can entertain customers, or reward employees with tickets.

Can sponsorship help me create a database of interested prospects for future marketing and follow up? Yes, also easy to measure. You can set up booths where you employees interact with fans at stadium entrances, or engage a fan-base to participate in a contest or sweepstakes.

Here are some other ideas (and there are many more) you can use to help develop a sponsorship likely to generate a measurable return on your investment:

Create a branded product, for example, Toyota has an Indianapolis Colts branded truck.  Ford has a Texas Edition truck.  

You can brand anything with an athletic team. A furniture dealer could develop a branded recliner with logos and beverage holders.  Fans love to buy all kinds of stuff with their team’s logo on it.

Have a coach or current or former player endorse your product or service.  Before Peyton Manning ever threw a touchdown pass, Indianapolis auto dealer Bill Estes signed him to an endorsement contract, and reaped the rewards of that partnership as Manning’s career took off.

Not everyone can afford a celebrity spokesperson, but you can probably afford a former collegiate player or coach, or local high school legend, and doing this will instantly distinguish you from all your competitors. This is an especially great tactic for B2B’s.

Offer a discount on your product or service with a win  or a loss — or some specific score.  The more you gamble the more interesting this becomes to fans. In many cities where Papa John’s operates, when the local college team wins, fans win 50% off their next pizza!

At Ball State University Men’s Basketball games, any time an opponent misses two free throws in a row, the entire arena wins free tater tots from local restaurant Root’s Burger Bar. These types of promotions are popular with fans and gain steam when shared in social media.

Put your name on it!  Let’s say you own a lawn services company — name the football field — call it LAWN PRIDE FIELD!  And make sure you have employees at the game interacting with fans, handing out brochures, and collecting information for future follow up.

Then try to leverage this investment with the University to win landscaping business on campus, offer special rates to the entire alumni base, and recruit students during the summer to groom as future employees.

If you own a professional services firm and want to entertain clients and rub elbows with business leaders — put your name on the suite level or premium seats, or even create a special section for VIP’s.

Share Content — as I pointed out earlier, live sports content is valuable, so become a sponsor of replays, or the play of the game, or a special video feature. Then SHARE IT on your own social media feeds.  

Ball State’s student run sports production unit, Sports Link

Watch your audience organically grow by being the source of great content from a respected athletic program.  

One of the Best Ideas Ever

Many years ago, an NFL executive named Jim Steeg was inspired by a Wilson tennis racket.  He noticed a giant “W” on the strings signifying the Wilson brand.  

Steeg took that idea and emblazoned the NFL shield on the nets behind the goal posts at the 2003 Super Bowl and expanded it to several Pro Bowls.  A few years later Allstate Insurance picked up the idea and now sponsors over 100 collegiate football programs each year.  

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Allstate further activates their sponsorship by sending agents to games to interact with fans, signing them up to buy insurance, or adding to their database for future marketing efforts.

Whatever your objectives are for sponsorship, you shouldn’t solely rely on the people who sell the sponsorships to guarantee your success or ability to measure this success.

They truly want you to succeed, and to be your partner for years, but they can’t determine what your business goals or marketing strategy should be. They are just one piece of a larger puzzle hoping to help you execute your vision, whatever it may be.

Shane Nichols is the General Manager of Ball State Sports Properties, a part of Learfield IMG College. Visit his LinkedIn profile here: