A Triple Play

Many athletic programs are enticing new corporate sponsors through “cause-related” programs, which connect the company, athletic department, and community in a triple-win situation.

By Dr. William A. Sutton and Dr. Mark A. McDonald

William A. Sutton, Ed.D., and Mark A. McDonald, Ph.D., are professors in the Sport Management Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Athletic Management, 13.3, April/May 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1303/ovotripleplay.htm

As corporate sponsorships with college athletic departments continue to grow, they are becoming more sophisticated and strategic. Corporations now want more than their name on your scoreboard and a block of free tickets. They want to partner with your program in ways that bring deeper connections with their potential and current customers.

One strategy that accomplishes this involves tying in community outreach programs with corporate sponsorships. Called “cause-related” programs, they offer the athletic department additional funding to get involved in a community relations endeavor and enable the sponsor to further its outreach strategies.

Many college sports teams already participate in community outreach programs, so the idea clearly benefits an athletic department. But why are the companies so interested in this idea?

Today’s marketing strategies often focus on gaining a customer’s loyalty. There is so much competition that corporations strive for customers to develop an attachment to their particular brand. They want their customers to not just like the product for its taste or quality or look, but to have such a strong emotional link to the brand that they always choose it, regardless of the competition.

And the company’s image goes a long way in making that emotional connection happen. As the basis upon which traditional corporate sponsorships are built, sports fans will often buy the product that sponsors their favorite team.

More recently, corporations are using community relations endeavors in the same way. A company that gives money to charity or whose employees volunteer for an important cause can help the consumer feel a more loyal attachment to the product. Positioning oneself as a good citizen—one which gives back to the community—has proven to be an effective business strategy.

So, connecting traditional corporate sponsorships of athletic teams with community relations efforts makes a lot of sense. Companies get to link their products with both the home team favorite and a moral obligation—all in one stroke.

The University of Washington is one school that has successfully implemented cause-related programs with several sponsors. According to its Director of Marketing and Promotions, Leslie Wurzberger, “Sponsorships that include community and/or cause-related marketing overlays are a trend that has been emerging in the sponsorship area for some time, and now is working well in collegiate athletic sponsorship programs.”

A corporate-sponsored community relations program typically consists of the following elements:

• Cause affiliation.

• Hands-on athletic department interaction with the targeted community group.

• Sponsor-provided funding for the project associated with that community group.

• Visibility for the sponsor in both the athletic setting and community relations program.

• Reward program for the targeted community that is tied to the athletic program and the corporate sponsor.

• Platform for the sponsor to promote its products and services to the athletic department fan base.

• Financial benefits (corporate ticket purchases and increased attendance) to the athletic department in return for the sponsor affiliation and association.

• Public relations and media benefits linking the sponsor to the athletic department and the cause-related marketing effort.

Verizon has a multi-sport program with the University of Washington that illustrates these elements. The key cause-related marketing initiative of the company is called “Verizon Reads,” which encourages literacy in school children. The sponsorship links the athletic teams to the literacy campaign in several ways.

During the football season, Verizon distributes phone cards branded as “Verizon Reads with the Huskies” at one home game. During that game, Verizon also donates $100 for every point scored by the Huskies to “Books for Kids,” a local charity that provides books for underprivileged children.

The school tie-in is further supported through the distribution of 30,000 Verizon Reads with the Huskies bookmarks in local schools. Children fill out the bookmarks with the names of the books they have read and turn in the completed bookmark to their teachers. Each completed bookmark can be exchanged for a ticket to a Huskies men’s or women’s basketball game. Fifteen schools also receive classroom visits from University of Washington student-athletes who talk about the importance of reading and academics.

The University of Washington was also able to land a sponsorship with coffee manufacturer Starbucks by selling them on the community relations theme. According to Wurzberger, these types of sponsorships allow for more creativity and experimentation, which can work well in luring an otherwise uninterested sponsor.

“In our recent sponsorship agreement with Starbucks, the primary objective Starbucks was looking for was a community partnership,” explains Wurzberger. “I am confident that we would not have been able to negotiate that sponsorship agreement if we had not shared the vision of, nor had the reputation of, working with sponsors in the community as partners.

“We want to create programs where we can take two powerful Northwest brands, the Huskies and Starbucks, and do something positive in the community,” she adds.

This trend of corporate involvement and partnering with collegiate athletic programs in the area of cause-related marketing is expected to grow. It could even be called a triple-win situation, since the programs benefit the athletic department, the corporate sponsor, and the community.