Signs of the Times

News about your athletes’ achievements doesn’t happen by word of mouth anymore. You need a marketing plan that is strategic and energetic.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, Ed.D., is Director of Athletics at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County, Md. He also serves as 1st Vice President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors’ Association.

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1305/signs.htm


In the world of professional and big time college athletics, marketing has become inescapable. Advertising campaigns, promotional nights, community outreach, and television packages are part of a day’s work for these administrators.

But what about marketing for high school athletics? With our aims firmly seated in the educational sphere, marketing tactics seem irrelevant and misdirected. But are they?

In a culture where we are hit with a steady stream of promotional and advertising messages throughout the day, maybe high school athletics needs to jump on the bandwagon. In reality, marketing is not only about selling more tickets to games, it’s also about promoting educational athletics and publicizing students’ achievements. It’s about getting more support for your program, which can then enhance the experience for your student-athletes.

At Eastern Technical High School, we’ve embraced the philosophy that marketing is a positive. In this article, I’ll explain some of our tactics and ideas for making our marketing program successful.

Road Blocks
For many athletic directors, the first stumbling block to starting a marketing program is the work it adds to your already hectic schedule. To overcome this, try changing your perception of the task.

At Eastern Tech (Baltimore, Md.), I have come to view marketing efforts as an important and integral component of my responsibilities. Marketing is not an “extra” or frivolous effort. Marketing is just as important as scheduling facilities, evaluating coaches, and the numerous other responsibilities that I have.

In addition, I am lucky to work for a principal who considers marketing an important and necessary component, not just for athletics but for our entire school. As a magnet school, our principal has always believed that we have to market our successes and unique features. Therefore, the concept of marketing is pervasive throughout the school—from our standardized logo and business cards to a constant barrage of press releases covering our national awards and accomplishments. What I do to market our athletic program is, therefore, just an extension of what all administrators do at Eastern Tech.

A second road block to starting a marketing program is the fear that it won’t actually bring in enough revenue to justify your efforts. With this, I don’t disagree. It certainly takes less time and effort to run a two-week pizza sale, with a profit of $11,000, than to get even 100 more fans for each boys’ home basketball game, which would bring in less than $4,000.

Thus, the mission behind our marketing program is not to boost revenue, but to promote our program. Success is measured by how our school’s athletic programs are perceived—are we garnering more support?—not in how many dollars are added to the coffers.

Target Markets
The first question to ask yourself is, “Exactly who do we want to support and appreciate our athletics program?” In marketing terms, these people are grouped into categories and dubbed “target markets.”

In a high school setting, you are obviously trying to promote your program to students and parents. You want students to see the athletic program as a positive so that they choose to participate. You want parents to recognize athletics as a quality endeavor so there are fewer complaints and more people asking how they can help out.

Beyond these two groups, you should also think in terms of middle school students, who are the future athletes for your program. At Eastern Tech, since we are a magnet school competing against private, parochial, and other magnet schools, we also target parents of middle school students—since they will ultimately make the decision as to where their children will attend high school.

The community as a whole should be another of your target markets. This group represents taxpayers who can be critical for financial support of your program, business owners you may wish to contact for donations or advertising support, and others who may wish to volunteer in the athletic program.

Once you’ve identified your target markets, how do you reach them efficiently and effectively? At Eastern Tech, we’ve chosen to initiate a broad range of marketing efforts that begin with visual promotions and end with making our home games a happening place to be. Most of the initiatives are targeted to more than one of our target groups, others are geared to one specific group.

Visual Promotions
Posters, banners, photos, press clippings, and anything else that catches someone’s eye are great ways to say, “Look at us, we’re doing something special.” They also reinforce to athletes that their efforts are being recognized. Here are the visual promotions we use:

Sports bulletin board: Every week, one of our very enthusiastic and dedicated coaches, along with his players, clip newspaper articles about our teams and athletes and post them on a board in our main lobby. Not only do our students read them before school and during lunch periods, but fans attending home contests also look at them.

Originally, we were concerned about the possibility of vandalism and graffiti. However, these concerns have been unfounded. In the four years that this bulletin board has existed, there have been absolutely no problems.

Team photos: Naturally, championship trophies fill cases outside our gym entrance, but we also display the team photos for the current season in these cases. The photos are professionally produced and are displayed on small holders. They attract a lot of interest from our students and spectators.

Special banners: Like many schools, we hang banners commemorating championships in our gym. If there is a unique accomplishment, we also hang a specially-crafted banner in the school’s main lobby. This allows more people the opportunity to see it than if it were hung in the gym. This was done, for example, to honor our state finalist girls’ soccer team (the first for a girls’ team in our school’s history).

Announcement board: Weekly, we list key upcoming events on the sign board in front of the school. For example, we promote preseason parents meetings and our athletic awards banquets there. Everyone driving past the school immediately knows what is happening.

Schedule posters: These are commercially produced. The businesses who advertise on the posters get two copies to display in their office or shop. At Eastern Tech, we also hang them in the main office, guidance offices, media center, classrooms, and locker rooms.

Concession cups and magnet schedules: These are similar in concept to schedule posters in that they get the name of the school or a particular team out in front of the public. With our concession cups, we also promote our sportsmanship expectations.

Written Promotions
While the visual promotions send a brief and pointed message to the student, parent, or community member, written materials are important for providing more in-depth information to constituents. As part of the effort to market our program, we provide rundowns on our teams’ successes in weekly releases and promote our mission in other publications.

Weekly Sports Report: A newsletter is produced by one of our coaches and distributed to all our students during their lunch period. It features capsule summaries for all our teams and includes noteworthy accomplishments of our athletes.

Weekly Press Releases: The above-mentioned Sports Report is edited and a new heading is added before it is mailed to our two area weekly newspapers. Special announcements relating to individual or team accomplishments, awards won, and upcoming meetings are also included.

Booster Club Newsletter: Naturally, the upcoming booster club events, schedules for our teams, and highlights of the season are prominent features in this quarterly publication. Also, articles such as, “The Purpose of a J.V. Team” and “Why Officials are Important” are included to educate and communicate with our parents. We have found this to be an excellent vehicle to promote and sell our athletic program.

Tournament Programs: Whenever possible, we produce programs for our tournaments, which promote our entire athletic program. The programs that go unsold at the tournament then become excellent “giveaways” for the two annual open houses we hold for families of incoming freshmen, as well as youth clinics and other promotional opportunities.

Youth Clinics
Whether your district has two middle schools or 14 that feed your high school, sports clinics are an excellent method to sell your program to these potential student-athletes. I am very lucky that one of our excellent coaches does 95 percent of the work in conducting the youth clinics. We conduct two types of clinics: in-house clinics and those we take on the road.

The “road shows” occur in the fall and entail our boys’ basketball coach taking three or four of his current players and visiting selected middle schools. These clinics are scheduled for the conclusion of the school day, and the coach works closely with the schools’ assistant principals. We usually visit eight middle schools a year.

During the actual clinic, the coach uses the varsity players to teach the middle schoolers a few basic skills. However, the highlight of most clinics occurs when the varsity basketball players demonstrate three-point shooting and dunking. Through experience, the coach has learned that the middle school students’ attention span is limited and, therefore, he plans only 20 minutes for the instructional portion.

After the instructional and demonstration portions, the varsity players coach the students in small half-court games. The entire clinic lasts about an hour. While the clinic focuses on the sport of basketball, the coach also speaks about the other sports offered at our school.

The in-house clinic is termed “Youth Sports Day” (although it is actually a half-day) and takes place on a Saturday morning in the spring. Participants are given a schedule and a list of the various sports locations for the day. There are four 50-minute sessions, allowing a youngster to attend mini-clinics in four different sports all in one day.

Since students cannot repeat any session, they will all be exposed to the coaches, players, and skills of four different sports. As with the out-of-house clinics, the coaches spend a few minutes teaching some basic skills and then our high school athletes coach the middle school students in modified, lead-up games.

Our basketball coach plans and schedules the various sessions. He then provides this information to the other participating coaches and prints up the handouts—schedule and sports locations—for the visiting middle school students. My part in this project is to prepare press releases for the local newspapers and flyers for all of the middle schools.

Building Excitement
One of the oldest methods of promoting an athletic program is to build excitement through special events. This can range from theme nights for home games to honoring athletic achievements.

Theme Nights: When you promote a game as being a little different or special, you give potential fans an added incentive to attend. We schedule several different themes throughout the year including a “Western Night” (our mascot is a maverick) when anyone wearing western gear is admitted for half-price, a “School Color Night” (anyone wearing a school sweatshirt or T-shirt or school colors is admitted for half-price) and an “Early Bird Night” (our booster club pays the admission for the first 50 of our students). We obviously only use this approach for games against opponents which are traditionally poor draws.

Sponsored Nights: Another idea is to arrange a promotional night with a local restaurant. Those attending the game would receive, for example, coupons for a free soft drink or French fries.

Awards Banquets: These evenings involve more than simply recognizing the accomplishments of the various teams and individual athletes. They provide an opportunity to highlight everything that is positive and good about your program. This is especially true since you invite parents and guests to attend this event and you may even produce a press release for the local media. This makes such an event a very good marketing opportunity with a minimum of extra effort.

Hall of Fame: Like awards banquets, inducting former athletes and coaches into a hall of fame presents a unique marketing opportunity for a high school. The ceremony is often held at an event’s half-time, which may help to promote attendance for that contest. Of course, the PR factor is also involved, because the media will often cover this type of event.

The above ideas are just a starting point. Marketing your athletic program involves more than just filling seats. It also means promoting and selling your program, keeping in mind your school’s unique strengths and challenges.


Sidebar:
The Next Wave

Using a Web site to promote your athletic program is clearly the next wave in high school marketing efforts. At Eastern Technical High School, we actually have two sites that are used in tandem.

The first site is part of our school Web site, www.easttech.org. There is a listing on the table of contents for “Athletics,” which links readers to our department’s page. Here we post informational and educational items about our athletic program, such as our mission statement, when sports physicals will be offered, and a notice of our next preseason parents meeting.

We also reproduce our written materials on the site, including the Sports Report and Booster Club Newsletter. Photos and articles reporting major awards are also included.

I write all of the copy and then I either e-mail it or send it on a disk to our assistant principal, who is the Webmaster. He enters the information on the site and I will notify him if I detect any mistakes, which he corrects.

Since our use of the school Web site is relatively new, we are still trying to determine when and how often to change the articles and information. Obviously, announcements pertaining to specific seasons are changed with regularity.

Our second site, www.maryland.ihigh.com/easterntech, through ihigh.com, is where we list our game results and post short stories. This information is input by a student under the supervision of a faculty member. I provide the basic copy, and a faculty member reads all entries to make sure that there are no problems.