Marketing with Class

At the University of North Florida, sports marketing students do more than sit and learn. They help the athletic department promote sports in new and fun ways.

By Dr. Jennifer Kane

Jennifer Kane, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Leadership Program at the University of North Florida. She has also taught and coached at the high school level. She can be reached at (904) 620-2465 or

Athletic Management, 14.4, June/July 2002,

Unless you administer the University of Michigan’s football program, you probably want to boost the number of fans who attend your contests. It’s no secret that fulfilling this objective takes some marketing. But marketing takes time, staff, and money. Or does it?

At the University of North Florida, an NCAA Division II program with no full-time marketing or promotions staff, we’ve developed a collaborative approach to increase the fan-base by using students enrolled in a sport marketing class. For the past two years, the athletic department has “hired” my class of students to design and implement promotional events for selected athletic teams with great success.

With a minimal budget and very little time required from athletic department staff, attendance at targeted sporting events has increased. At the same time, the athletic department has provided undergraduates with an avenue for learning more about marketing by putting theories into action.

But before mutual success can be achieved, collaboration and professionalism must be established between the professor of the class and the athletic department. Below is a look at how the program at UNF worked in its first year.

Philosophies & Goals
While the project is not difficult to administer, it does take some up-front communication. At UNF, Athletic Director Dr. Richard Gropper and I discussed our ideas on sports marketing and what would constitute success for this program. This was important to ensure we had a shared vision for the partnership.

Next, a goal was developed. In our case, we decided to focus on baseball and softball and attempt to increase attendance at one targeted home game (for each sport) by 10 percent.

We also agreed that the athletic department would provide a small amount of funding and team paraphernalia (T-shirts, mascots, etc.) to the project. This would allow students to learn the importance of budgeting, and it was a good step toward ensuring the relationship could take on a professional nature.

Gropper allocated $1,000 to a marketing budget, based on past promotional events and their associated costs. This funding was split equally between baseball and softball. Gropper and I also agreed that any money not used would go into the sport management program account to be used for future program needs. This served as an incentive for the students to get as many resources as possible donated through sponsorships. Interestingly, a competition developed to see which marketing team could spend less of the allocated funds.

The athletic director and faculty member should also discuss professionalism and accountability. As professor of the class, I took on the responsibility of serving as facilitator and mentor, which included making sure the students were representing the athletic department in a professional manner. For example, when students needed to write a letter to solicit sponsorships, I critiqued the draft and helped revise it. We then sent it to the athletic director for his final approval and signature.

From Research To Plan
Armed with a vision approved by the athletic director, the students were placed into four groups. Two of the groups were given the assignment of developing a marketing plan for UNF baseball and the other two, UNF softball.

For the first part of the semester, I spent a significant portion of class time teaching the various components of marketing strategy, while the students were expected to do ongoing research needed to develop their plans. This included tasks such as gathering information from athletic personnel on NCAA regulations, getting approval from concessions personnel, and discussing proposals with the sports information director and student body officials, when needed.

The baseball and softball coaches also presented information to the class. Students were able to question the coaches and hear what promotional efforts had been successful and unsuccessful in the past. It also gave the students a chance to assess how much cooperation they would receive from the coaching staff and any limitations they might face.

As part of its research, each group developed a survey (after a lesson on Consumer Market Segmentation) and distributed it to randomly selected members of the student body. These surveys collected demographic and psychographic information as well as other information designed to help students better develop their plans. Questions included: How many UNF athletic events have you attended? If you have not attended any athletic events, what is the primary reason you have not attended? What, if anything, would improve your chances of attending?

Each group was then responsible for creating and presenting its marketing plan to a panel of judges comprising the athletic director, senior woman administrator, baseball coach, softball coach, and myself. Each plan included the following required components:

• Mission Statement
• Vision
• Logo
• Financial Analysis
• Positioning of the Program
• Competitive Analysis
• Consumer Analysis
• Marketing Objectives
• Marketing Mix Decision

To ensure the judges’ evaluations were similarly focused, I gave each member a score sheet that detailed what to look for in a winning marketing strategy. Categories included professionalism, creativity, content, and practicality, with point values assigned to each area.

After listening to the presentations, the judges discussed and deliberated until we had consensus. For both sports, we actually decided to combine ideas from the two plans to come up with one that we thought would be most successful. This allowed all groups to experience success and also feel ownership through the next phase.

Winning Ideas
Students from the two baseball groups merged, as did those in the softball groups, to begin working on the implementation of the promotional events. Students were assigned roles and responsibilities and developed timelines. Each week, in class, students were responsible for submitting updates on the progress they had made, the challenges they were facing, and their plans for the upcoming week. While I provided leadership and guidance, the students were responsible for plan execution.

The promotional event developed and implemented for the baseball team was titled Greek Challenge: Show Me the Money. This event was designed to attract UNF fraternity and sorority members and their friends to the baseball games.

On a specified date, fraternities and sororities were challenged to see which one could bring in the most fans. In addition to their members, they were encouraged to bring in friends, class groups, community groups, and so forth. Each person representing a particular sorority or fraternity signed in at a designated table. At the end of the second inning, the sign-in sheets were tallied and the winner was presented a check for $150 that would go to the charity of their choice. Sponsorship was obtained for this monetary incentive.

Student marketing teams also planned promotional activities such as a Hula Hoop Contest and an Easter Egg Toss, which were held between selected innings. These activities had prize give-aways obtained through sponsorships. In addition, designated students in UNF mascot suits greeted fans at the gate, led cheers, and entertained both children and adults.

To publicize the event, sport marketing students met with each campus fraternity and sorority individually to provide the information firsthand and motivate them to participate. Promotional flyers were distributed at these meetings and were also posted around campus. In addition, there was an ad placed in the UNF student newspaper, and an announcement was included in the “Campus Update” that goes out to all UNF students via e-mail. Finally, a banner was made and put up in the campus commons areas one week prior to the event.

The promotional event for the softball team was called Cheer Challenge. Girls’ city league softball teams (ages 8-13) from the surrounding area were invited to attend a UNF women’s softball double-header and participate in a cheer contest. Each team came prepared with a UNF cheer, and the UNF softball team members judged them between games on enthusiasm, creativity, and team spirit. The winning team won an instructional clinic with the UNF team, along with a pizza party.

The youth team coaches also competed in a “dizzy bat” contest in which the winner won a party for six at a Jacksonville Suns baseball game, which included box seats. The contest involved the coaches putting the large end of a bat on the ground and the small end on their forehead and spinning around 10 times. After the 10th spin, they had to hit a softball off a tee. The coach who hit the ball furthest won.

As with the Greek Challenge, UNF mascots were present at this event and served as great motivators for the youth involved in the contest. There were plenty of prizes such as T-shirts and food coupons that the students used for promotional give-aways. All of the prizes, large and small, were obtained through sponsorships.

The Cheer Challenge, however, was publicized differently than the Greek Challenge. One of the students in my class coached a local girls’ softball team and was able to obtain a list of area teams and coaches. Each coach was personally called by group members and invited to attend. They followed up the call with written information on the specifics of the promotion and included a name and number to call for confirmation. If they did not hear from a coach, they followed up with one more phone call. The day of the event, the students put up a welcome banner at the campus entrance and signs directing the groups to the field.

Evaluating Results
The primary goal of increasing attendance by 10 percent in both sports was met and exceeded. But we also wanted to evaluate the project in a more qualitative way, so marketing students, the athletic director, and coaches were all asked to reflect on the entire process and present their thoughts on the long-term benefits.

Both team coaches were extremely pleased with the events and expressed a desire to see them continue. They felt that the promotions allowed people who had not previously attended the games a chance to see how exciting their respective teams are to watch.

The athletic director was just as enthusiastic. “Working with our sports marketing students proved to be a win-win,” says Gropper. “The relationship provided practical, real-world experience for the students and a small army of enthusiastic promoters for the athletic department.”

He adds that he spent less time on the project than he envisioned and decided to make these two promotions annual events. Our majors club will organize and execute the promotions with financial support from the athletic department.

From an educational perspective, I was also pleased. The project allowed students to experience a hands-on approach to learning sport marketing concepts and provided a chance to apply what they were taught in the classroom. Students echoed my thoughts, saying they had learned a great deal from the project.

Finally, the program also helped create positive relationships between sport management faculty and students and athletic department personnel. “There exists a wonderful, cooperative spirit between the university’s sport management program and the athletic department,” says Gropper. “There’s a natural marriage between the two.”

But, we are not resting on our laurels. We plan to continue the program and improve it every year. For example, this year, we added a student member to our judging panel who was in the class last year and is currently an intern in the athletic department. She offered the panel some good insights.

The coaches have also gotten more involved, helping us reach more contacts in the community. Students were able to secure a large sponsorship for the baseball team’s event this year through the coach’s contact with an alumni player.

With everyone on the same page with this project, we look forward to many years of continued success. The athletic department gains marketing support, the coaches are enthusiastic, and the students are learning.

Tips for Athletic Directors

To make this program as successful as possible, athletic directors may wish to consider the following ideas when working with sport management faculty and students:

Treat students as professionals. Often, students are taken for granted because they are not “employed” by the university. But, it is important for the athletic director to work with them in the same way he or she would with an outside consultant. If the students are not exhibiting professional behavior toward athletic personnel at any time, the professor of the class should be alerted.

Expect some mistakes. While maintaining a professional relationship is important, remember that your “consultants” are truly students performing marketing for the first time. Be empathetic to problems that may arise while also stressing accountability.

Be an active participant in the process. Serve as a panelist for judging student marketing plans. Provide constructive feedback to students and serve as a mentor to these students as needed. Most important, attend the promotional events and show the support of the athletic department.

Keep lines of communication open. It is important that students have all the information they need in order to plan and implement the events successfully.