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Are industry engagement execs missing the boat when it comes to athletics?

Excerpted from the October 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

University athletics sponsorships are big money. How big? Well, according to Statista, a German company specializing in market and consumer data, college sports sponsorship spending hit about $1.25 billion in 2017-18 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/607861/college-sports-sponsorship-spending/), the most recent years for which it has data. Given the fact that Statistica’s data showed a steady annual increase from 2005-2018, the current number is likely much higher.

What does that mean to industry engagement leaders? Well, for one thing, it means there are a lot of companies with a lot of money willing to invest some of that money into universities. So, the question becomes, can those commitments be translated into even broader engagement and valuable partnerships with those universities?

For someone with a holistic vision of industry engagement, it might seem logical that sports equipment manufacturers, for example, would benefit from the engineering or physics expertise of a university for which they are already an athletics sponsor. In addition, athletes might have leadership and other skills potential employers could be looking for. From the point of view of the university corporate engagement office, as well as the companies or agencies that represent the sponsors (i.e., IMG, or Learfield), it might also be beneficial for those two entities to share leads so each might expand their activities.

And yet, based on the responses (and in some cases, the lack of response) from observers, a solid relationship between a university corporate engagement office and athletics sponsorship is the exception rather than the rule.

“What I hear in general is that R1 schools, who primarily have Division I athletics, don’t often work closely with athletics,” says Joonhyung Cho, director of corporate relations and business development at the University of Virginia. “One of the reasons is that they look at each other with a very different eye. With IMG or Learfield, it’s managed by third parties (and most universities with “major” athletics programs do use such companies). Sometimes it’s the speed of how athletics looks for sponsorships — they’re very transactional. For us it’s a much more long-term strategy, and sponsorship branding often doesn’t align with it.”

“I don’t think it’s a very common thing,” adds Caroline G. Wood, executive director in the Office of Corporate Engagement at the Georgia Institute of Technology, while adding that she has had a very long and successful track record working with third-party companies. In fact, she adds, Division II FCS schools, which would not face the same issues raised by Cho, “have no excuse for them not getting along — they don’t have the IMGs and others there; it would be the athletics association. If they’re not talking, shame on them. And why isn’t the athletics department calling career services?”

Cho agrees. “In a way, possible collaboration makes perfect sense,” he says. “As corporate relations professionals we could do a better job of appreciating the work they do [in athletics], and who to speak with, and the same for them. But many colleagues and friends I speak with do not even know the right point of contact. Theoretically I think we should know each other in terms of who to speak with and what conversations are happening — at least at the highest level.”

His colleagues at organizations like UIDP and NACRO, he continues, say that some schools, like Texas, or Wisconsin, have a history of working well with athletics sponsors, and that it comes down to communication. “They have done better than most; otherwise, it’s not always been obvious [to engagement offices] how athletics even operates,” says Cho. “Also, not every school has a good basketball or football team, where much of the high-flash corporate sponsorship comes into play. That also brings some challenges.”

Seizing the opportunity

Despite the presence of potential obstacles, some corporate relations executives at universities with top-notch athletics programs have “broken the mold” and formed strong relationships with third-party representatives — although the process was not without its challenges. For example, Nathaniel K. Utz, Purdue’s vice president for industry partnerships, has such a relationship, as he had at his previous position at Notre Dame.

However, it wasn’t always easy. “It had not been the norm at Notre Dame,” he shares. “Most large universities use third-party companies who know what they’re doing to run their sports partnerships. At Notre Dame it was a small, local company. I coordinated with them a little, but they were not big enough to think big enough. The contract was running out, so ultimately Notre Dame hired a new company, JMI Sports, and that’s when it really started. When they came on board they pitched the university holistically — which clearly was music to my ears — and we formed a partnership. They were not always sure of what to do, and my team helped them figure it out.”

Utz came to Purdue in December 2020, and one of the first things he did was to meet with the athletics marketing group (Learfield), adding that he was received well. “They have a lot of money on the line with these contracts; they have their singular focus. But we agreed at the beginning to start coordinating and then try building up joint proposals,” says Utz. “When you propose a relationship with Purdue or Notre Dame, we could propose something more holistic in nature — not just putting a logo on a stadium, but something that can be much more impactful.”

At the end of the day, he continues, “these companies are trying to get their brand in front of audiences, or have the audience excited about that brand,” he continues. “Having their name in a stadium or in a commercial is one thing, but telling the story of the partnership is a different thing.”

Case in point

A simple example of this approach, Utz shares, involved a beverage company. “Putting the product through a sports platform is one way to do it, but if you really want to show you’re a great company … and this is why you should buy our products or why students should want to come work for us, you have to do more than just put a brand in front of us. You have to show you help the world become a better place — i.e., ‘We also partner with Purdue research scientists to provide clean water across the world.’ These things do not cost a lot, and they go a long way in marketing. Students get to participate in local or even global development projects, they do experiential learning, and professors expand their reach. It’s a win-win.”

That pitch, and a positive result, was not uncommon, he says. “Pretty much every partnership I landed while I was there at Notre Dame had a holistic component to it,” he says. “You have to understand it’s been rough going for these [athletics] companies the last couple of years, with sporting events not existing. They had to re-evaluate where to spend their money.”

At Georgia Tech, the bridge between industry engagement and athletics is thriving, even after the previous sponsorship firm was replaced. “We have an incredible relationship with athletics and, in particular, their marketing company, Legends,” says Wood, noting that she also had a strong relationship with the IMG representative prior to the switch to Legends.

She met the Legends representative Jean-Paul Dardenne (“JP”) in July 2021 and began having bi-monthly calls; they now speak once a month. “There’s a lot of respect on both sides,” says Wood. “I understand his metrics, he understands mine. He understands we’re doing what we’ve done for a very long time. So much trust has been built up; we can share some pretty confidential stuff and know it will stay there.”

She offers a couple of examples of how that relationship has helped both of them. “There’s a company whose CEO is on our advisory board, with their headquarters close by,” she shares. “They were interested in developing some sort of relationship with the athletics association. There was a competitor in town who was not really engaged with the institution quite as much but was also leaning on Legends for the marketing piece. I asked JP if he would please consider right of first refusal for the company with a closer relationship — or at least give them a shot. If it didn’t work, it didn’t work.”

Ultimately the effort didn’t bear fruit, “but he and I sat down, and I explained what the whole relationship was like. We looked at both companies. I told him why this was so important, and what they did with Georgia Tech. He and I went in on meetings with this company together to solicit basically for athletics; it would not be philanthropic, or research, or channels I’m responsible for. The marketing plan was drawn with me at the table, not just him. My counterpart at the company said he’s never seen the two [offices] come in together. That’s how we roll.”

In another situation, still active, a company with a very strong relationship with the Georgia Tech. Athletic Association was talking with Legends, but Legends did not know what the full relationship with the institution was. “They were talking about a pretty big marketing program,” Wood notes. “Because JP and I have this constant communication, he mentioned this. I said, ‘Time out — this is a very big, complex relationship with a number of endowments; there’s a lot of stuff going on. If y’all get this, understand it will be on the coattails of this larger relationship.’ JP said, ‘I totally understand.’ He created a meeting and the two of us really worked with this relationship presentation to the athletics association senior staff about what things looked like, and how a partnership with this organization could work in conjunction with [corporate engagement efforts]. If it goes through, it’s huge.”

Two-way street

The partnership she’s developed with Legends works both ways, Wood continues. “JP has found several [possible leads] and said, ‘Hey, do you work with that company?’” she notes. “If I said we did not have a relationship, he’d say, ‘We have to work on that; they’re really interested in talent acquisition.’ He has been so open to understanding what we do on campus. He was looking at the upcoming Military Appreciation Day and asked what Legends could do to support ‘all of us’ supporting the vets, because it would benefit both of us.” In fact, she adds, some research highlights have even been posted on the Jumbotron during games.

“I ran into a situation last year where I recognized some company on the sidelines,” adds Wood. “I heard one of my reps say he was not happy with how things went. My phone in Nashville started blowing up, so I sent JP an urgent call: ‘This is a very important company for us.’ He called on the phone and said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ Then he said, ‘I have an idea; I have an extra seat in the box, and we can wine and dine them. I can take care of them. Get the guy in touch with me and I’ll take it from there.’”

In other words, says Wood, “JP understands hospitality, and [he understands] these relationships. If something hurts me, it hurts him; if something hurts him, I need to help him.”

To strengthen that relationship even further, Wood has seen to it that JP is now part of her external relations team. “It’s great to have his perspective,” she says, “and he’s learned a lot about what we do.”

Working the partnerships

At Purdue, says Utz, “our office does not discuss much [directly] related to athletics partnerships; we facilitate that conversation with Learfield and the athletics department. After partnerships are formed, we coordinate the larger, holistic relationship. Our process . . . is that we try to understand where the company is engaged at Purdue today and where there are opportunities to expand that engagement. Athletics is one spoke in the wheel; if that relationship does not already exist, we facilitate a conversation between the company and our athletics partners.”

And does that relationship work both ways? “Absolutely — they can bring [leads] to us,” says Utz. “We have many different units across companies. If they manage a relationship that we are not even aware of and they start getting out of their area of expertise, that’s when we get called in. All partnerships, when they function efficiently, are two-way streets.”

The athletics partner, adds Wood, has access to opportunities that would not normally be available to corporate engagement but would nonetheless expand overall engagement to other units and benefit the university. “In JP’s area he has major relationships with companies on a whole different level; they do not have a standard packet of sponsorship — a cookie cutter. They really want to work with companies and be special for what makes sense to that company.”

Accordingly, she continues, “he has connections into parts of the company that we do not necessarily work with. He works with marketing companies representing big companies, or their marketing departments, so some aspects of what we do on campus would be better fits for the marketing department than for research or talent acquisition.”

She, emphasizes, however, that many of these larger companies “get” the holistic vision. “When we look at our relationship with them and with the Legends piece, some might see it as branding versus research, but the C-suite is able to look at it holistically, and we’re able to go at this in a way that looks holistic. We work on a much more coordinated basis than many schools.”

This joint vision, she notes, has led to collaborations she might not have previously considered. “We’ve pushed companies over to JP, too; I never thought I’d be doing that,” she comments. “My team has pushed new companies that have come to Atlanta and wanted to get their names out.”

In addition, she says, the Athletics Department has a “total person” program. “We work closely with that program in relation to career fairs,” she says. “We’ve gotten some great placements from athletics; athletes have a great team ethic. I think they had 35 companies at the athletics career fair this year. We work very closely with them to make sure companies get access to students, and we work with JP as well; if he wants some different exposure, we’ll explore it.”

Cho agrees that athletes can be very attractive to companies seeking potential employees. “It would be a great opportunity for student athletes, corporate relations, and athletics partners to work together for job placement,” he asserts. “Student athletes are dedicated, and they bring passion.”

Starting from scratch

If a corporate relations office was looking to engage more closely with the university’s athletics partner, what would be the best way to proceed? “Meet at the beginning; build a relationship,” Utz advises. “You have to get in the weeds. Say, ‘Okay, these are the companies I manage, and these are yours; there’s an overall relationship here. We need to know what you’re talking about. There are some companies you work with we’ve not had warm leads into — can you help me?’ And vice-versa. From the beginning and throughout, you have to maintain [these conversations]. They are always going after new targets, as are we.”

Cho concurs. “You need to be able to share that information, although you will not see it as often because of the very different nature of work they do,” he says. “Know the right point of contact in athletics. All of us could improve our working relationships for an even greater holistic approach to corporate partners.”

“As with any relationship,” adds Utz, “you have to understand what each other’s role, priorities and goals are for the university, how a relationship can help facilitate and grow them, and why an athletic sports type person might want to engage companies holistically — why it would benefit them.

“You have to value add,” Utz continues. “Value add for them is that as they currently do the work it’s very transactional. But they can build a bigger, stronger, longer lasting relationship by facilitating as many spokes in the wheel as possible. That additional holistic engagement will only enhance that athletic partnership because the company will see the overall value, versus the transactional value of sponsorship. Not every company is looking to hire our students; some companies just want to put out their brands, and that’s totally fine, but a lot of them are.”

“If I moved to another school and wanted to establish that kind of relationship, it helps to get buy-in from the athletics director,” adds Wood. “It’s great if they and the chief research development officer develop that helpful relationship. We almost had to prove to our athletics director there was a reason for it; now, he answers my calls. And for the outside branding company there has to be a willingness; they have to see the benefit of working with the university, and the university [must see] the benefit of working with them. You have to understand each other’s metrics.”

A good starting point may be as simple as “‘I’ve shared who we work with, I’d love to know who you work with; can we start from there?’ Build the trust up. When you start by bringing something to the table for them, they start to see the benefit of it,” Wood observes.

The other key piece, she says, is that your leadership understands the need for the relationship. “I say it’s the part of the overall relationship — we call it the additional transfer of value. How many corporate relations teams get in trouble for stretching metrics? I believe continuing to build the relationship is the benefit.”

She closes with this succinct advice for those corporate engagement leaders who eschew such relationships and therefore miss the opportunities they represent: “Get your [stuff] together.”

Contact Cho at 434-422-0731 or jqz3gz@virginia.edu; Wood at 404-894-0762 or caroline.wood@gatech.edu; and Utz at 773-844-9392 or nkutz@purdueforlife.org.