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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 (, 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.”

Excerpted from the October 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can access the complete article and the entire issue here. Other practitioners may subscribe to receive the UIEA newsletter at