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March 02, 2004

In NCAA, One “A” Should Stand For “Amateur”

FROM THE NETHERWORLD OF PROFESSIONAL AMATEURISM come issues and concerns regarding the NCAA’s coziness with corporate sponsors.
With shrinking budgets, “outside revenue streams” can be temping indeed. Consequently, several new corporate partnerships have occurred, some of the biggest by the NCAA itself.

A debate rages over where the line on commercialism should be drawn. There’s the perception of non-commercial student-athletes on one side; at the other is the inescapable reality that millions of fans and billions of dollars are associated with the business of college athletics.

Where to draw the line? Naming rights? Signage and logos in, on and around college sports venues? Sponsored halftime shows, in-game promotions, tailgating events computerized scoreboard graphics and music?

Meanwhile, the NCAA has entered into corporate sponsorships much more complex than the past. Long-term contracts with TV networks, with bundled rights and creative tie-ins can generate huge rights fees. However, it is important that the NCAA does not allow its image does not drift toward that of the pro leagues.

NCAA sponsor partners include Coca-Cola, General Motors and Cingular at the “corporate champion” level.

Coca-Cola became the first corporate champion in 2002, with an 11-year $500 million package. The agreement includes marketing and media rights to 88 NCAA championships and extensive March Madness TV advertising.

Both organizations have similar Mom-and-apple-pie appeal. After all, Coke boldly stakes its claims to authenticity by proclaiming itself the “real thing.” Thus, it’s not a stretch for Coke and the NCAA to credibly claim to have a higher purpose than crass commercialism.

Thus far NCAA has not overdone the corporate presence. No one could mistake an NCAA event for a pro event.

Jim Dinkins, Coca-Cola's managing director of sports marketing, seems to argue that sponsors have limited control of how branded an event or relationship will be. “Properties control their own venues. Advertisers don't make those decisions; the people who sell the advertising are the ones making the decisions.”

With their hefty $500 million sponsorship outlay, one would think that the Coke’s marketing moguls would be at least a TAD more interested than Mr. Dinkins implies.

There are plenty of alternative sponsorship elements that are suitably tasteful for NCAA sponsorships. One example is the sideline availability of Dasani, Coke's bottled water, at all NCAA championships. Also, Coke stages Dasani Fest, which is free and open to the public and features famous chefs who "coach" various NCAA basketball coaches during an interactive cook-off. Dasani Fest.

"Our strategy in marketing is to try to connect our brand with the NCAA brand in a relevant way to the passions people feel for college athletics. How do you do that? A logo is a way, but something like Dasani Fest is better.” Dinkins said. "
Other sponsors have developed similar, signage-light, less commercial tactics. In Pontiac’s "Greatest Plays" promotion--fans watching NCAA televised events were shown various dramatic clips from college basketball and football games and asked to vote for their favorite.

"We don't put a lot of value on logos and signs," said Steve Tihanyi, of General Motors. "Our primary objective is to drive opinion.” Nice pun Steve.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of signage overkill are the college bowl games--which the NCAA does not control—which are more about one-day TV impressions.

Networks are challenged when selling parts of their bundled-rights NCAA packages. On one hand, they are restricted by not being over-commercialized. However, this is usually overshadowed by the unique positive rub that NCAA affiliation brings.

Sell the product, but do it quietly.


(this 584 word excerpt was reduced from a 2891 word article in the NCAA News of 3-1-04)