We are all more than well aware of the challenges faced in both sports and entertainment these days for the discretionary dollar. With every dollar spent comes five questions about ROI, need for staffing, value of programs and actual amount of earned media. The need to both justify and find extra sources of ancillary income is higher now than ever. The question now really is the value of traditional media vs. new and social media, and how to still get not just the most buzz, but the most eyeballs pout of every dollar invested. While there are programs, like the one Octagon launched this past week called Fanwaves, which start to show the creative ways to pull sponsors and brands into social media for return, the best mix is still a combination of the traditional and the new channels of communication available.
Into this quest for more ROI and creativity comes college athletics. Now while colleges are certainly breeding grounds for finding innovation in any business, and provide a great sampling of what first adopters are doing next, they are sometimes behind the curve in adapting programs that make sense, or new forms of media which can help broaden the spectrum of coverage and brand value. Maybe it’s because universities remain very static in their approach, maybe it's because until recently many relied on large sums of money through direct donation to fund programs, but for all the innovation coming out of institutes of higher learning, many schools still struggle to have athletic departments run as innovative sports marketing vehicles. While one would think that the blogosphere would be a perfect environment for athletics, many colleges either banned or restricted the use and credentialing of blogs up until the last year or so. While professional teams and organizations constantly look for new ways to engage with the fans through media, colleges are becoming more and more restrictive at the highest levels.
Two recent cases in point are The University of Connecticut, which is toying with breaking news through a pay-only site, and most recently, the University of Tennessee, which decided to charge media to attend a recent football clinic, according to the Tennessean. Now while every organization does understand the need for new revenue sources, it seems curious and very short sighted that these two Universities would choose to find ways to alienate the media in such a fashion. Yes there is a value in content, and there are proably rabid followers of both schools and many others, who would pay that “insider” fee for content and access. However there are also thousands of casual fans, especially in lean years, who will get access to any program…college or professional…through the work done by media that is becoming more and more segmented. There are also many,many creative ways to generate income through other forms of promotion that do not involve charging media for coverage. Now perhaps, like the “carryon baggage charge” that Spirit Airways is trying to charge, this is a test to see what the public and the media will bear. Maybe it is a push by a conference or by other larger organizations to fire a salvo and see what the response will be.
If the outcry is not large and the return is high, then it works. If the outcry is loud, then the university backs off and goes to try other ways to get new revenue coming in. Also, what is the thought on the coverage not just of big budget sports like football or hoops, but about all the other sports that die for coverage throughout the year? Those amazing secondary stories of student-athletes that the NCAA touts so widely in all their commercials, the true “heart” of college athletics? What happens when media, spurned by Universities with major coverage fees, decides not to take the pitch or cover the secondary sports? Does it matter? It certainly should matter to both the Universities and the conferences. The amount of Universities who could exact a premium for coverage is probably small, but it is also reflective of the Universities that control the majority of the dollars generated by college athletics. While UConn and Tennessee can take such a stance, St. John’s and Vanderbilt probably cannot. While maybe Notre Dame could, Rutgers surely couldn’t and probably neither could the University of Miami or even Butler, who entralled so many with their run to the national title game a few weeks ago.
We all realize that there have to be creative ways to generate more income and keep sports thriving at the collegiate level, charging the media, but this isn’t a good one. The amount of bad will generated, and the ancillary damage provided, should be more than enough so that any University thinking of implementing the idea should take pause and maybe talk a little more to all the creatve minds walking on their campuses to find other cutting edge and innovative ways to bring in a few more bucks and added value.