MKTG Insights: NCAA vs. CIS Football Sponsorship
There are few spectacles in modern sport that rival the atmosphere of NCAA College Football. The crowds. The marching bands. The tailgating. Each time the calendar year comes to a close and Bowl Season emerges, it is an annual reminder of the reach and relevance that college football holds in the United States.For Canadian sports fans and marketers, the sheer size and scale of Bowl Season is also a reminder of our relatively muted interest in Canadian interuniversity football. In 2013, IEG projected that college football's 35 bowl games brought in approximately $100 million title sponsorship revenue alone. As the NCAA Football season came to a close this week with Ohio State defeating Oregon in the first ever college football playoff championship, MKTG examines the fundamental differences between the sponsorship landscapes of NCAA and CIS football, providing insights on what the CIS can learn from the larger - and more lucrative – American College Football system.
Why Do Brands Invest in US College Football?
As a property genre, college football offers brands a platform to engage with fans over a deeply-rooted passion, whether they are partnering at the NCAA, Bowl Game, or University athletics level. NCAA football provides sponsors with the following benefit:
A Mass Platform: According to Nielsen, the average NCAA regular season football game draws an average TV viewership of 2.6 million people per game. For context, the broadcast draw in college football is almost four times as large as a typical MLB regular season TV audience (700,000) and more is almost twice as large as the average non-playoff NBA game TV audience (1.4 million) *NOTE: All figures based on nationally televised games.
Highly Localized Passion-Point: Whether it is the University of Alabama who plays their football in Tuscaloosa, Alabama or Notre Dame who plays in South Bend, Indiana many top-tier college football programs benefit from being the "only game in town" and accordingly have increased relevance. Sponsors are able to tangibly demonstrate support for a property that is deeply rooted in local communities.
Access to Millennial Consumers: According to a Harris Poll, college football is the most popular sport with Americans who are part of the coveted 18-to-24-year-old demographic. Investment in college football comes with the opportunity to connect with a consumer for life and render a brand relatable to millenials.
Scouting Future Talent: While college stars cannot be sponsored, brands who invest in sponsorship at the university level may have opportunities to build preferential relationships with star athletes giving them an advantage in future endorsement discussions. For example, Under Armour was the official apparel brand sponsor of Auburn while now NFL player Cam Newton was their star quarterback. Upon turning pro, Newton opted to sign with UA due to his history and organic, authentic relationship with them as a sponsor.
Sponsorship Challenges Facing CIS Football:
The crux of the limited brand activity surrounding CIS Football is in many respects a symptom of a broader struggle around the on-field product. While top-tier NCAA football acts as a football factory and feeder system for the NFL, the CIS game fails to galvanize fans due to:
Rivalries: Division 1 NCAA Football has 119 teams vs. the 27 teams that compete in the CIS. The sheer volume of competing teams means that there are games played in every community across the United States, giving birth to in-state/city rivalries. Rivalries are a silver bullet in sports fandom, creating a stickiness amongst fans that leads to true engagement. CIS Football has struggled with parity as the same teams consistently appear in meaningful games.
Talent Drain: According to the Globe & Mail, "3,500 Canadian athletes are enrolled in U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association programs, including about 2,000 who are sports offered at Canadian Interuniversity Sport schools." Top Canadian talent flees to the U.S. where the competition is tougher and the resources for players are much richer. With second-tier talent, the product will fail to become top-tier.
Exposure Impact on CIS Sponsorship:
The on-field struggles have manifested in a lack of exposure for the sport. Sports can gain traction with viewing audiences when they earn a sustained, consistent presence - when fans know where and when to find and consume relevant content. CIS Football currently has a broadcast relationship with Rogers, however the deal is limited to playoff and championship games across their broadcast properties. However, regular season games do not air on TV and are simply webcasted by the CIS to modest-sized audiences. The network decided to drop their rights deal after regular season games averaged a viewership of approximately 28,000 per game. For sponsors, audiences that size are indicative of an overall lack of mass appeal and offer little incentive to invest.
Further complicating the mass appeal of CIS football is the increasing amount of air time given to NCAA football in Canada. Through its relationship with ESPN, which owns 20% of the network, TSN has Canadian rights to hours of U.S. College sports programming. TSN's shift to broadcast feeds in the wake of losing the NHL's national broadcast rights will result in increased airtime for certain property genres, peaking the interest of prospective sponsors. However, for the CIS it may mean that they become overshadowed in an already shallow potential fan base for intercollegiate sports.
The on-site opportunity for sponsors presents similar limitations. Outside of homecoming games where crowds in the 8000-12,000 range are common, typical regular season crowds rarely surpass 1000-2000 fans at most Canadian universities. Consumer engagement activities and sponsor activations are unlikely to yield value outside of a few select landmark dates.
The lack of fans in the stands and at home watching on TV are representative of a larger truth: college sports are simply not woven into the fabric of our culture the way they are in the United States. Research from the Southern Economic Journal confirms that the success of a US school's football team can actually directly influence the quantity and quality of applicants to that university. In Canada, university football team appeal to a highly niche segment of society and certainly not a predominant factor admissions decisions.
Despite its challenges with overall reach and relevance, some national brands have invested in CIS Football:
Case Study: Telus & the Vanier Cup
The Canadian telecom brand has a modest portfolio within Canadian football. In addition to becoming the title sponsor to the Vanier Cup and activating with a nationwide Trophy Tour, Telus is a sponsor of Laval's prestigious university football program and is also a sponsor of the Queen's University athletic program. For Telus, the Vanier Cup and Laval partnerships represent a strategic play in Quebec where viewership tends to skew higher than the national averages due to the success of francophone schools on the CIS stage. The brand began its relationship with the CIS by building a platform around the Vanier Cup, its most marquee event and most coveted broadcast property (200,000 viewers in 2013). While most CIS sponsors are community-based organizations and medium-sized local businesses, Telus has been the leader amongst national Canadian brands. Should they continue their commitment to activate, the brand may be able to drive a first-mover advantage and build equity and ownership over the property genre.
Key Takeaways: What Can the CIS learn from the NCAA?
Don't Be The "NCAA North": In order to drive long-term value, the CIS must recognize its standing within the Canadian sponsorship landscape. As Tier-1 sponsors with more mature portfolios are likely to place strategic focus on Tier-1 properties (NHL, CFL, Hockey Canada, Canadian Olympic Committee, etc.), the CIS may be able to provide a "test and learn" opportunity to brands who inherently believe in the power of sponsorship, but are priced out of more prestigious properties.
The CIS will fail if it attempts to be the NCAA of the North. It must recognize its value proposition leverage its positioning as a niche, hyper-local opportunity for brands to deliver an experience to students and alumni.
Untapped Storytelling Opportunity: Being on-campus provides a very compelling and rich narrative for brands. The CIS can appeal to sponsors not by focusing on the "what", but on the "why?" - by creating programming and building a brand that speaks to the value of university sports in the lives of participants and the wider student body. Some of the most prominent NCAA Football sponsors weave this type of storytelling through their sponsorship activity by cross-pollinating sport and cause through tuition-based fundraising. Both Dr. Pepper and Allstate have invested heavily in sponsorship to tell a story about their commitment to college students and the millions of dollars they have collectively raised towards scholarships. Similar programming may be highly relevant in Canada where - according to government reports - tuition costs are expected to rise significantly over the next four years and where the maximum scholarship available to student athletes is $4000 annually.
According to Sport Participation 2010, there are 186,000 Canadians who participate in grassroots football. Overall, sponsors who want to invest in an underserved grassroots sport may seek to leveraged the CIS as a platform to authenticate their commitment. Overall, a more fundamental effort to focus on the thematic and values if CIS football may cast a wider net for brand partners.