Editor’s Note: Some of the material in this article was shared during a workshop at the 2017 NFHS Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, by Kurt Gibson of the Illinois High School Association and Leah Little of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.
As high school athletics continues to grow in popularity around the country, state associations are faced with the challenge of finding the best way to market their state playoff contests in order to generate additional revenue. Marketing these important events and developing corporate partner relationships can be as much art as it is a science, but there are some steps a state association can take to accomplish both of these goals in a manner consistent with the state’s vision and beliefs.
Before a state association begins the process of identifying possible partners, it would be wise to first consider and develop a guiding philosophy for corporate partners. While it may seem ideal to have a corporate partner to sponsor as many tournaments, events or assets as possible, a state association should reflect on how much partnership it desires. Some states may be comfortable having a high volume of partners while others may desire being more conservative, thus creating more visibility at events for these smaller number of partners. No one answer to this important question is better than the other; it truly comes down to the comfort level each state has when it comes to corporate partners.
Once the state has determined how aggressive it will be in the marketplace, it should then take some time to answer some basic questions that will provide direction regarding how, where and to what extent it will market itself.
1. What’s your story? A great starting point on the road to finding corporate partners is to know your state’s story and be able to explain to possible partners why there is benefit in aligning with the association. The benefits of interscholastic athletic and activity participation are endless, and a state association should be able to expound on those virtues and highlight its role in helping create better citizens.
2. What inventory are you willing to make available? Once a state decides how deep it hopes to wade into corporate partner waters, it then needs to examine what it’s willing to make available to partners. Each state is unique, and as a result, what might be valuable in one state may not be in another. While it may seem that football and basketball state playoffs may hold the most value within a state, there could be other events that have equal interest and would be interesting to partners. Additionally, states should consider if there are other opportunities besides events that could have value for partners. This is a time when states can be creative and brainstorm all the various assets they have to offer because being prepared and knowing what can be available to corporate partners is vital.
3. How much exposure are you willing to provide? After looking at its inventory, a state should then consider what kinds of exposure for a given event or asset it is willing to provide a partner. Typically, this exposure can fall into one of three buckets: traditional in-venue activation elements, digital elements and broadcast elements. Again, doing some self-analysis on where a state’s comfort level is on making which or all of these elements available within a partnership is necessary before the partner search even begins.
4. Who is going to be responsible for ensuring fulfillment? Finding and signing corporate partners is only the first step in maintaining healthy relationships with your partners. Executing partnerships by fulfilling the agreed-upon elements is the most important part of the entire process. Without proper fulfillment, relationships are doomed to fail, casting a state in a negative light in its corporate market. To ensure this doesn’t happen, a state should carefully identify whose responsibility it will be to make sure all elements of a plan are properly executed on behalf of the corporate partner. This could be the responsibility of one or of many within a state association office, but wherever the responsibility falls, the state should be able to demonstrate to the partner it met the requirements of their agreement.
Perhaps the final, unanswered question is, “How much value does our inventory have?” This question many times will answer itself during the “courting” process with partners, who will offer insight into those areas or elements that they perceive have the most interest. States may want to consider developing old-school rate cards or “a la carte” menus for partners to choose from; however, those approaches can be limiting to a state association from both an exposure and revenue-generating perspective.
Once a state has identified a possible corporate partner, preparing for the important first meeting is the next step in the process. This meeting is a critical opportunity for the state association to:
After the introductory meeting, a state association can begin to develop a proposal that meets the goals discussed. In addition to learning about the partner’s goals, a state should also try to get a sense of the approximate dollars a partner may be considering for a partnership. While negotiations will ultimately determine the final price point of any proposed partnership, a state can strengthen its initial position if the first proposal offered is in line with the partner’s desires. One of the frustrations a state can experience is when a first proposal misses its mark and is outside the financial range of the partner. Being a good listener in the first meeting will help the state avoid over-pricing.
In creating that initial proposal, states should consider how they can create as much of an all-encompassing package as possible. This is the truly creative stage of the process, and developing a “360 degree” proposal that includes parts of in-venue, digital and broadcast (if available) elements shows future partners your commitment to finding multiple ways for them to connect with your (and their) audience.
In Illinois, partners have expressed considerable interest the past few years in digital elements that enable them to market their product or service to high school students, and more specifically, high school moms and dads. As a result, the IHSA has attempted to make greater use of social media in promoting partners around certain events. For example, the IHSA has created dedicated Facebook posts and Tweets either congratulating teams or individuals on qualifying for a state finals event or welcoming fans to a community for the finals, along with creating a “Player of the Game” message. (See below for a couple of examples.)
This level of interaction has been well-received by partners and may add a new opportunity for other states to think about how they can get their partners in front of their intended audience.
While it would be best to find partners that have large amounts of dollars to spend on a high school athletics package, the reality is that states need to be ready to start smaller with partners, deliver as agreed upon and then look to raise the commitment of partners in future negotiations. Showing partners the value of their commitment is essential for the renewal negotiations.
Creating valuable partnerships will require patience on the part of a state association. Rejection will be more common than reaching agreement, but each opportunity presents a learning situation for the state association that can enable it to create better proposals for future partners. Staying true to the process will prove successful in the long-run, enabling a state association to generate some additional revenue while not “over-exposing” any one event or corporate partner.
Kurt Gibson is associate executive director of the Illinois High School Association.