The past week has not been a stellar one for the wide world of sports. As the story has unfolded out of Penn State University, maybe we’re witnessing the worst example of what “win at all costs” means in college athletics. Certainly, the horrific news surrounding the much-vaunted PSU football program has tainted what had been built up over many decades as one of the nation’s top-tier college football brands.
So what happens when the brand association that marketers rely so heavily on to make their investments suddenly becomes compromised – and how do sports properties rebound, especially when the brand equity that has been created over the years is degraded by the actions of a few individuals? There are a number of options for the two brand partners -- properties and sponsors – in challenging situations like this.
One simple option for sponsors is to pause for a period of time – or cancel outright -- a sponsorship investment. Cars.com made this move this past weekend by removing its association with the Penn State vs. Nebraska game televised on ESPN. On one level, it’s hard to fault the Cars.com marketing department as there is no way to really assess how negatively viewers would associate the Cars.com brand given the negative perception many fans may have right now around the Nittany Lions.
Another option would be to stick with your investment – as many advertisers chose to do over the weekend by keeping their ads running on air and at the game venue. The assumption here is that many fans – while unforgiving of the actions taken by a handful of key individuals – connect with the players and the Penn State brand in a positive way based on the many years of association they have with that college sports brand.
Again, while it’s hard to measure in such a short timeframe how fans truly feel about Penn State football in the first game following the terrible allegations, it’s admirable that many brand marketers felt that they might be part of the healing process by supporting the many players, coaches and fans who have been great contributors to all of the good things about PSU athletics.
Ultimately, a situation like the one that unfolded in the last 10 days or so at Penn State tests the true definition of partnership between a property like Penn State athletics/football and the many sponsors that value the brand association with PSU. On one level, in the darkness of such an appalling story there is an opportunity for this property-to-sponsor partnership to deepen and become even more meaningful.
This event represents a time of need – a time for sponsors to recommit to why they have invested in college sports in the first place. Using this time to work with Penn State to highlight the many great examples of student athletes contributing not just on the field but off the field as well. And taking the time to even think about deepening a sponsor’s brand relationship with youth sports at a time when we need to shine a light on this important area in the broader context of how we educate young children.
Yes, I was disheartened to see Cars.com pull away so quickly from Penn State this past weekend. I get it and can’t fault their marketing department – I certainly don’t have all the facts. But I’d really like to see Cars.com – and all other college sports sponsors – use this difficult situation to recommit their investments to college sports and to the foundation that feeds college sports: youth sports.