I’m too young to remember the movie “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” but there was always something poetic about a title that conjures up images of last respects for a once-revered, but long-forgotten titan of the boxing ring. I’d venture to say that the assassination of the University of Alabama at Birmingham football program, last week, failed to register on the radar of many folks outside of a 50-mile radius of the Five Points neighborhood. But it surfaces a number of emotions, concerns and sports marketing lessons for me.
On a personal level, I’ll actually miss UAB football. I loved the gold helmets with the green dragon logo. I’ve always had a romantic fascination with the South that fueled enjoyment of my two recent visits to the UAB campus. UAB was that “other” D1-A team in Alabama (with sincere apologies to Troy and South Alabama, who also play in the shadows of the Crimson Tide and War Eagle).
Until this year, UAB was the quintessential non-FCS cupcake that would show up as an early season warm-up for a contender. Their most famous football alum is either the Atlanta Falcons’ Roddy White or current country music heartthrob Sam Hunt (who played quarterback for the Blazers before finding fame in Nashville). UAB toiled, until this season, as a doormat in the otherwise forgettable Conference USA. This year, they are Bowl eligible for the first time in a decade. And while Blazers football will regrettably be no more after this January, the team can actually go out on a high note, if they are invited to, and win a bowl game.
One of the larger points that the death of UAB football illustrates is a reminder that one of the major shortcomings of D1 NCAA football relative to basketball is that Cinderella doesn’t get an invitation to the dance in college football. In an environment that does not leverage, promote or facilitate an opportunity for a Larry Bird-led Indiana State, Jimmy V’s Wolfpack or even Dunk City, the UABs of the FBS world will never taste the sweet opportunity to play the lovable underdog on a national stage. That’s unfortunate, because there are just as many compelling marketable stories in the UAB football locker room as there are in any big-time program. If you don’t believe me, go on YouTube and watch the impassioned plea of 27-year-old UAB receiver Tristan Henderson, an Iraqi veteran upon learning of the program’s demise from University President Ray Watts.
Perhaps out of the ashes of the tragedy at UAB comes a reminder that underdogs remain compelling and viable stories in sports marketing. There’s always been marketing power in “The Little Engine that Could.” If I’m chairman of a second-tier bowl game, I’m the first one to invite the Blazers to my game this season, and I’m hosting the greatest going away party that my budget allows. For the less sentimental among us who would rather gawk at a car wreck, there’s always the sidebars regarding numerous UAB alums and benefactors throwing their arms and wallets up in outrage over the first elimination of a major college football program in nearly two decades. Yes, with the right marketing plan, the gold and green could surpass the crimson and white as Alabama’s most captivating college football team, if only for a moment.
From a macro perspective, the creation of a college football playoff was a proper move for the NCAA and our research loudly demonstrates the consumer demand for that. But a lingering question in the wake of UAB football is that with no short-term fix and the economic realities of operating a big-time program, what will become of other schools outside of the “Big Five” conferences? How many more UABs will there be? Have we accelerated the further bifurcation of college football so that the North Dakota States of the world (perennial FCS powerhouse) get brought down a peg as the non-power conferences become the true Division 1-AA?
As marketers, how do we steer past the fact that the UABs of the nation can’t compete with their better-funded neighbors? It’s the classic Marketing 101 case of being a challenger brand. Sure, there’s mutual opportunity for brand partnerships with smaller programs, which build affinity through a more intimate, less-cluttered marketing environment. But is UAB a wake-up call that this isn’t always enough?