This being election day, I am going to resist the urge for political commentary, and strive to provide a needed diversion. In fact, the only political connection to today’s posting will be a couple of interesting statistics about the Ivy League, from which one-third of all United States Presidents including the past four, and both of the major party candidates in today’s Presidential contest hold a degree. And while Ivy League graduate success as professional athletes has paled in comparison to that of other major conferences, I couldn’t help but chuckle when Chicago Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler, asked last week about what might have happened had he attended Harvard rather than gone on to University of Miami, responded that he probably would have wound up in the Cubs’ front office.
Yes, Ivy League graduates are known more for their brain power than power hitting. While I’m proud to be among those with an Ivy League sheepskin, admittedly, I’ve long had major “conference envy.” The “We’ve got higher SATs” chant only goes so far, when your school is getting blown out. Ivy Leaguers command much respect in corporate boardrooms and the political arena, but not so much in those arenas where we as sports marketers spend a bunch of our time.
That may soon change. This spring, Philadelphia’s Palestra will host the first ever Ivy League Conference Basketball tournament, which will cast a spotlight on the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament that produced a 1979 Final Four run for the University of Pennsylvania and #16 seed Princeton’s near upset of Georgetown 10 years later. It strikes me that the opportunity for brands to sponsor and activate around the conference yields association with three powerful themes that can lend themselves to many a brand looking to resonate with a powerful and elusive target market:
David vs Goliath
Everybody loves an underdog, and for those who may not appreciate the true athletic talent that does exist in the Ivy League, the all-too-frequent comparisons to the “Revenge of the Nerds” franchise can certainly drive a storyline here. Like teams in The Little League World Series and other heroic uphill battles, the Ivy League, as a property, presents sponsors with a chance to celebrate sports from as pure of a grassroots level as may exist today. These are student athletes in the truest sense of the word, largely ignored by mainstream sports media, yet competing valiantly in a relatively uncluttered environment. The school that emerges with a conference title brings a most compelling possibility to the opening round of the big dance.
The Appeal of Relatable Peers
That Ivy League athletes are not the cloistered demagogues of the major conferences also brings a unique appeal. Our research has validated that one of the reasons why college sports resonate is because of the perceived shared experience between those wearing the colors and those that walked the halls before them. In the case of the Ivy League, that scenario seems more legitimate. Ivy League students and alums are big sports fans that have often had to look elsewhere, “adopting” other schools to actualize on a prominent stage. The marketing of The Ivy League may enable those like myself to “come back to campus.”
The Power of Influence
But by far, the most attractive aspect of the Ivy League for sports marketers is in the exponential and viral power of influential marketing. Many may remember the seminal book The Influentials, whose research-supported thesis was that about 10% of the population sets the conversational agenda for the other 90%.
In subsequent work that my firm has conducted, we’ve gone on to demonstrate and quantify the actual incidence and impact of “influentials” among various sports participant and fan populations. This impact has been proven to drive purchasing power across myriad endemic and non-endemic categories, in ways that far exceed reach and impressions alone. With millions of Ivy League alumni, including C-suite executives in 7 of 10 Fortune 500 companies, and median annual earnings twice as high as non-Ivy League grads 10 years after starting school, the whole concept of activating around a conference with such an attractive "fan" profile, strikes me as a prime opportunity for brands seeking to get exponential return on objective. Connecting with influentials transcends reach to deliver deeper engagement, a greater ROO measure than simply the number of directly exposed eyeballs.