Commentary

College Sports' Connection Challenge

  • by , Columnist, October 11, 2022

From both a marketing and personal perspective, I’ve always been enamored with college sports.

Even if we’ve totally cast aside any lingering perception of amateurism and the illusion of the student athlete, college sports always enjoyed a differentiated space from the pro game.  Here it’s O.K. to “root for a shirt” and marvel at each incoming class as they don the traditional colors of the “‘ol alma mater.”

For marketers looking for the ultimate grass roots activation, college athletics is often the only game in town, with a stranglehold on the attention of many a small market as well as national alumni.

That said, there’s no question that college sports are at a huge crossroads amid a sea change of seismic proportions.  With conference realignment, we are seeing a widening rift of the haves and have-nots, as traditional regional rivalries fall to the wayside with schools like Rutgers and UCLA becoming unlikely bedfellows.  The “Power Five” is quietly becoming the power two in D1 football. Just look at the latest top-10 rankings. 

There’s also an overt dismantling of any remaining semblance of amateurism.  I’m not naïve enough to believe that big-time college sports has been free of pay-for-play elements in recent decades, but with the jungle that is NIL (name image and likeness) deals, opportunism has run rampant, and no one has gotten their arms around how to control it.

Today’s open secret is literal bidding wars to recruit top talent. It no longer seems plausible that college athletes already receive a significant value with the educational opportunity and potential lifelong contacts that can be made while on scholarship.  Despite the NCAA being the first to acknowledge that only 2% of today’s college athletes go pro, a free college education has been rejected as compensation enough. In the basketball ranks, the already troublesome phenomenon of the “one and done” may soon be replaced with the none and done.

At the end of the day, it’s the broadcasting rights dollars that win out.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a capitalist.  But I’m also someone who studies fan perceptions for a living, and with all of the recent tumult in college sports, I began to question whether the distinct personal connection between college sports and fans is in jeopardy.  So we began to ask about it last month, and the initial findings give pause.

On the glass-half-full side, less than half of sports fans (48%) agree with the premise that “College athletics are in a state of disarray.”  One can surmise that just as we adapted to the various iterations of the college football playoff (soon to expand from four to twelve teams), these recent changes will ultimately be accepted as standard operating procedure.

However, diving deeper into the data, we found that a much more significant 62% of fans aged 25-34 and 56% of those age 35-44 agree with the premise that college athletics are in a state of disarray.  These are the audiences coveted by marketers and broadcasters -- the present and near-term future targets -- questioning the state of college sports.

We’d better have an answer for them, before it’s too late.

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