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Arrested Development The Brand of College Athletics

I am a brand strategist at a Brand Strategy firm in Greensboro, North Carolina called Stealing Share Incorporated. I have been a part of organized athletics for almost 17 years, including a full four years of Division I soccer. College athletics evoke a different feeling, promise, and standard for each individual, but without a doubt, the NCAA is as much of a brand as Ford, Wal*mart, Burger King, or Ralph Lauren.It is only recently that I have discovered how much the NCAA mirrors the patterns of brand messaging and how young athletes act upon consumer behavior.

One would automatically assume the connection of athletics to the branded world to be logical due to the close reflection of societal norms within the athletic sphere; however, analyzing collegiate sports in particular as a brand is a highly sensitive and surprising process for anyone who has been a part of the brand in any form, worked for the brand, shed blood sweat and tears for the brand, or more or less lived for the brand.At Stealing Share, we focus primarily upon brand as a behavioral model of perception and beliefs, which directly influences consumer trends, decisions, and habits in various markets. Consumers make buying decisions based on beliefs, or precepts, as we call them. There is emotional investment when purchasing the most mundane products, and our work focuses upon the excavation of fundamental emotions and beliefs. Our clients are prepared for an honest, objective, and dispassionate third party consultation regarding their brands. This objective introspection is one of the most challenging aspects of our work because we must completely detach ourselves from all personal bias, beliefs, and experiences in order to serve the client, and more importantly, the target customer of the client.

How does this behavior model relate to collegiate athletics? Consider the norms. Almost every high school in the United States has at least one aspiring athlete. The desire to be pushed to the limits, coached by experts of the game, win big wins, find new family within a team, and have memories to cherish for the rest of his/her life. College athletics is branded by hope, achievement, and desire much like the military. The brand message is clear, targeted, and praised?Or is it?.From the outside-in, college athletics seem like the ultimate culmination of all childhood games and high school/middle school competition.

Money is an added bonus, right? Think again. The brand promises the experience of a lifetime (with the exception of the very few that make it to the pros, and that is another conflict in itself), and countless high school graduates buy into that promise with optimism and high hopes of full scholarships, ESPN, popularity, and heroism. Potential collegiate athletes make the emotional commitment to "making it" in college because they are willing to gamble on the disproportionate reward over risk. In other words, no matter what they hear or see, they will make the decision to buy because they want to see the NCAA as an extension of themselves, much like consumers want to see brand names as self-identifying labels despite the price they must pay or how far they must go to find a certain product. Does the brand messaging of NCAA ever measure up? Yes. If there were no stories of great success and passion, there would be no appeal.

Every day there is at least one college athlete being plugged into the professional arena, every day there is at least one winning team. There are spectacular championships, MVPs, dark horses, televised rivalries, and upsets of Number One ranked teams. On the flipside, however, there is a surplus of college athletes failing out of school, taking performance enhancing drugs, getting arrested for drunken misconduct, or simply realizing that it just is not worth all of the pain and suffering to sit the bench or win two games a season. Does the NCAA ever talk about the player who has an average to below average experience? Or the player whose only motivation is to aid his/her parents financial woes? Unfortunately, this group is growing more and more into the majority as collegiate sports become increasingly financially, materially, and politically-oriented. There is at least one on every college team.In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, the FDA requires each brand of drug, from Claritin to Cialis, to list all of the possible side effects and to inform the consumer that this particular drug "is not for everyone.

" Will the NCAA ever inform the aspiring athlete that college athletics "is not for everyone?" Of course not because the NCAA is a pure brand, a brand that is relentless in the positive image and message that has remained the same for decades. The NCAA assumes that the young person can figure it out for his/herself based on the feedback from coaches, teammates, parents, and friends.Does the NCAA make a strong effort to promote academics and the student end of student-athlete? Yes, in fact they do, but it is a futile attempt when coaches, other athletes, and athletic departments consistently place academics in the backseat behind practice. We, as consumers buy into sports more than we buy into academics (as demonstrated by athletic salaries in comparison to teachers salaries).The business of the NCAA brand is "all about me.

" It is reputation and reward- focused much like Budweiser, who is also an undisputed leader. The NCAA exposes the young-person's vulnerabilities coming out of high school and effectively invites them to become a part of the brand they are selling. The absence of "possible side- effects" is what makes the NCAA a formidable brand with which to compete for space in the mind of the young athlete and will continue to succeed in overwhelming brand trial.

Fortunately for the NCAA, trial is all that is needed to flourish. So what if only 1 out of 50 college athletes considers their college career "the time of their life." So what if 1 out of 10 college athletes suffers a serious injury. The NCAA will brush you off, give you a quick glance-over and shove you back on the field because you should be so lucky. You are a privileged one.

You are a college athlete.

.Molly Sunderdick
Brand Strategist
Stealing Share Inc.

By: Molly Sunderdick

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