Imagine a market of 173 million potential customers. Seventy-eight million of them are female (often the primary decision-maker in the family), 61 million are college students, and 29 million have an income of more than $100,000.

Seems like a no-brainer for operators, right?

That’s the audience more brands and franchisees from around the limited-service world are capturing simply by teaming up wi th college athletic programs. While marketing and advertising opportunities abound for quick-service operators, college sports’ unparalleled branding power gives them one of the most beneficial sponsorship paths to travel down.

“When we look at college sports in particular, you’re really able to tap into an extremely loyal audience, whether that’s students or alumni, or, in the cases of many athletic programs, the local community,” says Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at sponsorship consulting firm IEG.

“These are programs that people get very, very passionate about,” he says. “They tend to keep those allegiances for a lifetime, so that’s what you’re really kind of tapping into as a brand marketer.”

Lawton Logan, senior vice president of U.S. business development for global sports and media company IMG, says aside from a large, passionate audience, the appeal of college sports partnerships can be boiled down to two additional advantages: a high return on investment and the fact that research shows college sports fans consume fast food five to six times more per month than non-fans.

In fact, research from IMG shows that 89 percent of college sports fans visit fast-food restaurants. Meanwhile, more than 114 million U.S. consumers attended a college sporting event in 2009 alone, giving brand partners ample opportunity to reach this broad fan base both inside the stadium and out.


Scoring with the locals

Partnering with college athletics programs and sports teams not only gives brands access to a large number of potential customers, but it also gives them the opportunity to truly home in on the local community.

Nathan Cage is a Lubbock, Texas–based Wingstop franchisee whose three locations in West Texas partner with nearby Texas Tech University. Through this partnership, which began four years ago, Cage sponsors events for the basketball, football, and baseball teams.

“The university has such a large presence in the city,” he says. “I knew one way to reach a great many of the people both in the city that live here and those that commute and go to the university was to connect with the school. … And what better way than by sports?”

Cage says he uses his partnership in various fashions to drive local community members and fans into his stores. For instance, when the basketball team scores above a certain number of points in a game, attendees are invited to the restaurant to receive a complimentary item, like a soft drink or five boneless wings.

Cage says that on any given football weekend, he can show off his products and reach more than 60,000 people, many of whom are local. “Over a six-game period, if you target it right, if you do it right, that’s the population of a small city that you get to see,” he says.

In addition, being associated with a well-known or popular local university can often give brands and individual stores more attention and sales than they might otherwise receive. Wally Gaudet, a Kona Ice franchisee with partner Craig Authement, says the pair’s association with Louisiana State University (lsu) allows the shaved-ice franchise to stand out in customers’ and students’ minds.

The pair sells its flavored snowballs—up to 600 an hour—in LSU’s Tiger Stadium, as well as at the baseball stadium and other sporting events. Gaudet says he often has customers in the stadium who go on to hire Kona Ice for private events like corporate parties or fundraisers.

Authement adds that their business inside the stadiums, which includes a customer base made up of students, business owners, and folks from the local community, helps diversify their market.

“LSU has helped us build our business to where it is today,” Gaudet says.


Reaching the right customers

College sports partnerships also give brands access to the audience quick serves and fast casuals tap into best, says Matt Rusconi, a Mooyah Burgers, Fries, and Shakes and Moe’s Southwest Grill franchisee. Rusconi partners with the University of Hartford, Central Connecticut State University, and the University of Connecticut.

Indeed, research from IMG shows that 47 million 18–34-year-olds—one of the most popular target demographics for limited service—are college sports fans.

In Rusconi’s partnerships, his Mooyah and Moe’s locations supply food for games, provide discount catering deals for home and visiting teams, hand out free burgers and burritos to fans, and sponsor texting programs and other contests to give away merchandise and discounted products.

IEG’s Andrews says not only are college sports teams and events a great way to put products directly in front of a concept’s key demographic, but they’re also a way to make offerings and promotions more significant and experiential for customers and fans.

“When you tie [promotions] into somebody’s favorite team, you’re really giving them something that … can be a difference maker,” he says. “That could get them to pay attention and actually participate, because it’s more relevant to them and because you may be offering something that they couldn’t get otherwise,” like merchandise or ticket and product discounts.

Chick-fil-A uses this opportunity to the fullest with its 15-year sponsorship of the annual Chick-fil-A Bowl—formerly called the Peach Bowl—which pits two NCAA football teams against one another in one of the most popular bowl games of the year.

At the 2012 game between Clemson University and LSU, which took place on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, the brand gave away 20,000 chicken sandwiches to tailgaters outside the stadium, as well as 72,000 exclusive mini-cow toys—modeled after the chain’s mascot—to each guest at the game.

In an interview with, Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s executive vice president of marketing, said the brand wants to “create as many opportunities as possible to interact with fans, take photos, and get our brand out there.”

And when partnering with a consumer’s favorite team, a brand or location can then become linked to his passion for the sports program, meaning the fan often goes on to become a life-long brand enthusiast, Rusconi says.

“College is exciting, youth is exciting. If you associate yourself with that, it gives kids a sense of ownership of the brand,” he says. “The association—not only with the kids that go there, but with the alumni—it’s something special. I think people, hopefully, associate the fun and excitement of the brand with the fun and excitement of the team.”


Though Rusconi says he can’t put exact figures on the way his college sports partnerships have elevated his brand, he notes that business has grown year over year since the sponsorships began about four years ago. Meanwhile, Cage says his Wingstop locations have seen at least a 10–12 percent increase in quarterly sales since teaming up with Texas Tech.


Jumping the hurdles

A college sports partnership does pose risks and challenges, however. Rusconi says hosting events or participating in game-day activities outside the restaurant can often prove to be a struggle, due to the necessity of additional manpower and in-house preparation.

“It’s tough sometimes when you’ve got to get 100 T-shirts rolled up, or burritos, and you’ve got to lug a tent to downtown Hartford and you have no parking,” he says, adding that assigning extra staff to out-of-store events can be detrimental to the business.

Kona Ice’s Gaudet says selling products inside the stadium—especially when the arena holds more than 92,000 people, as Tiger Stadium does—produces its own difficulties. “When you’re dealing with a large amount of people, especially on the time frame that we do, we have to be very responsive to what people want,” he says. “We don’t want long lines. We want to keep flow through as quick as possible and still maintain the quality of product that Kona wants us to maintain and that we want to maintain.”

Authement adds that unless franchisees have an efficient system in place, selling products in-stadium can result in lost sales. “You’ve got X amount of hours to get the money out of those individuals,” he says. “And if they’ve got to wait in line, then they’re going somewhere else.” To help speed up their business at LSU sporting events, the pair began offering flavor stations that cut the time customers have to wait to add syrup to their shaved-ice treats.

Gaudet says it’s also important to keep a concept simple when paring it down for a college sports stadium. “You can’t have 50 choices,” he says, noting that the franchisees cut options down to eight flavor choices at games to allow guests the option to mix and match their syrups.

“Those simple things help with throughput,” he says, “and you still get a quality product, but you’re not waiting in line.”

Even with smooth operations and high-quality offerings, Authement says, not every brand or product can cut it in the stadium-concession business. “You’re not going to sell snowballs in 20-degree weather,” he says. “Finding a product that’s in demand and putting out a quality service is essential. You don’t skimp on your service, and you don’t skimp on your product.”

Andrews says financing is yet another obstacle many brands and franchisees wait too long to consider when forming various college sports partnerships. He says operators must figure out if they’re properly equipped to put the necessary resources behind a sponsorship, in order to cover components like promotions and marketing integration.

“You’re not going to get a lot if you don’t activate it,” Andrews says. “It’s like buying a toy and not buying the batteries to go with it. … You have to have the activation to really breathe life into the sponsorship.”


Striking profitable partnerships

Aside from the financial aspects, one of the biggest hurdles operators must face comes early in the process: finding the perfect university partner.

Wingstop’s Cage says a successful partnership is one in which the school’s audience will accept and consume your product. Because Texas is the home of the Dallas Cowboys and chicken wings are often associated with watching football, Cage says, his product was already well-known and loved by college sports fans in the area.

“When you partner with someone, it’s got to be an item that’s actually respected on both sides of the court,” he says. “It wouldn’t do any good for me to be … a seafood restaurant and no one in the city or no one in the community happens to be a fan of seafood. It just doesn’t match up.”

While it seems obvious, it’s also important that a college partner is local so loyal fans can visit the store after seeing products or advertisements at a game or event, says Marcia Harris-Daniel, vice president of marketing for Wingstop.

Though it’s logical to think a larger university will provide more fans and marketing opportunities, that’s not always true, Andrews says.

“Sometimes the best partners are the smaller schools,” he says, “because you’re very important to them and they want to make sure that they keep you happy and keep you involved as a long-term partner.”

He adds that with large college sports programs that have a host of other brand partners, it’s common to get lost in the shuffle. However, “it really comes down to what the profile is of that school in the community,” Andrews says. “Is it a school that … already has a significant enough base of support, of interest, that if we’re going to tap into it, we’re going to be able to get something back?”

In addition, Andrews says, it’s important to approach the agreement with a firm commitment to being a great partner, while also expecting a dedicated partner in return. He warns that it should be a red flag if a university partner is simply trying to make a quick sale or views the sponsorship dollars as a donation to the school.

Rusconi says striking a profitable partnership on both sides requires spending a lot of time and effort working out every detail of the agreement. “Really sit there and whittle out what the sponsorship is going to bring, what’s the value, what you get, what they get. Make sure it’s a win-win for everybody,” he says. “The end game is to drive people into seats, for both sporting events and into the restaurants.”

Because colleges and universities see their share of perks from these brand partnerships—sponsorship and advertising dollars, for example—brands shouldn’t feel selfish when demanding to see results, too, Harris-Daniel says.

“Reciprocity is important,” she says. “Here we are giving dollars to this partnership; it sure would be nice if those players and coaches and staff would come over to our stores after the game is played.”

But customers must make a regular appearance, too, or the entire effort is for naught.

“We don’t just want to be the face or the logo being used, and vice versa,” Harris-Daniel says. “We want to make sure that when we partner in, we go, ‘Look, please make sure you’re coming by our stores so we can have a wonderful partnership.’ … You never get anything if you don’t ask, so we certainly want to make sure we’re asking for that order.”

Marketing & Promotions, Story, Chick-fil-A, Kona Ice, Mooyah, Wingstop