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    Get in the Game

  • From increased visibility to intense customer loyalty, brands and franchisees are recognizing the perks that come with college sports partnerships.

    Chick-fil-A made its mark with football fans and consumers alike at the 2012 Chick-fil-A bowl in Atlanta.

    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.”