As a former Canadian university student-athlete, Graham Brown understood the “hard yards” it took to reach an ultimate goal. As the current President and CEO of U SPORTS he knew it would take the same to see a coast-to-coast-to-coast sponsorship strategy come to light.
In July 2017, when Brown first sat down with Sam Galet, Canadian Senior Vice President, Managing Director with IMG, to discuss the building and execution of a sponsorship strategy for U SPORTS’ four member conference and 56 universities, he walked away from the meeting knowing there was still plenty of work to be done. But he was buoyed by the opportunities that lay ahead.
“I’ve been preaching this since I took the job two years ago,” stated Brown, who played a leadership role in the formation of the rugby program at the University of Windsor and was a varsity athlete in both football and basketball during his fours years there. “I remember doing presentations back then about vertically integrating assets and people didn’t really understand it. Then I pushed it and preached it. Now, in the room at our (Conference and Annual Meeting), everybody is excited.
The good thing about sponsoring university sport is that the money goes right back into developing something that these sponsors or partners can actually further leverage. Their money is going to make university sport better and bigger.
Galet, who earned a BA in Anthropology and a post-graduate certificate in Sport Administration from York University, along with a Masters in Sport Management from The Ohio State University, is confident IMG can work with U SPORTS to reach a young, active demographic across the country. In doing so, the global leader in sports, fashion, events and media can attract leading brands and top-tier companies for sponsorship/partnership opportunities.
“I always thought there are all these great schools and conferences in Canada, and things that had never been tapped into – like the recreation facilities and the intramurals,” Galet said. “You have a million students. What if you could figure out the best way to aggregate everything? There was this huge untapped opportunity with U SPORTS.
“With all the resources in our company, both at the creative level and the IMG College level, I felt we would be best positioned to monetize this. So that’s when I decided to reach out to Graham.”
The subsequent meetings between the two led to the June 6 announcement that U SPORTS had appointed IMG to build and execute a national sponsorship strategy.
In addition to aggregating rights across the Canadian university sports network, IMG will target key sponsorship opportunities for U SPORTS’ national championships, including the Vanier Cup and championships operated by the conferences, as well as member school assets including recreation centres, intramural programs and varsity sports.
“The opportunity here is really unbelievable,” said Brown. “It’s unique on a lot of different levels, but it’s across the country. You go from Victoria to St. John’s, N.L. – it’s in every major city. It really is a millennial footprint that is unprecedented.
“There are a million-plus millennials in the university system. If universities can consolidate their assets and create new assets and deliver, which I know they can on the marketing part of delivering the sponsorship agreements, the uniqueness is that no one else in Canada can do it on that magnitude.
“Universities are now hubs in the community,” he continued. “You’ve got community fans coming to games, you’ve got the staff in the universities – the university sector is one of the biggest employers in Canada. You’ve got the alumni. Everyone on campus, they might not go and watch the varsity games all the time, but they’re going to work out, they’re going to the gym and do an aerobics class – there’s just so much going on in that athletic footprint. Aside from the Quad – the centre of the university where everyone migrates through – the athletic footprint is the busiest and most dynamic part of the campus.”
I think there are very few properties in Canada that can make an impact and deliver the reach, the impressions and the access to this millennial demographic that U SPORTS can.
“I think there are very few properties in Canada that can make an impact and deliver the reach, the impressions and the access to this millennial demographic that U SPORTS can,” he said. “If you put everything together and you aggregate it in a meaningful way, you tell the right story and start looking at different opportunities beyond just varsity sports, it can be very impactful. Don’t think local, think national.”
Those words are certainly pleasing to Brian Cooper, the Chairman of MKTG Canada, who has been involved in some of the largest and groundbreaking sponsorships in recent years, including Scotiabank’s announcement last August on the new naming rights to the home arena of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors. MKTG also partnered with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment on Sun Life’s sponsorship of the jersey patch on the uniforms of the Raptors.
“It’s just become unique,” Cooper said. “With the aggregation, that is a very fertile and sponsor-wanting market. You’re reaching students and youth at an age where they are making some lifelong decisions and affiliations. Whether it’s their first car loan or their first job, or any other of the consumer choices they are making, it’s the first time they are going to have money in their pocket as well to make these choices.
“In the past, (Canadian university sport) has been fractured. People have tried to put their arms around that market. I think this is the first time it’s been done.”
A native New Yorker who received a Bachelor of Accounting at Saint Mary’s University, Cooper has fond memories of his time in Halifax.
“I follow the football, basketball and hockey teams. I get the newsletter and I’ve contributed funds in the past. There are lot of universities that have a widespread and diverse alumni base that are still supportive. What brings them together in a lot of cases is the athletics. I’ve been to (Saint Mary’s) last three Vanier Cup appearances and I’ve gone to the Uteck Bowl, too. It’s just like any other university – there is a strong connection.”
It’s something Norm O'Reilly, the Richard P. and Joan S. Fox Professor of Management & Chair at Ohio University, also experienced during his post-secondary years in Canada.
"I was an academic All-Canadian and very proud of it," he said. "I was a cross country skier at the University of Waterloo. My fondest memory, athletics-wise, was when we won the Ontario championships as a team. I was also a swimmer at the University of Ottawa in grad school."
O’Reilly understands fully the benefits of an integrated sponsorship and marketing program for university sport.
I think you start bringing marketing and benefits and what the athletes can do. There are multiple studies of collegiate sports in the U.S. and how that can drive enrolment, student pride, the brand of the university. There's tons of empirical evidence of the positive side of higher-profile athletics.
“You see what happens in the U.S., the schools that have IMG partnerships, these are DI or upper DII schools and higher,” he noted. “I think you start bringing marketing and benefits and what the athletes can do. There are multiple studies of collegiate sports in the U.S. and how that can drive enrolment, student pride, the brand of the university. There's tons of empirical evidence of the positive side of higher-profile athletics.”
It’s those messages Galet has shared with people connected to U SPORTS over the past six months.
“I’ve had to go to every school and do presentations. I’ve had to go to the AGMs of every conference. I’ve been on the phone every day, all day, at least 5-10 schools a day, to build their confidence and understand what we are planning to do. We’ve convinced everyone on the goal, the vision and our sophistication. I think people trust us and we’re in a good position to roll this out.
“I can say there is nothing like this, nothing that talks to millennials like U SPORTS. The numbers that U SPORTS can deliver – 919,000 weekly visits to rec centres, 170,000 intramural participants, 1.75 million attendees at sporting events, close to 1 million on social media – you put that all together and the numbers are staggering.”
And they are numbers that are undoubtedly attractive to potential sponsors.
This is a disciplined approach, this is a strategic approach and we’re building it one block at a time. We’re building the foundation. Three to five years from now, we’ll have top companies activating around this. We’re going to have real dollars going to back to the schools and conferences in U SPORTS.
“We want to focus on one big win, not 10 or 50, or throwing a million darts against the wall to see what hits the middle,” Galet said. “Our plan was to look at banking, financial services. If all we do for this year is get a bank sponsor by September and deliver money to everyone – that is the plan. And then hire a team to deliver against that.
“Once that’s done, we’ll look at couple of other categories in 2019 and 2020. The idea is by year three, you’re at seven or eight top-tier category-leading brands that are activating, that are looking at this in the same vein they would look at the Olympics or the NHL.”
“This is a disciplined approach, this is a strategic approach and we’re building it one block at a time. We’re building the foundation. Three to five years from now, we’ll have top companies activating around this. We’re going to have real dollars going to back to the schools and conferences in U SPORTS.”
Brown knows it won’t come easily.
“It’s been hard yards, but I’m excited because the only thing that holds us back - it’s not the quality of our athletes, it’s not how organized our university programs are, it’s not the level of the competition – it’s getting more monies, marketing and promotion. Whoever we get as a sponsor is going to want to market that sponsorship and their alignment with university sport, which is going to (have) a huge snowball effect.
“I’m confident it will be the catalyst of so many other things we’ve developed to enhance university sport…promote it and drive further funding models to it.”