Schools Spend Big on Branding Graphics
Auburn’s indoor practice facility, which opened in 2011, features graphics on the program’s success and motivational credos.
With a football practice facility set to open in the summer of 2011, Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs wanted to tell the story of the Tigers’ success through graphics that would keep the playing area from looking like the interior of an airplane hangar.
So he looked to Advent, a graphics and branding company that turned more than 300 yards of wall space into splashy orange-and-blue displays of the program’s success and motivational credos.
The cost? Nearly $750,000 to start, plus updates over the past five years that cost about $60,000, according to documents Auburn provided in response to an open-records request from USA TODAY Sports.
Auburn’s display and its price tag are becoming the norm among college athletics programs as they seek touches that administrators and coaches think will give them even the slightest competitive advantage. Auburn’s was among more than 600 projects Advent says it has done since 2007. Forty Nine Degrees, a competitor, is averaging 50 to 75 a year, while Rainier Sports has seen this part of its business increase 15% to 20% a year for several years.
USA TODAY Sports requested contracts, purchase orders and bid documents related to facility graphics work at 34 of the NCAA’s 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools and received at least partial responses from 29. From 2007, the first year for which USA TODAY Sports asked for data, through 2010, those schools combined to spend a little less than $500,000 a year on such projects. Since then, their combined spending has been an average of more than $2.5 million a year.
In 2014, those schools reached their highest total yet – more than $3.1 million.
With prices ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than a million, these visual accessories are being treated as a standard cost component of updating facilities or constructing newones.
“You wouldn’t build the house and forget to put the carpet in,” says Mississippi State athletics director Scott Stricklin, whose school has worked with Advent on facilities in a variety of sports. “To me, the graphics piece is very similar to that.”
While spending on graphics occurs for public spaces such as stadium concourses and halls of fame, it increasingly has become a part of team-exclusive areas such as weight rooms, office and meeting spaces and practice facilities.
Athletics directors cite recruiting – primarily of athletes but also of donors – as the top reason for investing in this work. But does it have the desired effect? Beyond Advent’s research, which the company declined to share, the effect on player recruiting remains largely anecdotal.
Interviews with a handful of elite-level football recruits by USA TODAY Sports elicited responses that ranged from enthusiasm about the graphics and their impact to indifference.
What’s certain is that the pressure to spend extends beyond the wealthiest programs to those at the midmajor level that heavily rely on student fees and/or money from the school’s general fund. Western Michigan, for example, spent more than $600,000 to brand its football facility as part of a capital project in 2013.
“Everybody’s crying about how poor they are, but meanwhile they’re just going hog wild with stuff,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at South Carolina. “It’s just amazing how they just keep spending stuff and keep finding ways to do it. Nobody seems to have cut any sports or anything else, and now magically they did cost of attendance (as an addition to the traditional form of an athletic scholarship). All of this stuff is an indication to me that there’s a lot more money in athletic departments than they want to admit to.”
And it has resulted in the creation of yet another college sports micro-economy, like those surrounding coaching searches and contract negotiations, NCAArules compliance and gigantic video-display scoreboards. Facility decor as a messaging vehicle? Auburn AD Jacobs put it this way: If you’re not telling your story, someone else is.
“It is all part of the competitive environment in which we operate in college athletics,” he said. “Everyone needs a shiny penny.”
Advent’s Nashville office tells the story of the company’s ties to college athletics. A sign for the project management team is spelled out with letters from colleges’ logos. A map on the wall charts hundreds of locations representing a place where the company has done graphics work.
In about 2008, Advent CEO John Roberson and President Todd Austin shifted their focus from corporate buildings to universities. The move was necessitated by the recession, but in college athletics they found fertile ground for expansion.
Advent isn’t alone in identifying college athletics as a path to success. Michael McClurg, president and part-owner of Forty Nine Degrees, said his company shifted from an interior signage design company in the early 2000s to one that gets 90% of its business from college athletics.
Many of the companies’ projects aren’t one-time arrangements. Schools that buy custom displays lauding memorable teams and/or players also pay to have them freshened as new titles are won and more players honored. Florida, which has spent $2.6 million on graphics work since 2007, has displays for All-Americans and former players in the pros, as do many other schools. A graphics update for Alabama included incorporating four Sports Illustrated covers.
Like Auburn, many schools are branding new indoor practice facilities. Virginia Tech, which opened a new facility before this season, spent $241,500 to brand it. Florida paid $245,000 to add graphics to its practice facility, and Virginia’s private booster organization paid $450,000 to do the same to its facility in 2013.
“When you go in a white igloo, aircraft hangar, it’s just this overwhelming sense of nothing,” Roberson says. “So by bringing in that brand within that perimeter, suddenly there isn’t this silence that makes you so uncomfortable. There’s this presence that’s there that says, ‘You may not be seeing it now, but this is where champions are made or this is where momentum is built or this is where performance and skill (are) strengthened and enhanced.’ “
But that underlines a fallacy of today’s college sports environment, Southall says. As the NCAA continues to face legal challenges to its limits on what athletes can receive while playing college sports, Southall says, adding elaborate graphics to a building is another way to avoid the core issue of where athletics programs are putting their money.
“It’s another indication of how… because you can’t compensate the players to anything resembling their market value, so you have to recruit them in other ways,” he says.
FACE LIFTS FOR FACILITIES
The facility-graphics part of that recruiting pitch is not for new buildings only. Advent estimates about 70% of its projects are on existing buildings.
At Western Michigan, work done by Forty Nine Degrees in 2013 was aimed at reinvigorating the Bill Brown Alumni Football Center, which was built in 1998. It fabricated huge images of recent athletes.
The school also broadened its embrace of the “Row the Boat” mantra espoused by coach P.J. Fleck – and that message is carried through the graphics (and in oars) in the football facility. Making those cosmetic upgrades to sell the new vision of the program can be an impactful yet cost-effective way to improve facilties, Western Michigan athletics director Kathy Beauregard says.
“When you’re bringing young men and women in and many times they’re 16 years old taking a look at your facility, and they’re used to technology, flash, pictures, more of a graphic-design world, fast-changing, it gives us an opportunity that really is an economic way for us to be able change that,” Beauregard says.
Western Michigan spent nearly $652,000 on branding and graphics for the football building.
“When it comes to the Mid-American Conference, we want to be a leader in all those pieces to recruit,” Beauregard says.
In 2014, after the work was done, Western Michigan had the highest-ranked recruiting class in MAC history, according to Rivals.com, something Beauregard attributes to Fleck’s efforts and the $3 million in facilities upgrades. The Broncos won a share of the MAC West title this season, and their Bahamas Bowl win last week was the first bowl victory in school history.
“We were getting athletes that we normally were not getting,” says Beauregard, who also doubled Fleck’s pay for this season to a MAC-leading $800,000.
While the facility-improvement money was raised through donations and reported as a capital expense, of the athletics department’s $28.9 million in total operating revenue in 2013-14, about $20 million came from the university – including nearly $17 million in cash – according to a report the school filed with the NCAA. The revenue total did not cover the department’s reported $30.1 million in operating expenses.
That kind of spending is troubling at midmajor programs, said David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sport administration at Ohio University, also a MAC school, and a longtime advocate of college athletics reform.
“I would argue that the 80% – the rest of us – could be just as successful athletically by managing our funds better and not doing a lot of things that I would deem frivolous,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of difference between the midmajor athletes that we’re getting at midmajor schools than I did 20 years ago.”
BOOST FOR RECRUITING?
Among athletes being recruited by major schools, the impact of graphics seems to be mixed.
DeSoto High (Texas) wide receiver Dee Anderson has committed to LSU, whose football facility renovation in 2013 included graphics from Forty Nine Degrees highlighting former Tigers players’ NFL success.
“Seeing that impacts me,” Anderson said. “Basically, it’s me knowing that I have big shoes to fill. Also, it reminds me every day that I need to work hard and get my picture put up on the walls.”
DeAngelo Gibbs, a five-star junior cornerback from Suwanee, Ga., said: “I won’t say that I leave a visit remembering (the graphics), but it’s something I definitely notice while I’m there. It’s big because it shows the great players that have come before me. It’s not mind-blowing or anything, but it’s definitely a cool thing to check out while I’m there.”
Advent CEO Roberson says his company has conducted research about recruiting and how athletes make their decisions. He and Austin declined to go into much detail beyond saying it focused on more than 3,000 top football recruits and the athletes didn’t fully comprehend the effectiveness of their company’s presentations.
“When it works, they don’t know why it works,” Austin said. “They just say it felt like home and it felt right. That’s the answer they give when all the pieces align and you’ve done your job.”
Republication permission by original author Rachel Axon and USA Today the original publisher. Article