Making the Choice to Partner with Athletics

How communications can take advantage of the audience athletics draws to an institution.

October 18, 2016

Just last week I was on a call with an institution that has a highly visible Division I intercollegiate athletics program. Over the course of an hour, they described their intercollegiate athletics teams as the “front porch of the institution” and heralded them for the awareness they provide for admissions and advancement, and then cast them as a black eye to the institution’s reputation based on the bad behavior of a few student athletes.

Unfortunately, I’ve had many conversations like this with campus colleagues.

So, here’s the thing -- we all have a choice. We can embrace athletics as a part of our campuses and discuss its role in achieving our institution’s mission, or we can cast it aside as a source of frustration and label it the problem child. If you choose the latter, then expect not to have strong and trusting relationships with your colleagues in intercollegiate athletics and don’t be surprised when they don’t feel a connection to the greater whole.

As luck would have it, last week I also had a completely unrelated conversation with Dennis K. Brown, chief spokesman and assistant vice president for news and media relations at the University of Notre Dame. He had a positive and healthy way of thinking about how we, as marketing and communications professionals, should integrate athletics into our repertoire of stories to tell. Below is an email conversation we shared. (The questions I posed are in italics.)

What suggestions do you have for framing athletics within the greater mission of the university?

Dennis: Notre Dame is different from our peers and aspirational peers, in that they all became world-class universities before they established outstanding athletics programs, while Notre Dame became well known for its football teams in the early 20th century, before it became a world-class university. As a result, we fight a perceptional battle -- that we are a football factory -- when, in fact, I think we keep athletics in perspective as a part of the far larger mission. So, while we understand and use the platform that athletics provides in our society, it is only as a tool to advance the teaching, research and Catholic components of the university.

How do you approach the creation of your institution’s PSA (television commercial that runs during televised athletic events) and strike the balance between athletic and academic success?

Dennis: We rarely include any athletic messages or images in our institutional spots. The only exception I can think of is a spot we did about 15 years ago called "From Rockne to Riley," which compared the athletic and academic success of Knute Rockne, who was a student and Academic All-American at Notre Dame long before he became the most successful football coach in college history, and Ruth Riley, who was an All-American basketball player and Academic All-American.

We try to stay away from images of laboratories and test tubes and lecture halls in our PSAs. Most are a little on the esoteric side, using symbolism and language that speak to our teaching, research and faith mission.

How do you, through a communications lens, take advantage of the audience athletics draws to talk about the institution?

Dennis: The most unusual -- even unique -- manner in which Notre Dame uses athletics to speak about the institution's mission is through what we call our Shamrock Series football games. Notre Dame became a well-known national university in the 1920s, when Knute Rockne took his teams -- then called the Ramblers, because they rambled all over the country, not the Fighting Irish -- around the nation to play any and everyone, from the powers in the East (Army, Yale, Harvard) to the West (primarily USC). The Shamrock Series games harken back to those days. Each year, we move one home game to another city around the country and play a neutral-site "home" game. Among others, we've played Arizona State in Dallas, Miami in Chicago, Army in New York, and this year, Army again in San Antonio. In addition to the game, we take all of the components of a regular Notre Dame home football weekend on road -- three or four academic events, a service project, activities for local schoolchildren, band practice at a local high school, a 5K run, a pep rally and Mass at a prominent Catholic Church. Last year in Boston, the Irish invasion led The Boston Globe to write a story with the headline: "South Bend, Massachusetts." These events aren't just for Notre Dame alums and fans; anyone can attend, and the positive, non-athletic publicity has been tremendous. 


If, by chance, you are attending the PRSA International conference next week, please attend a session entitled “Game-Changer: Navigating Big-Time College Sports Communications.” Dennis and I will be panelists alongside Bob Williams, senior vice president of communications for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Our panel will be moderated by Kent Cassella, associate vice president, communications and senior public relations strategist, at Michigan State University.

We’d love to hear your perspectives on a range of athletic-related topics.

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