Did You Notice Where the Super Bowl Was Played?

Karen Gross considers the implications of a marketing buy that most colleges could never even dream about.

February 2, 2015

With all the Super Bowl hype (and there was plenty before the game, given Deflategate), little attention has been paid to the irony of where the actual game was played in Arizona: the University of Phoenix Stadium. Yes, really. 

Is there anything we can learn from the Super Bowl’s location for those of us toiling in the weeds of higher education?

The University of Phoenix, which boasts online enrollment in excess of 200,000 students at present (a decline from only several years ago when they had well more than half a million students), offers hundreds of degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Its Web site promotes a variety of tutoring and support programs, and the university has actual physical locations for classes in 39 states, although most courses are offered online.  

There is one thing the University of Phoenix most assuredly does not offer: intercollegiate athletics. Why would an institution of higher learning have a stadium named after it when that institution has no athletic offerings?

So, here’s a brief quiz as to possible explanations for why the University of Phoenix agreed in 2006 to pay $154.5 million over 20 years for the right to have its name used in perpetuity on the then new stadium in Arizona. Pick a, b, c, d, or e:

a. The university and its parent company, Apollo Education Group (enterprise value of $2.11 billion) could afford it. Compare this amount to the size of the 15th largest university endowment (Duke University) --  $6 billion in 2013.

b. It provides excellent ongoing marketing of the university, with its name promoted as part of the events held at the stadium, which include one of the most highly viewed sports events in the world. (Note: It’s the site of the Final Four in 2017.) Aren’t all higher education institutions investing in ways to market themselves better?

c. The stadium is big, holding up to 72,200 people with room for expansion, paralleling the university’s expansive approach to online learning that can serve thousands of students. What college is not looking to grow enrollment?

d. The construction of the stadium involved many partnerships, including with the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority, and the University of Phoenix also just partnered with historically black colleges. Which institution is not seeking increased revenue or savings through partnering?

e. All of the above.

The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Now, for the bonus question: Who is the star high school running back who indicated he considering attending the University of Phoenix (actually, if the truth be told, he might likely want to play in its stadium for the Cardinals a year or two after he starts college)? The answer is Soso Jamabo, who is cleverly taking a swipe at the absurdity of college recruiting by conducting interviews against a backdrop containing the names of institutions he might ostensibly choose to attend -- including the University of Phoenix. By the by, the University of Phoenix tweeted that it was accepting Jamabo as a student.

Here’s a more deliberative take on all this. The very questions raised by the Super Bowl’s location are emblematic of the issues facing higher education: developing unique marketing opportunities to improve student enrollment and institutional name recognition; sorting through complex fiscal choices including strategies for developing auxiliary revenue streams; assessing the role, quantify and quality of online learning for students; addressing the challenges and cost of intercollegiate athletics; identifying partnership opportunities that improve the student experience and reduce costs or increase revenue; and determining what new construction merits the expenditure and accompanying borrowing. 

University of Phoenix Stadium brings to mind the Shakespearean question, “What’s in a name?” spoken by Juliet. The answer here is this: nothing and everything.


Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.



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