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How to Market College Athletics to Meet Admissions Goals

Justin Smorawske


When it comes to college and university marketing, there are many stakeholders involved, each with their own vested interests in the organization's brand and how marketing fits into the puzzle. One particular area where this conversation comes up quite a bit is in the athletic arena. Today at the American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, I had the privilege of seeing three different—but similar—takes on this subject.

Here are some insights into how a university can embrace athletic success while keeping its tradition and academic focus top of mind in its overall brand.

Virginia Tech, Gonzaga and California Lutheran University have all experienced their own successes in athletics—they've also managed to find ways to harness that success and name recognition to help grow admissions and overall brand awareness. 

Streamline Branding

Virginia Tech recently conducted a brand evaluation and found out that one of the things it is most known for nationally is success in athletics. The school's football team is widely known for its “lunch pail” philosophy toward defense. "Grit and determination” are widely held core values of Virginians and translate well to the overall brand of the school as a whole. Leadership determined that taking a logo similarly styled to that of the athletic teams would help Virginia Tech build off its athletic successes and streamline branding as a whole. (And frankly, some campus residents weren't even aware that other logos beyond the athletic one existed.)

Capitalize on Traffic 

Gonzaga burst onto the NCAA basketball scene in 1999 when it gained a great deal of national attention for the success of its basketball teams. For the next 18 years and counting, Gonzaga has continued this success, making the tournament bracket each year. When Gonzaga began seeing its name recognition spread nationwide, a university marketing department didn't even exist. It wasn't until 2005 that the school decided to create this capacity.

Gonzaga has seen its enrollment almost double since first gaining national attention with its own David-vs.-Goliath story. This past year, when the university made the NCAA basketball championship game, its microsite (unfold.gonzaga.edu) saw 640K-plus pageviews. And because the microsite was smartly connected directly to Gonzaga's admissions page, the university also saw an increase in applications of 6,000. That microsite is a fixture each year during the tournament (eight years running), and it has become one the school's biggest referring sources to the main university website due to its connection to the basketball teams' success.

Solve Brand Confusion

California Lutheran is a Division 3 powerhouse in football. The school rebranded both the university marketing and athletics departments after leadership discovered confusion around its program nomenclature. The women's teams were known as "Regals," while the men's teams were "Kingsmen." Though a surplus of stakeholders slowed down the rebranding process, the university has since launched a cleaner, simpler brand that has seen wider acceptance from all parties across the university.

Higher Education Freshman Insights Infographic Download