Emerald Isle green with envy? U.S. college sports marketing vs. the Football Association of Ireland
Front Porch Athletics intern Sorcha O'Donnell is a former Rutgers University rower now pursuing a second undergradate degree back home in Ireland. She wanted to explore who a variety of different athletic departments told their "stories" on their websites and social media channels. She also realized that sports in Ireland, including the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) lags far behind in its marketing capabilities.
Sorcha took a deep dive into how Rutgers, Princeton, Notre Dame and Holy Cross conduct business, alogn with comaring and contrasting them to the FAI. She found that across the board, the "game trap" where marketers rely on scores and game highlights are far too prevalent and don't do much to grow their fan bases.
As a transfer student-athlete, I have had a unique insight into how drastically different the sports marketing scenes are in Ireland and the USA. Beginning my career in Galway Ireland, and then receiving an offer from Rutgers University in New Jersey. The sheer scale of resources that is poured into American athletics is outstanding and much different to anything seen at the collegiate level in Europe. In this review, marketing strategies used by several U.S. colleges will be analyzed and compared against the largest for-profit sports organization in Ireland. I was originally going to compare Irish and American universities, but they are not even in the same realm in terms of revenue, attendance, and marketing staff.
This investigation was undertaken in February so it is worth mentioning that I will also be comparing how the different colleges promoted Black History Month (BHM) as well as Women in Sport day (WIS).
RUTGERS (Big 10):
As a former member of the crew team, I must admit I have a soft spot for this university! Her swagger and boldness are so charming, and her fans are religiously loyal. That ‘New Jersey attitude’ is shared with its athletic department and there is a strong sense of community behind the Scarlet Knights. The marketing team for Rutgers leans into this manta and portrays the school as this gritty, resilient underdog that represents what it is to be unapologetically “New Jerseyan”. This is evident on their Instagram page, with their bio simply reading “In New Jersey, our fans are just louder”.
Webpage: Page visitors are met with a vibrant homepage displaying a range of sports media relating to different aspects of athlete participation, both on and off the field. One negative on a day I tracked the website was that all five of the features articles were recaps of recent games and events. As Front Porch Athletics often shares on this blog, this was a perfect example of the ‘game-trap’ pitfall. This is a common phenomenon that occurs when athletic departments fall into a habit of just posting results from past events without inserting their creative spin or posting any other type of content that would be engaging to the reader. The ‘game-trap’ effect could be minimized if the Scarlet Knights posted more content that wasn’t specifically about game-performance but more focal on the players as actual people, their academics, and their impact on the community. THAT is what is going to create sentimental affiliation and loyalty from the fans.
In terms of effective influence towards site visitor spending; the ‘R Fund,’ the alumni donation club to encourage donations, was prominently featured. The signature ‘R Fund’ badge is very visible at the top of the page. When clicked, site visitors are met with a series of posts celebrating the high-quality individuals who came through Rutgers. This helps reinforce a sense of excellence that is found at Rutgers. On the main webpage, there is a decent amount of video content but they are mostly press conference interviews or game highlights. Indeed, there are a couple of interviews with athletes, but there is not much character or originality coming across, I want to know who these players are, what drives them and most importantly; WHY I should give RU my money.
Rutgers is quite good at promoting the ‘team shop’ where fans can buy merchandise. The site asked for the reader’s email to unlock ‘special deals and exclusive offers’; this is a good technique to gather more email recipients and continue to expand the outreach of Rutgers and build the base. Noticeably there is a large array of merchandise, holiday-specific items are effective at driving seasonal buying. Constantly having new, fresh stock helps to keep the fans wanting more.
Twitter: Very similar to webpage content, with an average of 9 posts per day, and with a follower count of 74.8K followers, Rutgers does a decent job at updating the fans on all relevant content. The follower count exceeds the enrollment number which may seem impressive but when considering the size of the NJ population, Rutgers students, faculty, staff, alumni and all the friends and family of athletes I think there is still room for growth. Rutgers acts as an effective news outlet for fans and is an effective accessory for ticket sales to upcoming games. But again, most of the content falls in the “game trap.”
Instagram: With a following of 29K, I believe Rutgers can improve that number significantly since the total enrollment is a whopping 50K students. There is already a university awareness, the next step would be engagement and eventually ticket sales. There is a good use of Instagram ‘reels’, compelling videos that help build a strong image of Rutgers through short videos. Content such as BHM, WIS and Title IX celebration was prominent and included student-athletes sharing their own individual stories in relation to these topics. I loved these! Although the normal posts do fall into the ‘game trap’, the reels are sprinkled throughout. The Instagram is lacking that ‘behind the curtain’ viewpoint - who are these athletes and why should the reader support them through ticket and merchandise sales? I think Rutgers can strengthen their base by advertising the players as people, and the part they play within the RAH RAH razzle-dazzle.
Facebook: Rutgers Facebook falls heavily into the ‘game-trap’ as they nearly only post about game results. Unlike Twitter, there are few posts to promote upcoming games and events and there is a lack in creativity to drive game attendance. The shop is linked in the title bar, but I would like to see visual links as merchandise previews to encourage curiosity and drive-up website clicks and views.
PRINCETON (Ivy League)
Historically the Tigers were the biggest rivals to the Scarlet Knights; two big fish in a little Jersey pond. So, it is mostly my own curiosity to include them in this comparative study. But it also an insight into the sports marketing strategy behind a well-funded, world-renowned institution.
Princeton appears to welcome being a part of the Ivy League and it’s ivory tower mentality. The Tigers seem to be happily cut-off from the rest of the world as they have a hyper focus on non-revenue sports like squash, fencing and ice hockey. I believe this limits their marketing reach and prevents further expansion of the fanbase. From the outside looking in, the marketing strategy of Princeton is not dominated by maximization of revenue. As a private school, I imagine Princeton is not financially reliant on packing stadiums or selling t-shirts to support the athletes. It’s the niche sport alumni that may personally donate and support the development of their past programs. So, catering social media to a narrow audience may be more effective in seeing more bang for their buck.
Webpage: Princeton has a simpler athletics homepage; it is not as glamorous as Rutgers. It falls into the ‘game-trap’ and the storytelling and ticket sale promotion has a poor presence. Despite the drawbacks, the homepage showcases good sports and University cultures and celebrates their alumni. They have a video segment that does a good job at giving a voice to the athletes and getting to know the person behind the jersey.
Twitter: Like Rutgers, Princeton’s Twitter account is mainly a news pipeline filled with game results and post-game commentary. It has a small follower pool of 20.2K yet the largest average post per day of 13.88. But Princeton athletics has grown too dependent on the ‘retweet’ button and has neglected creating its own content.
Instagram: The bio is often the first segment read on a page, it sets the tone and makes a statement. Princeton’s “Roar” is quite underwhelming and somewhat comical in comparison to the other accounts. Yet their follower count of 14,200 is impressive in comparison to their enrollment population of 5,300, this is an indication that alumni and nearby community are staying connected to Princeton athletics.
Princeton is lacking in their video content. This is a missed opportunity with only 2 reel posts in February. One was a WIS post and the other a men’s basketball pre-game snippet. These are quality posts but I would like to see more content including what makes a Princeton student-athlete unique. As for the normal posts, the marketing team seems to be just ticking boxes, posting for the sake of posting. When I read some of the posts, I am left asking myself, “what was the purpose of this?” Many of the posts do not build or engage an audience, nor drive revenue.
Facebook: The pinned ‘pregame handshake’ video made me smile and gave me a deeper insight into who these athletes are and more importantly the bond they have with the team, it supports the #family campaign. This video is 5 years old which reiterates how timeless posts like this can be, but it also puzzling why more of these videos aren’t being rolled out and promoted. Other than that, Princeton also falls into the ‘game-trap’ by only posting about results and not promoting ticket, merchandise sales or providing a glimpse inside the athletic department.
NOTRE DAME (Atlantic Coast Conference)
I’m Irish. The reason for including the Fighting Irish is self-explanatory. But with one of the best site engagement generations in the country according to SkullSparks analytics; it will be interesting to see what Notre Dame does differently to rack up those huge numbers.
Webpage: There is effective promotion of ticket and merchandise promotion as well as effective use of video throughout the page. As for donations, ‘Rockne’ is the alumni donation organization. It drives donations with different membership levels that involve a range of benefits for being a part of. The athletes are also very present on the page, and they express how beneficial the contributions have been for their athletic and academic success with the university.
Twitter: With a massive following of 194.6k it is surprising that Notre Dame only posts roughly 2 times per day. But what makes them different is that there is a lot of effort put into original content creation in close contact with the leprechaun mascot. I was moved by the ‘pink game’ which involved football players escorting breast cancer survivors during a basketball game, it shows fans that the athletic department cares and wants to support people of its community. There is no ‘posting for the sake of posting’ each post feels genuine, fun, deliberate and has a purpose to the overall marketing strategy.
Instagram: There are a lot more posts on Instagram compared to the other universities; about 2 per day. They have good use of reel videos and have content that makes the team likeable - including the ‘pink game’. The content is easy to watch, exciting and relevant allowing Notre Dame to strengthen it’s ‘Fighting Irish’ brand. The leprechaun mascot is the iconic and his fun demeanor is a clever way to personify the university as they integrate him into sport-specific content to engage fans.
Facebook: Again, Notre Dame does a great job using the mascot as they push game attendance to nearly half a million followers. There is a creative spin on game announcements and there is good interactions with prompting posts like “Name some Notre-Dame student-athletes you grew up watching”. It makes Notre Dame feel timeless and aims to strike a nostalgic chord. It promotes the #family campaign by establishing the Notre Dame community as ‘forever’ and encourages alumni to stay connected with current and future events by reassuring that they have not outgrown their old stomping ground.
HOLY CROSS (Patriot League)
So far only large schools have been analyzed, a smaller school with a more limited budget and enrollment will be reviewed to see how it shapes up against the heavy hitters.
Webpage: There is a lackluster approach to the Holy Cross webpage. It feels incomplete and doesn’t do much to encourage visitors to support the school by attending games or buying merch. Holy Cross is also victim of the ‘game-trap’ by only posting game-related content.
Twitter: The Crusaders have an impressive follower count of 12.3k considering the enrollment of 3k. Each post packs a punch as the follower reach (post interactions/follower count) is a whopping 30%. As expected, the content falls into the game trap but there is good video content too. ‘Moments of the month’ was a creative way to recap past games without leaning too much into game trap.
Instagram: In comparison to their webpage, Holy Cross’ Instagram hums a different tune. For a small school, there is a lot of heart. The content is fresh, engaging and it is palpable that there is real passion within the marketing team. More videos would improve the presence of the page, but right now the mission is to aim for quality over quantity. There is a focus on athletes getting involved in extracurriculars off the court and shows them as well-rounded young adults who are clearly thriving in their environment. Holy Cross really utilizes its resources to appeal to past and future students.
Facebook: I liked the emphasis on celebrating Title IX, bringing back alumni and highlighting female sports was a good way to tie in female alumni who were the ‘trailblazers’ for the school. BHM was also celebrated by posting catchups with Black alumni and how the College helped their personal and career journey. There was a drive to encourage donations on ‘Giving Day’, video content was present from both staff and student-athletes and stating why donations are so important to the program. A small series, “Why I love Holy Cross,” was shared to encourage alumni donations and allow readers to have a better idea of who these athletes are and why they deserve to be financially supported. There is a strong sense of community throughout the page, but there is a lack of promotion for ticket and merchandise sales.
FAI (Republic of Ireland)
The FAI is a representative of an entire country, so its marketing strategy differs greatly from U.S. universities. There is a lot of effort into recruitment of volunteers which is essential for the survival of small clubs all over the country. I wanted to include the FAI in this report to properly gauge how the Emerald Isle stacks up against the U.S. in terms of effective marketing strategy - what they do well, where they can improve and how they can generate support for their players?
Webpage: The FAI homepage feels very outdated, the solid green background is boring and does not evoke excitement or passion for upcoming events. There is a lack of video content anywhere on the page. There are a couple of graphic posters but nothing more creative than that. How are fans supposed to get to know and love these players if they are nothing more than a stagnant feature in a photo? Most of the ticket and merchandise sale links are directed to a third-party seller. The FAI does an adequate job at informing fans on where they can buy, but I assume that they only get a fraction of the revenue generated from sales.
Twitter: The part that annoyed me was the ugly team announcement posts. There are no visuals of the players that we are supposed to be supporting. How are we supposed to build excitement for games, build the brand base and encourage ticket sales when we aren’t given basic headshots of the athletes? Who cares about names if we don’t get to see the passionate and talented players that have worked hard to earn the honor of playing for their country? The only time individual athletes are highlighted is for birthday well-wishing which doesn’t add anything to the brand. Do away with these and instead focus on more personal player content.
Instagram: There is a big improvement on Instagram with a good number of videos focused on behind-the-scenes and player interviews. Interestingly, the women’s side is doing the heavy lifting in terms of quality video uploads, the men’s side falls hard into the ‘game-trap’ by mostly posting about game highlights, goals and results. The ugly team lineup list is recycled from the Twitter page. I think there could be an opportunity to improve the quality of pre-and-post-game coverage by switching out the overused ‘team lineup photo’ and some text about the final score, for a more vibrant video that could better capture the atmosphere of the venue, the players, and the engagement of the fans. The team lineup photo is absurd since the fans are never introduced to the players properly. You can’t figure out who is who! How are we supposed to pick these people out of an entire team? I single out FAI on this issue since, as a soccer-specific organization, it should be easier to invest effort in building hype around players and their personal brand as an FAI affiliate. FAI Instagram does an ok job at promoting ticket sales, but is quite underdeveloped at promoting merchandise, there is no ‘shop’ icon and there is next to nothing pushing viewers to buy.
Facebook: Most of the videos are interviews with players, which is good to get to know the players on a deeper level, but there is no creative flare or fresh spin on regular content that would get fans excited about the players. There is a strong drive to encourage ticket sales for upcoming games as well as a celebration of culture and past players. One thing I am noticing more and more about the FAI is the emphasis on the female team. It is an interesting phenomenon that is happening across the FAI social platforms. The video content is mostly female focused. Perhaps traditional reporting of men’s soccer is preventing the team from updating their marketing strategy? The classic team lineup photo and a brief game recap is a common post for the men’s side. The women’s team is outshining the men on the creative side, and this is felt in a strong presence on the page. From a marketing perspective, I think the men’s side should take a leaf out of the women’s strategy playbook as they seem to emulate a similar strategy as many of the successful American university athletic programs.