By Gregg S. Lipman
On a brisk fall day in 1869, the Rutgers football club (the Scarlet Knights nom de plume would follow much later) defeated the Princeton club 6-4 in the first intercollegiate football game. Such glory has been rare at my alma mater. And while it’s been a few years (please don’t ask just how many) since I graduated from Rutgers, my fandom for my school’s teams, and collegiate athletics in general, has remained steadfast. Even as the college football season has ended, I get myself psyched up for college hoops and March Madness — I’m in a bit of a tizzy, as they say. But what the heck is happening at the NCAA? The “venerable” National Collegiate Athletic Association, it appears, has a branding dilemma on their hands.
Despite having the enormous advantage of built-in “brand” loyalty (e.g., fans support teams for years, generations even, regardless of whether they win or lose), the NCAA and its sub-brands — the conferences that lie under the NCAA banner — are having a bit of an identity crisis. The organizational efficiency and rich regional rivalries steeped in tradition, once hallmarks of the NCAA brands, have eroded into something approaching, well, meaninglessness.
Historically, the amazing thing about the NCAA has been its ability to take its student-athletes and leverage its competitive conferences. Today it represents the interests of over 400,000 such student-athletes grouped into 95 competitive, regional athletic leagues and conferences that comprise over a thousand colleges and universities. The organization has been like the Procter & Gamble of aggregate athletic organizations — full of trusted, colorful and evocative name brands like the Ivy League, the Patriot League and “The Valley,” and lots of Bigs, i.e., the Big Ten, the Big East, the Big South, the Big 12 and the Big Sky. Not to mention conferences that became such household names that we’d only refer to them by their geographical acronyms: the SEC (Southeastern Conference), ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), MAC (Mid-American Conference), PAC-12 (Pacific-12) and C-USA (Conference USA), to name a few.
Those names initially made sense because they connected the schools in some way to the culture of the participants and/or geography. The Big East has long stood for tough, gritty, relentless play sprinkled with a dash of flash and pizzazz; think Tony Soprano meets Jay-Z. The SEC is all about that uniquely Southern, borderline pathological obsession with football and longstanding rivalries that would make the Hatfield-McCoy feud feel downright “Downton Abbey” polite (the 115-year-old Georgia vs. Georgia Tech game is now colloquially known as “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate”). Pac-12 games are generally more freewheeling, with a certain creative elegance and laid-back West Coast flair (think Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Seattle). And the Big Ten is the perfect name for a Midwestern-based conference that regularly features serious power rushing and some of the largest young athletes in the country.
The strength of these NCAA conference brands was how personal, real and honest each felt. Even if you didn’t have a personal stake in a particular school or game, as a college sports fan, you were still able to see yourself, your daily grind and your region’s pulse reflected in your regional league or conference. And let’s not forget that for the many states lacking a professional sports team, college sports are the highest profile games in town. This in turn ensured enormous brand loyalty.
There was a time when all the schools in the Big East (originally, Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut, Boston College, and later, Villanova and Pittsburgh) were East Coast schools, or at the very least Eastern Standard Time-based, and when there were actually ten schools in the Big 10, all flagship schools in their respective states, all within a few hours drive from one another. If your school played in the Big Ten, you could easily rattle off all the other school names, their mascots and where their campuses were located. Fast forward to today, and you’ll see that there are currently 12 schools in the Big Ten, and the Big Ten can’t change its name to the Big 12 because there is already a conference called the Big 12. Not to mention, they will soon be 14: the University of Maryland and yes, my Scarlet Knights of Rutgers will join their ranks starting in 2014.
Why has this happened? Yep, folks… follow the money. The need to generate revenue and the dramatic influx of TV money (mostly from college football broadcasting rights) have made it particularly lucrative for schools to abandon their traditional conferences in order to align themselves with conferences that make no sense regionally or from a historical or cultural standpoint. And this is happening all over the country.
Personally, I think the NCAA should call “time-out!” and figure out a way to preserve some of the principles its conferences were founded upon. Or, at minimum, set guidelines for a way forward — competition, tradition, rivalry, discipline, hope and camaraderie — before the organization turns into a corporate behemoth bent on maximizing its assets. The recent decision by the seven Catholic schools, which were part of the original Big East, to get out of the TV money-grab vortex, leave the conference and form a new one (the Psalm Pseven, perhaps?) is a direct response to that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for adapting to modern times and shifting business needs and/or consumers wants/habits. But I also believe the NCAA college sports brand represents something true and great and emotional and inspiring. As such, it is a brand worth preserving for every incoming class as well as us alumni, and should continue to strive to define the idea that “winning isn’t everything,” even if that’s not the case (marketing is in fact theater).
So we decided to have a little fun and rename a few of the conferences:
For example, the Mountain West Conference, which currently includes the Air Force Academy, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, Wyoming, Fresno State, Hawaii (football only), Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State and UNLV, would be renamed The Wild Wild West Conference. We believe this accurately reflects the style of play in that conference, namely, very high scoring, trick plays and other surprises.
Or what about the Pugilist Conference, made up of schools across all divisions whose mascots won’t back down from a fight? This would include the Campbell Fighting Camels (that is an amazing name: Fighting. Camels), Illinois Fighting Illini, North Dakota Fighting Sioux, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Lynn Fighting Knights, Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks, Muskingum Fighting Muskies, Carroll College Fighting Saints (a bit of an oxymoron perhaps?), Gordon College Fighting Scots, Edinboro Fighting Scots, Macalester Fighting Scots, McHenry County College Fighting Scots, Monmouth College Fighting Scots, Ohio Valley Fighting Scots and Wooster Fighting Scots.
Really, the point is, and as these examples illustrate, there’s clearly a lot of room to improve upon the mess that’s been created over the years with the various realignments. I would strongly urge the NCAA to take back some branding equity building control and start thinking about how these haphazard groupings of schools will affect their brands — and its own organization — in the long run. Oh, and if you’re looking for someone to help with the renaming/reorganization, I’m happy to throw my own hat in the ring… just as long as it’s not during this year’s Big East hoops championship at MSG — the last year that my Scarlet Knights will have a chance to come up short in the tourney again.