Exclusive: College Sports Continues to Attract Sponsor Dollars

Richard Breen

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

Despite the demise of a couple of high-profile relationships in the Palmetto State, experts say the market for collegiate sports sponsorships is strong.

“It’s a good time to be in the sports sponsorship business,” said Kevin Olivett, associate athletic director for external operations at The Citadel. He recently joined the staff after having previously worked at the University of Houston. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve had pretty good conversations.”

The two biggest athletic programs in the state, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, recently lost their “official grocer,” Bi-Lo LLC.

“Clemson does not presently have an official grocer sponsorship,” said Jeff Kallin, associate athletic director for communications and strategic initiatives. “Bi-Lo was a great partner of Clemson’s for more than 30 years, beginning in 1987. Our most recent agreement with Bi-Lo expired on June 30, and Bi-Lo notified Clemson sports and campus marketing that they did not wish to renew the agreement.”

Food Lion LLC and Lowes Foods LLC are the current grocery partners for USC athletics, according to Darren McPhail of Gamecock Sports Properties.

“There’s no ‘exclusivity’ or ‘official’ status within the grocery category,” he said, adding that both chains will participate in promotions for football as well as other sports.

The Citadel and Coastal Carolina University both said they currently don’t partner with a grocery chain. Furman University said it had partnered with Ingles Markets Inc. in the past but not this coming season. Wofford College said Ingles, which is based in Asheville, North Carolina, is its current official grocer

Supermarkets aren’t the only game in town, however, and the overall market for sports sponsorships is growing. Sponsorship consulting firm IEG LLC estimates that sponsorship spending on college sports during the 2017-18 season was $1.24 billion, up 4.5% from the previous season.

“Insurance is by far the most active category sponsoring college sports, with State Farm the most active sponsor,” IEG reported.

Sports sponsorship spending has routinely outpaced gains in advertising spending and traditional marketing and promotion, according to Dr. Jonathan A. Jensen, an assistant professor of sport administration at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

“When a sponsor ends an agreement or chooses to pivot away from spending in sponsorship, it’s usually the result of a change in strategy or new leadership,” he said. “It’s not always the case that the sponsorship itself has failed to meet objectives.”

Bi-Lo is a subsidiary of Jacksonville, Florida, based Southeastern Grocers. It has reduced its South Carolina store footprint in recent years. Southeastern Grocers did not return calls and emails requesting comment.

After insurance, IEG ranks automotive and banking as the No. 2 and No. 3 categories for NCAA school and conference sponsorships. Retail is fourth.

Retailers can often benefit from customer traffic created through sponsorship deals made by the brands they carry in their stores.

“So, it’s not always necessary for the retailer to carry their own sponsorships,” Jensen said.

The Citadel’s Olivett said in an age of digital advertising that can target customer groups more and more precisely, “everybody’s getting smarter with their money.”

“It’s up to us to create the sponsorship,” he said. “Can I get them the frequency, can I get them the reach, for the dollar amount they’re looking to spend?”