June 11, 2007
Athletes, if they are talented, train hard and get a break or two, can climb the sports ladder from high school to college to the pros. Madison Avenue, sensing a lucrative opportunity, is heading the other way.
Decades after marketers began selling products by capitalizing on consumer interest in professional teams, then college teams, they are becoming big boosters of high school sports.
Big media companies are getting into the market as well, in part by offering high school competitors a taste of the exposure that is typically lavished on college and pro athletes. In March, the CSTV Networks division of the CBS Corporation — the “CS” stands for college sports — acquired MaxPreps, which operates a Web site (maxpreps.com) and has more than a million high school athletes in its database. Last month, CSTV began creating video-on-demand television channels under the MaxPreps brand carrying high school sports programming.
Another media giant, the Time Inc. division of Time Warner, formed an alliance in December with Takkle, which operates a social-networking Web site for high school athletes (takkle.com). Visitors to the site can nominate students for the familiar “Face in the Crowd” feature in Sports Illustrated magazine.
“High school kids are more sophisticated than a generation ago,” said Mark Ford, president and publisher of Sports Illustrated in New York, “and brands like Nike and Gatorade are on this, reaching athletes at a much earlier stage than they previously have.”
The goal is to gain favor with student athletes and also their coaches, teachers and principals — not to mention their fans, friends and families.
“Energy for student athletes, and the moms who keep up with them” is, for instance, the theme of advertisements for EAS AdvantEDGE nutritional bars and shakes, sold by Abbott Laboratories.
High school athletes buy all the obvious products — sneakers, gear, sports beverages — along with general items like grooming aids, magazines and video games. Many high schoolers shop for the family while their parents work, so they may be buying groceries along with items for themselves.
Students can also influence the purchasing choices of their parents in important categories like cars, cellphones and computers.
For example, in 2005 Allstate Insurance started coordinating a program for local agents “to demonstrate their support of high school athletes,” said Lisa Cochrane, vice president for integrated marketing communications at Allstate in Northbrook, Ill. Today, the brand is present in more than 700 high schools where agents sponsor teams and make donations to athletic departments.
“In many, many communities, high school athletics is one of the premier events,” Ms. Cochrane said, adding: “Teenagers themselves are not big customers for insurance, but their parents are. And they will be, in the future.”
The trend is also visible in the popular culture, as two TV series — “Friday Night Lights” on NBC and “One Tree Hill” on CW — are centered on high school teams that play football and basketball, respectively. Both have attracted sponsors willing to pay to weave their brands into plot lines; among them are Applebee’s restaurants, Cingular Wireless and Secret deodorant.
“We’ve spent more than 30 years building our relationships with customers,” said Jeff Webb, chief executive at Varsity Brands in Memphis, which specializes in goods and services for high school cheerleading and dance teams. “In the last 10 years, our programs with consumer marketers have expanded dramatically.”
Companies like Bic, S. C. Johnson & Son, Nike, PepsiCo and Playtex Products work with Varsity Brands, which sends 300 field representatives to high schools across the country to give away product samples and coupons and operates cheerleader camps that draw about 280,000 high school students each year.
“They’re trying to find unique ways to reach the teen audience,” Mr. Webb said of marketers, adding that cheerleaders and other student athletes are especially attractive because “they’re visible, they’re leaders and they’re influential.”
The ardor among advertisers to go back to high school coincides with the rising national attention to junior sports. Examples include the basketball star LeBron James appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was still in high school, coverage of high school sports tournaments and all-star games in mainstream media, and programming on CSTV devoted to “Generation Next” high school football and basketball players (and which colleges might recruit them).
One reason that high school is getting its own chapter in the sports-marketing playbook is the large number of athletically inclined students in grades 9 through 12.
Call them Millennials, Generation Y or baby boom babies, the 7.2 million children who played sports in high school during the 2005-6 school year, as estimated by the National Federation of State High School Associations, represent a target market that has grown 80 percent since the 1971-72 school year.
“We’re seeing sports becoming increasingly important for young girls as more and more of them are being empowered through athletics,” said Lela Coffey, associate North American marketing director for the Tampax brand of feminine hygiene products owned by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati.
Another reason that advertisers are crowding high school gymnasiums is their newfound ability to use the Internet, in the form of social-networking Web sites, to unite what had been diffused audiences.
“Technology allows you for the first time to aggregate small, fragmented communities in one place and try to reach the athletes themselves,” said Brian Bedol, president and chief executive of CSTV Networks. “It’s a very different approach from fan-based college and pro sports.”
The eagerness among marketers to clamber down the sports ladder worries those who are concerned with the intensifying presence of marketing in the American culture.
“Youths are overwhelmed with commercial messages,” said Robert Weissman, managing director at Commercial Alert in Washington, a nonprofit advocacy organization that decries what it considers to be creeping commercialization.
“To the extent possible, schools should be a haven from those pressures,” he added.
Most marketers turning their attention to athletes in high schools already “are linked up with sponsorships at the professional level and the college level,” Mr. Weissman said, “so they get to exploit the kids on the cheap.”
And by sponsoring local teams, advertisers “get the benefit of seeming to be part of the community,” he added, even when they are not.
Needless to say, the companies involved with high school sports describe themselves as sensitive to the potential pitfalls.
“We don’t want to be too intrusive,” said David Birnbaum, chief executive at Takkle in New York, which is owned by investors that include Greycroft Partners and the Wasserman Media Group.
For instance, no ads appear on the takkle.com home page, Mr. Birnbaum said, because “it’s not just about the dollars.”
And although “I’m not going to say we wouldn’t” ever accept sponsors that peddle products like candy or soft drinks, he added, the intent is to run “the ads that the athletes want to see, that speak to their passion and engage them the way they want to be engaged.”
(When Varsity Brands works for PepsiCo, employees distribute Propel Fitness Water to high school cheerleaders rather than soda.)
As Under Armour, the maker of athletic apparel, completes plans for a campaign to begin on July 15, carrying the theme “Team Girl,” the inclusion of high school athletes with their college counterparts is being handled carefully, said Steve Battista, vice president for brand marketing in Baltimore.
Female high school athletes were assembled in focus groups to gather opinions, he added, which led to changes in marketing approaches.
For example, “we’ve had a women’s campaign featuring Heather Mitts, a women’s soccer star, on her own, not with the rest of her team,” Mr. Battista said, “but the girls said they want to see her with her team.”
As CSTV adds MaxPreps to its operations, Mr. Bedol of CSTV said, “often it comes down to judgment calls” when determining how to speak to students younger than the college students.
“We need to be vigilant,” he added, “and make sure we’re responding to the needs of our audience, not just to the needs of our marketers.”
What about going even younger? “I don’t think we’re looking to go into middle school or younger,” Mr. Bedol said.
At the cheerleader camps that Varsity Brands operates, however, Mr. Webb said, about 25,000 students who attend each year are from junior high and middle schools.