Before the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma, who’d you think was going to win, truthfully? There aren’t many people out there who would have picked Boise State, despite the fact that they were ranked No. 9, only two spots behind No. 7 Oklahoma. The reason? Oklahoma is in the Big 12 and has a storied history, while Boise State played in the Western Athletic Conference on blue turf. The Broncos were seen as a gimmick, nothing more. That perception remained intact after the game, despite Boise State’s landmark victory over the Sooners.
This article is excerpted from Brands Win Championships by Jeremy Darlow. For more info, visit BrandsWinChampionships.comPerception doesn’t win games, but it does win recruiting battles. The following year, Oklahoma didn’t lose to Boise State in the recruiting war, despite the Broncos’ victory on the field. It’s hard to break free of people’s perception of you; it takes time and a lot of effort.
In the five years after the Broncos beat the Sooners, Boise State’s recruiting rankings (according to Rivals.com) were as follows:
- 2007: #68
- 2008: #89
- 2009: #72
- 2010: #82
- 2011: #53
In those same seasons, the Broncos finished, ranked in the top 15 four times, with one top-five and two top-10 finishes.
Winning is important to your long-term success as a program, but it’s not enough to just win. You need to win and “be sexy” while you’re doing it. You need to build a brand that kids want to be a part of. Those kids are your potential recruits. What makes a kid want to wear your badge?
Build Your Brand Before You Build A New Stadium
Below is the first of two charts that will go a long way in providing you with a roadmap to building a successful program, and—surprise!—perception is the key to each. The following is a visual representation of what I call the Athletic Program Life Cycle.
The Athletic Program Life Cycle has four stages: perception, recruiting, winning, and money.
What is clear is that each of the pieces is extremely important and yet dependent on one another. Before we move on, ask yourself the following:
- Can a program successfully recruit when people have the perception of it being a doormat or that of a weaker program? Not likely.
- Can a program win a national championship with poor recruiting classes? If the program is lucky enough to land an incredible coach, maybe; but again, it’s not likely.
- Can a program expect boosters to pour money into a consistently losing program? The cycle usually goes: win and the dollars will follow, not the other way around.
If you are not a traditional athletic power, the future would seem dire, according to the answers to these questions; however, that is where the power of perception comes in!
Take a look back at the life cycle. Which of those four stages do you think is the most easily influenced? If you said perception, I would absolutely agree with you. Let’s break down each stage in the life cycle, starting with recruiting. Imagine for a moment that you are an athletic director trying to turn around a losing program or increase the reach of a successful program. Let’s dissect what kind of impact you can have on each of the building blocks as you try to increase the stature and success of your team.
Unfortunately, recruiting success is not elastic. In most cases, if a program is not winning, it takes a coaching change or a major investment in facilities to turn around underperforming recruiting efforts. One successful year usually does not lead to a major upswing in recruiting. The same can be said for already strong programs looking to reach elite status. It takes years of success to create relationships and recruiting pipelines. Difficulty to Affect: Hard
If you can’t recruit to the level of your competition, chances are you can’t consistently win against that competition. It becomes a brutal cycle that is very hard to break.
Difficulty to Affect: Hard
In most cases if a program is not winning, boosters will not be lining up at the athletic director’s door to throw money at it. The further away from the top your program is in the standings, the further you push away potential boosters. Difficulty to Affect: Hard
The beautiful thing about perception is that it is elastic. It can be affected at any moment, no matter the situation. It is also the first domino to fall when attempting to increase the success of a program. By changing perception through a strategic, tactical story, you can immediately improve your chances of recruiting and winning, as well as the amount of money brought in by boosters. Difficulty to Affect: Easy
So the cycle begins. Perception dictates the level of talent considering playing for a school; better recruits provide an improved chance of winning; successful programs garner more money from boosters; money leads to the top-rate facilities that ultimately feed back through to the perception of a big-time program. Full circle. Bottom line: Start with perception. Of the four stages, perception is the most dynamic and the most malleable.
Jeremy Darlow is a brand marketing pro who, during his time at adidas, has worked with schools like Notre Dame, Michigan, and UCLA, and athletes like Jimmy Graham, Dwight Howard, and Lionel Messi. He works to help NCAA athletic programs and athletes build and elevate their brands to elite levels. In 10 years, the most consistently successful college athletic programs will be those with the strongest brands, not simply the strongest defense or most explosive offense from year to year. It’s not just about Xs and Os anymore. It’s about polarizing uniforms on the field and massive billboards in Times Square. It’s about making your brand sexy to 17- and 18-year-old blue-chip athletes. Brands Win Championships is your guidebook on how to reach them. Inside, you’ll find three simple brand-building steps that can take your program from bad to good or from good to great.
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