Let’s face it, advertising is a necessary evil for sports teams and programs. This is the case whether we are talking about high school, college or professional sports. Heck, my Little League team was even sponsored by a local real estate firm.
As consumers, we’ve all come to expect a certain level of commercialization in sports. On television and radio, we are forced to endure long commercial breaks for live broadcasts. When reading about sports online, the user is often blistered with annoying pop-ups and video ads. Even at live events, sports fans are inundated with digital ads on scoreboards, billboards around stadiums and commercials blared out over speakers.
College sports are no different.
With the ever-increasing need for capital to fund new facilities, rising coaches’ salaries, support staffs, cost of attendance, Olympic sports, etc. additional revenue through advertising is an absolute must. That’s especially the case for a school like Florida State which is at a significant revenue disadvantage compared to many of its competitors. As Warchant.com first documented back in March, the ACC came in dead last among Power Five conferences for distributions made to member schools for 2015-16. The Big 10 received approximately $15 million more per school and the SEC approximately $10 million for this period, and the prospects for the next year or two don’t look much better.
Like many schools, Florida State has released its athletic marketing rights to a third party in exchange for a fixed revenue stream. That third party, IMG, has served as FSU’s “marketing arm” since 2007. One university source told me the school currently receives in excess of $7 million per year from this agreement. That’s much-needed revenue for the athletic program and having a steady stream of income greatly assists the department with budgeting.
While allowing IMG to erect ads in and around sports arenas, run the radio network, sell promotions and so on, is clearly beneficial to the bottom line, where do you draw the line?
The first signs that IMG might be stepping over this line took place during the construction of the large scoreboard on north end of Doak Campbell Stadium last summer. Advertisements for a credit union and a car dealership appeared prominently on the back of the scoreboard. These ads drew a moderate amount of ire from Seminole fans on the Warchant.com message boards and social media.
Once the season got underway, it quickly became apparent that the ad barrage wasn’t limited to the back of the scoreboard. During football games, large portions of the front were dedicated to paying sponsors instead of showing full-sized video replays or giving score updates from other games. The 12 ribbon boards within the stadium are now almost exclusively used for advertising and loud commercials are commonplace during timeouts.
The increase in advertising wasn’t just in and around Doak Campbell Stadium. When basketball season tipped-off, the large FSU logo underneath the center court scoreboard was replaced with a commercial sponsor.
— Warchant.com (@Warchant) November 15, 2016
The influx of ads last year gave you the feeling that FSU had reached a precipice in striking a balance between the sanctity of its college sports and the need for increased advertising. The recent gaudy ads unveiled on the back of south end zone scoreboard, which are clearly visible behind the Unconquered Statue, have altered this feeling. There’s little doubt now that FSU has stepped over the precipice and is quickly falling down a slippery slope. Unlike the north end zone scoreboard, or the various ads around Doak Campbell or the Tucker Center, this is the first time that an advertisement is clearly more prominent compared to accompanying Florida State logos or photos.
*ALSO SEE: More details on the Doak advertisements, the process that led to them being sold, and more info on FSU's deal with marketing partner IMG.
There may come a time when college sports follows the path of NASCAR with sponsor logos plastered all over player uniforms, when it’s commonplace for iconic college stadiums to have corporate names, and when student bands are reduced to playing commercial jingles instead of the school’s fight song. However, we aren’t there just yet and this isn’t an area where FSU needs to be at the forefront of change.
Sponsorship logos and ads are prevalent at many college stadiums and some even place them on the back of scoreboards such as Oklahoma and N.C. State. Nevertheless, you’ll have a hard time finding another Power Five college stadium with as many displayed ads or with a scoreboard so dedicated to promoting corporate sponsors as Doak Campbell. It’s easy to conclude that this is simply a function of FSU needing more of a boost because of the financial disadvantage of being in the ACC. However, fellow ACC member Clemson is also an IMG partner but has a fraction the number of ads in and around Memorial Stadium.
It’s easy to direct your angst at IMG, but the multi-billion-dollar company is simply doing what it can to maximize its investment. On the other hand, Florida State’s administration has a responsibility to keep IMG in check and balance the need for advertising against college tradition and pageantry. That clearly wasn’t done with the most recent additions to the south end zone scoreboard. But as Ira Schoffel first reported in Thursday’s story, FSU is reevaluating these ads and will hopefully come up with a less obtrusive alternative such as the one suggested by a poster on the Tribal Council.
Hopefully, FSU will take a step back from this advertising tipping point and will leave it to somebody else to become the leader in the commercialization of college sports.