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Brand Case Study: The NCAA

Bo Bothe, Jeff Lane, Chris Wilks


Solving for B°
Brand Case Study: The NCAA

If you're a sports fan, you're no doubt familiar with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (or the NCAA), the preeminent governing body of American collegiate athletics since its founding in 1906. Its stated purpose is to protect amateur athletes and protect the integrity of collegiate athletics. But with public scrunity at peak levels, how well does the organization fulfill its purpose?

In this episode of Solving for B°, CEO Bo Bothe and Senior Writer Jeff Lane dissect the NCAA brand and analyze its current standing in the market. We'll also discuss how recent negative events may impact the brand and their membership going forward.

Read the Transcript

Student-athlete deciding between a stack of books and a soccer ball.

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

The Scope of the NCAA's Responsibilities

Chris: Today we'll be talking about the NCAA. They've been in the news in recent months for reasons that most organizations would not want to be in the news. There have been FBI investigations, endless debates about paying players and even talks of boycotting the Final Four.

According to their own website, the NCAA is a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes. The main functions of the organization are to interpret and support members through legislation, run all championships and manage programs that benefit student-athletes.

So my first question is, how do you think the NCAA's doing when we judge them against their stated purpose?

Bo: The challenge here is perception versus their stated purpose. I think many people don't understand what the NCAA is, so I'm going to be the lone voice in the wilderness and say that I think they're doing a great job.

It is almost impossible to control an organization that manages over a thousand different cultures: each university, each sport, each coach and each athlete. When you start to layer those things, and the expectations of the kids and the parents, you realize that the administration can’t have control over that.

Their job is to provide rules that level the playing field as much as possible. I think, quite frankly, they do a great job. I don't understand how they work or where the money goes… I don't follow all that stuff. But that's not my job. My job is to enjoy college sports and their job is to ensure that these athletes get the most out of their college experience.

Jeff: I was prepared to disagree with you a 100%. As a sports junkie and a lifelong lover of the passion of college sports, the NCAA has always been this big, bureaucratic, mafia-like organization. Anytime anything goes wrong, it's those big bad NCAAs.

If my team gets put on probation, they're awful. And if the rival team doesn't get put on probation, they're awful. It's so easy to beat up on the NCAA. And I think it would probably be a sexier podcast if I argued with you and told you that they were so awful and we got into it. I never thought – in my 50 plus years – I would find myself defending the NCAA. But I feel like a lot of the problems that we have are beyond them.

I think that as flawed as the NCAA is, and it has been, it is because it is so big and it's responsible for so much. It's an easy target for countless groups. And while there are many, many parties that leech off of college sports, none of those parties are willing to admit complicity in either the scandals that have been ongoing or the ones that are in the headlines now. I'm talking about the coaches, the athletes, the alums and the fans who expect so much -- expect unreasonable things from their universities and from their sports teams.

All of that fuels the desire to cut corners or to violate things or to take advantage of any loophole or any opportunity they can. And I think everybody plays a role in that. It isn't just the organization that's supposed to police all of that stuff.

We need to be a little bit fair. If there's something that the NCAA is failing or falling down on, maybe it's that they're not clear enough and open enough about what they actually do and what their challenges are.

Maybe a little bit more needs to be spent on that. Maybe they need a face. And it's not just whoever the president is. There needs to be a persona, because people need to have a better relationship with what the NCAA is and what they do. And, perhaps, there needs to be more participation from all of the aforementioned groups.

The Expanding Complexity of the NCAA

Chris: So, I'll be the voice of Joe Public here and say I think there are some things that they could clean up. In 1906 when the NCAA was founded by Teddy Roosevelt, the purpose was to protect student-athletes from dangerous, exploitive practices.

It could be argued that they're not doing that job with the presence of these nefarious agents lending money to kids and expecting something back if they make it to the next level. And I agree with your point that it's not completely clear what the NCAA does but, are there any particular messages you think get lost or that they should be more vocal about?

Jeff: Well, let's talk a little bit about the enormity of that challenge. That might have been a simple statement back then. But it's way more complicated now: it’s something like 1,100 universities and colleges, 100 conferences and tens of thousands of athletes competing in all of these championships for different level. It is very complicated.

The NCAA basketball tournament, for example – in the ‘70s, I think the NCAA tournament had around 32 teams, now it's 68. And ever year, the selection of those teams for that big tournament is very controversial. There's a lot of lobbying and publicity involved. There’s outcry and conspiracy theories and the NCAA gets beat up when that selection committee chooses this team over that team.

There's so much competition because when teams make the tournament, those universities get money. Kids who make it are in the spotlight, which ultimately helps their future if they're going to play basketball beyond that. So, there's a lot riding on this and I think their original goal is really simple. Maybe they need to revisit that because it needs to be a little bit more complicated. Maybe the NCAA needs to come out and say, “We need help dealing with some of these issues.”

Instead, we just get the same old arguments about universities exploiting kids so they should be allowed to be paid more. Okay, that's a fair statement but what happened to a scholarship? There's a dollar value attributed to that. These are complex problems and we need to tackle them in a productive way.

Bo: Formulating that into a thought around brand: what has the NCAA done, or not done, to help us understand how they help the athlete? At the end of the day, it's not just about supporting the universities and their money-making machines – if that’s even what they are. Because though football may make a lot of money, women's lacrosse doesn't. But the NCAA has made, and helped build, a platform where women and men in sports, other than major sports, can enjoy athletics in an academic environment. And in some cases, maybe even get some scholarship money.

To be honest, full rides aren't that prevalent in sports like college baseball. A lot of those athletes are on quarter rides or half rides, they're not on full scholarship. But I think the assumption people have, going back to communication, is that there are all these scholarships and all this money but the vast majority of these kids, to their commercial statement, "are going to go pro in something else."

The problem is that their message may be too conceptual. Maybe they are too subtle. I think their commercials would be great if everybody understood fully what the NCAA did. And I think that's a trap that people walk into with their brand: they assume that everybody knows their brand.

Even people that don't care about sports know what the NCAA is. They may not understand what it does but they know what it is. I bet you 90% of the big college fans don't really understand the core purpose of the NCAA.

Not only do they not fully understand the mission of the NCAA, but they don't really understand what it's supposed to be doing. So they're running messages that are very targeted and very well done without a full understanding of what the brand is really supposed to stand for.

The problem that this causes is it that it leaves it to the audience's mind to interpret what they're doing. How do you protect a brand if people don't fully understand what you do?

The Perception of the NCAA Brand

Chris: I think some of it comes back to the fact that we want to trust our brands. We want to understand them. Yet, more often than not, you hear about these investigations of these program violations in the NCAA where the NCAA will go away for three years and come back with a punishment. There's no PR involved in it.

The only person I know from the NCAA is the President, and I consider myself a pretty big college sports fan. There are not many other brands that I’m a fan of that I know only one person and that has such minimal PR outreach. There is something there about not appearing transparent. It's like they go behind the curtain, they do their thing for three years, they come out and here's your result.

Jeff: And I bet a lot of what happens isn't in the public eye because they're worried about their perception and their image. But what if they were a little more transparent?

Where do the people who are in these NCAA committees come from? The ones that make decisions and rulings on whether a university is punished, where do they come from? Do they come in off the street or are they members of the universities themselves?

Maybe people need to understand how complicated the process truly is. Then we wouldn’t have a reactionary outcry when the NCAA makes a ruling, our university is punished in some way and we get upset about it, claiming that it's unfair. If things were a little more transparent, we’d be more informed and we’d stop guessing.

Bo: It bears mentioning that in 2017, the NCAA took in a billion dollars. Their net income off of that and their surplus from that ranges anywhere from $44 million to $80 million. That's a lot of money. But they're managing 90 different championships across all these universities, across all these different sports. They make a lot of money from a lot of different places.

So, could you beat up the brand a little bit? Could you say, "They made an extra $80 this year, couldn't they hire 20 more people to do compliance work?" Or, "Couldn't they hire another 100 people to do investigations?" But at the end of the day is that what the NCAA is supposed to do?

They're supposed to make the playing field level; they're supposed to provide support for those things. But shouldn't the university really be policing themselves, too? I'm not beating up the universities, but where is the line?

From a branding standpoint, if you're not specific about what you do and what you don't do, and you’re a brand that makes that much money, already a significant percent of the population is not going to trust you.

That said, when your executive’s making millions of dollars, it comes down to corporate trust.

How does that affect the brand? Is it worth it? These are societal arguments and discussions that we're having here but again, do people really understand fully the value of the brand in the marketplace? What if it weren't there? That's the other question.

Jeff: Going back to those commercials that they do where they show student-athletes talking about what they get out of these sports and what it gives them... I wonder if the media-buys for those commercials are big enough. We don't see them all the time, only occasionally. But I'm wondering if there isn't a bigger message – that we're all in this together, maybe.

I'm wondering if the NCAA can come out, whether through commercials or social media with a message that outlines and humanizes the things they do for students and student-athletes. There might also be a message to the fans and the alums out there saying, “Would you like to help make this thing better? Then pick up a shovel, let's go.”

Maybe there needs to be a little bit more of that because we are all in this together. Whether we're a fan, an athlete, a coach, an alum or a sponsor hoping to make money off the whole thing. And given all of that, how is the NCAA supposed to police all of that?

Let's let people really know what we're up against and what we do and then invite more people to participate. That way it won’t be a combative narrative.

NCAA Brand Associations

Bo: Back to their brand: What does it stand for? What do we perceive it to stand for? And then co-branding, right? That's the other piece to this. Right now their brand association is with universities, which are getting beat up. College costs are skyrocketing.

Jeff:  Politicians are saying, “Hey what's the value of education anymore?”

Bo: Right. And they don't have control over that discussion. So they need to manage their own discussion. When we first started this company, we always talked about the fact that you don't own your brand, you manage it. Technically, legally you own it.

But the minute that someone on SB Nation or Huffington Post decides to take ownership of your brand and say something, how will your brand hold up? How much negative sentiment have you allowed to build up because you haven't addressed it? How much have you worked to communicate and help someone understand the value of your organization? What are you doing now to manage your brand in the future?

Jeff was talking about the TV commercials earlier. Look at GEICO and how they hit different audiences with funny and serious ads, trying different things. They have three different types of campaigns running at any one time. That allows them to talk to their audiences in different ways. You've got parents, kids and general sports fans. How's the NCAA managing me as a parent of a high school student that might like to play college basketball? They aren't at all. Other than having to go to through the Clearinghouse because I'm coaching a basketball team, I don't have any interaction with them.

The student athlete that's moving forward, their only interaction is because they have to. And then when you're at school, they work with you in different ways to coach you on who you can and can't talk to, but that’s pushed down to the university level and an NCAA representative.

It comes back to: What infrastructure do you need to have to support your brand, story and message? What kind of budget do you have to have to be able to share that? 

Chris: The perception is that they net $100 million a year. But when we go back to talking about punishments that they dole out to universities, it feels somewhat inconsistent. It doesn't feel like it's the way that a $1 billion organization should make these decisions.

The pereception of that non-standardization of punishment creates probelms. A certain kid receives this funding and he's suspended for the year as opposed to another kid who receives this funding and he pays back $40 and he's allowed to play in an NCAA tournament. That disparity makes me wonder, who's really running this show? And is it really worthy of a $100 million net profit a year?

Bo: It also invites the question, "Is this pandering to the 'haves' versus the 'have-nots'?"

Chris: Right. It goes back to more transparency in those processes. If we were consulting with the NCAA, we would probably encourage more transparency in decision-making.

Core Values of the NCAA

Chris: Let’s talk about core values. They list seven on their website, with a couple that feel a little bit redundant.

The first one is commitment to the collegiate model of athletics that expresses values of balancing academic and athletic responsibilities and supporting the role of intercollegiate athletics.

This might be part of why the general public has a disdain for the NCAA in some instances. Amateurism is at the heart of everything that they do but a lot of critics would say, “Wait, wait. You're making sure that these people stay amateurs while you profit $100 million?” Do we think that this value hurts? Helps? Is it neutral to what the NCAA is trying to accomplish?

Jeff: If we're just looking at dollars, yeah. The NCAA can promote a sporting event and use footage of all these great athletes so that people will watch and buy that time while the athletes don’t make any money on that, which seems unfair.

But on the other hand, what is the value of a scholarship? The athletes that are coming in – are they really looking at the value of the scholarship? They might be using the university as a stepping stone, and now you've got coaches who are under pressure to win saying, “Okay, well, if that's what I'm up against, I'm going to go with that and run with it the best I can.” And then you're trying to put fixes on fixes now.

We've allowed coaches to use smaller jobs as a stepping stone to larger jobs. And while it is understandable that they want to climb the ladder, one’s got to think, “What happens when someone takes a job and is there for a year and then jumps to the next one?” The university has to start all over again.

At the same time, there is so much pressure on the university and the coaches. Everybody on the outside has these demands and expectations, and they all want to paint themselves as victims. The NCAA is supposed to somehow manage that and make rules that can control it all. But I don't know how they're supposed to be able to do that. They may need to revisit their values. Maybe they need to rethink their approach.

Bo: I agree. Looking back at the values – if their goal is to protect the student-athlete, are four freshmen who go to Duke, and who are all one-and-done kind of guys, really student-athletes? Look at Byron Hanspard, for eaxmple, who played in the Alamo Bowl his senior year. Now, he did go four years and won some awards, but when his team lost to Iowa in the Alamo Bowl, it turned out he had a zero GPA. That's the failure of the institution, right?

The NCAA says – the last of its core values – “Presidential leadership.” They'll support the presidential leadership of intercollegiate athletics at the campus, conference and national levels. They are saying, “We are going to trust you. Our job is to help fund and facilitate this working to give you a set of rules for the common good to work within, but your university needs to police this.”

Now we're starting to see more of that. For example, the scandal at Baylor or what happened at Penn State.  University Presidents are being held responsible for these situations, the NCAA not quite as much. It’s respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences.

The NCCA brand is associated with 1,600 or so completely different brands. And part of their mission is respecting that difference. It's not like we can give to the United Way every year and everybody knows about the United Way. It's like giving to 500 different charities and everybody that associates your brand knows you through that charity.

Both inclusive culture and supporting the role in intercollegiate athletics plays are two awesome values. And I think they have done an amazing job with Title IX, with making sure that people that wouldn't normally have access to that level of athletic play get access to it.

The WNBA would not exist if the NCAA hadn't protected women's college basketball. Jeff and I have had these conversations about why it’s fun to watch women play. Basically, they play a pure level of basketball in a more team-oriented and joyous game.

And then you can extend that out to the kids that wouldn't otherwise have an opportunity to go to college in pursuit of excellence in both academic and athletics.

Looking back at that core value, 'supporting the collegiate model of athletics.' By allowing some of the things that they allow, like one-and-done, is that really helping the student-athlete? And do they have control over that? 

The perception is that the NCAA doesn't have any teeth in what they’re investing in. They're making all this money and nothing's happening. Or they're inconsistent. The consistency of your brand and the standards that you hold are paramount. Especially in this. In a chaotic world of millions of different disparate factors and beliefs that you're trying to manage, you at least need to be consistent.

Chris: In a previous episode of the podcast, Dr. Vikas Mittal said that the most important thing to creating brand insulation and creating brand advocates is consistent delivery. If you're going to be mediocre at what you do, always be mediocre. Consistently be mediocre. If you're going to be great, always be great. That's what breeds brand loyalty and insulation. And that's what I think NCAA is missing as much as anything.

I think that's a good place to stop for today. Thanks for stopping in and thanks for your insight. We'll see you next time.