Monday, 29 September 2014

This sporting life

I noticed that a couple of 'my' teams are sponsored by universities.  Ospreys by Swansea University (and also by Neath Post Talbot College); the Cardiff Devils by Cardiff Metropolitan University. And a client I'm currently working with sponsors Ealing Trailfinders RFC. Some universities evidently see a benefit in a connection with sport.

Student sport also matters. I confess that this only became clear to me some way into my career in universities - as a student the closest we got to sport was avoiding the Three Tuns when the Athletics Union were there. It just made for an easier life. But some universities make sport a big part of their student offer, and gain considerable kudos (witness Loughborough's continued pleasure at their students' performance in commonwealth games. They'd be almost as good as Yorkshire if they were both allowed to enter independently.)

(Sponsored by Swansea University. Disturbingly!)

So what's going on? We clearly aren't heading for US-like community engagement with university sport. Excepting the Oxbridge boat race, which is an institution, student sport only rarely gets coverage outside of the universities concerned. You don't get 30,000 people turning out to see the university side take on another university.  

I see it as basically about marketing, but there are some benefits for the students too.

Some universities sponsor sports teams to reinforce a local brand. I remember hearing one VC talk about his university's sponsorship of the local League Two football club. Objectively, this wasn't as strong a sporting side as the town's rugby or cricket clubs (supporters of the club in question may think I'm talking cobblers...). So the sponsorship wasn't about association with a successful brand. But the football club had a much stronger appeal amongst the local community, so sponsorship helped cement the idea that the university, like the football club, was a local institution for local people. Great for breaking down barriers to participation. 

For some universities sponsorship works to help make relationships. A box at a sports ground gives somewhere to entertain guests of the university, and like it or not, entertaining is a necessary activity for a university. Engendering goodwill matters. And here the quality of the entertainment is clearly a factor: the better, or more recognised, the team, the better a box at the ground will be. This is one of the ways that a premiership club can be a real asset for the town or city in which it is based.

There's also an element which is about the facilities provided to students. If studying at the university can be associated with great facilities for sport (and the opportunity to try new sports) then it might just be the factor which sways an applicant's decision. And the benefit is no doubt real to the students who take part, forging friendships and helping them to find a part of their character which perhaps they didn't know about. That's what university is meant to be about, isn't it?

These identifies can run deep. When Imperial left the University of London, a significant issue to address was whether its medics could continue to play in the London medics leagues. People can give a lifelong loyalty to a particular university sports club, and attempts to change anything can run into resistance: witness the campaign to maintain Cardiff Medics teams within the BUCS structures, which featured national petitions and press coverage.

So sport can't be ignored. But it also highlights a problem for universities: sport speaks to a particular group of students - 'traditional' full-time undergraduates. It's been a long time since this was the only type of student. How do you find something that can appeal to all?

Until this question is answered, expect to see more university logos on shirts, on hoardings and in programmes at sports grounds. The one thing that sports and universities have in common are league tables, and they're not going away any time soon.

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