The first year of the Atlanta Sports Council's mission to put a polish on college basketball's Naismith Trophy culminates tonight, when, for the first time, the award presentation will be shown on national TV during the NCAA championship game's halftime.
Getting on TV is part of the ASC's five-year marketing plan to elevate the status of the Naismith to the level of its better-known, more tradition-steeped counterpart in football, the Heisman Trophy. (The award was given Sunday, and the presentation was taped for telecast.)
The Naismith, awarded to the top player in mens' and women's basketball, was started by the Atlanta Tipoff Club in 1968; it has lacked corporate sponsorship, which is deemed necessary in marketing sports trophies. (The Heisman has been sponsored by Suzuki since 1999.)
The ASC, upon acquiring rights to the 37-year-old trophy from the Tipoff Club last August, immediately sought to remedy that, and quickly signed Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless to a five-year deal that attaches its name to the Naismith. Cingular didn't pay much—less than six figures a year, sources said. In contrast, the Heisman costs Suzuki more than $1 million per year, a Heisman rep said.
Cingular is one of the three top sponsors of NCAA sports, along with Coca-Cola and General Motors, and the company buys a package deal that gives it airtime during tournament broadcasts. It used some of that time to allow its customers to use text messaging to cast 25 percent of the vote for the winner of the Naismith Trophy. (The Heisman, on the other hand, is voted on by media and former winners; in 2004, 923 ballots were cast. In addition, since 1999 one fan has been allowed to vote.)
Trying to match the success of the Heisman, which goes back to 1935 and gets a huge amount of press during the college football season, will be difficult, said William Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report newsletter. "The Atlanta Sports Council obviously has a challenge," Chipps said. "They wouldn't have a chance without a corporate partner like Cingular, but it's been proven that these partnerships can work."
Sponsorships in college sports are a growing business, according to research by IEG, a Chicago company that studies the topic. Companies will spend a combined total of $415 million on sponsorships this year, up 9.2 percent from the $380 million they spent last year, according IEG.
Cingular would not comment on future years, but did say its first year of sponsorship met expectations, and that it plans to meet with the ASC in June to evaluate the program. The company is also negotiating with the NCAA for a continuation of its three-year deal to be a primary sponsor. Suzuki's deal with the Heisman is also up this year, and the trophy is looking for a new sponsor, the Heisman rep said.
The ASC plans to continue pushing the award as a means to raise the city's profile in the sports community, and figures it got as much as $10 million worth of publicity by sponsoring the Naismith, said Gary Stokan, president of the ASC. In addition to regular on-air mentions, Cingular incorporated the Naismith into a tour of 10 college campuses during the tournament.
"It wasn't a difficult decision at all," said Dave Garver, Cingular's executive director of national marketing and sponsorships, of the decision to sponsor. "It allows us to interact with fans—a marketing tactic we believe in."
Stokan is convinced his group's trophy will one day be the subject of national attention. "The Naismith was a diamond in the rough just waiting to be marketed," he said.