Naming Opportunities for Athletics: 4 Tips

Because the marketplace for public arenas and sports stadiums is now saturated with corporate namings and sponsorships, many corporations are turning increasingly to the higher education sector for naming opportunities. At the same time, many athletics departments in higher education are striving to become more entrepreneurial, particularly at institutions that have recently cut athletics budgets to preserve funding for academic programs. Yet often athletics directors focus almost solely on fundraising, neglecting the growing marketplace for athletics sponsorships.

Though sponsorships are usually far smaller in dollar amount than philanthropic naming gifts, it's important to realize that:

  • Because sponsorship agreements are typically 5-10 year fixed-term agreements, rather than "in perpetuity" (like many philanthropic gifts), there will be more frequent opportunities to secure them
  • The corporate sector is eager to seek out such agreements
  • A sponsorship agreement, even given the relatively small dollar amount, can open the door for a long-term relationship with that corporate sponsor, leading to other and larger sponsorships or even corporate gifts later

"More corporations are seeing the value of aligning themselves with like institutions to build awareness of their brand. These opportunities deserve more than a cursory glance."
Vincent Duckworth, Duckworth & Associates

We turned to Vincent Duckworth, founder and principal of Duckworth & Associates, to learn more about how institutions can take advantage of this changing marketplace. Duckworth offers these four tips.

Tip 1: Do You Have a Naming Policy for Your Athletics Naming Opportunities?

Duckworth advises that your naming policy needs to provide guidelines around:

  • What kind of corporate sponsors the institution is seeking
  • What kind of naming opportunities exist
  • Length of term for sponsorship agreements

This policy needs to be transparent and publically available. This ensures both that corporate sponsors can find you -- and that you can communicate your expectations clearly to your own constituents. If names for practice facilities and weight rooms are going to change over time, this needs to be clear up front, rather than coming as a surprise later to those loyal alumni who remember their time in those facilities fondly.

Tip 2: Don't Just List High-Level Opportunities

"Those institutions that publically list sponsored naming opportunities," Duckworth cautions, "usually list only opportunities at a high dollar amount. You need to develop a broad range of opportunities for sponsorship, just as you would with philanthropic opportunities. If I'm a corporate entity that wants to be involved with a college, and that college only lists $10 million opportunities, but I only have a $200,000 budget for this, that doesn't help me."

Listing a broad range of opportunities (for example, from $10,000 to $20 million) allows you to be accessible to a greater quantity of sponsors. For example, perhaps you list a weight training room at a few hundred thousand dollars, and a seminar room is a $10,000 opportunity. But if you have five seminar rooms, then you have the opportunity to establish relationships with five corporate sponsors.

"The sponsorship value may be less than you can get for philanthropy. That doesn't mean jump right to philanthropy. Sponsorship is well-understood in the corporate sector, and so it is likely to be the first conversation with a corporate entity."
Vincent Duckworth, Duckworth & Associates

Tip 3: Don't Attach all Naming Opportunities to Dollars

"Don't always name athletics facilities just for the dollars," Duckworth advises. "You can get a lot of brand recognition that can help you later when seeking sponsorship and philanthropic gifts. Name some spaces just because you should." Duckworth cites the example of a high school that named a practice field for a former student who was killed in Iraq. While that practice field was then no longer available as a naming opportunity, the naming communicated a powerful message about the school -- that they care for their community and their students. When the school approaches corporate sponsors and donors later, this is likely to be remembered.

Tip 4: Treat the Sponsorship as a Relationship, Not Just a Transaction

""Activation" of a sponsorship is rarely treated with the care and attention as stewardship of a gift. A naming gift of millions of dollars for a facility is stewarded, but we treat the relationship with a corporate sponsor as transactional. While a sponsorship is transactional, managing it on only that level limits the chance of renewal."
Vincent Duckworth, Duckworth & Associates

Duckworth advises activating a sponsorship and stewarding the relationship with a corporate sponsor by holding regular and "opportunistic" conversations about the institution's values and goals and the corporate entity's goals and strategic focus. Ideally, the institution should take the lead in holding quarterly meetings with the sponsor. Then, at an annual review meeting, check in on:

  • Have there been changes to the corporate sponsor's strategy and short-term initiatives?
  • Are these initiatives still aligned with the institution's goals and values? If yes, what opportunities may there be to work together?

For example, maybe over the next year the corporate entity will be prioritizing recruiting. There may be an opportunity to build a deeper relationship with them by finding opportunities to grow awareness of the company among your institution's students, parents, and alumni. Maybe there is potential for collaboration with career services. Maybe the corporate entity would be interested in offering a scholarship.

"Like a fire, this relationship needs to be tended," Duckworth concludes. "The activation of that sponsorship needs to be actively pursued, year to year. Don't miss the potential of an ongoing relationship. And remember that the leadership for that relationship has to come from the receiving institution."

An Additional Training Resource: Nuts & Bolts of an Effective Naming Policy

Register online now to learn how to develop a naming policy appropriate for your institution. Utilizing real examples from American and Canadian institutions, participants will learn the fundamentals of:

  • Differentiating among policies for different naming opportunities
  • Calculating space values
  • Procuring board approval
  • Marketing available opportunities
  • De-naming and naming length considerations

Learn more here.