College sports, and college football in particular, have exploded their mass appeal in recent years, with a reach that now extends far beyond the local campus fan base. When ESPN covered the final Bowl Championship Series telecast between Florida State and Auburn, the game became the third most-viewed and highest-rated program in cable television history. While ESPN’s prime audience represents largely male viewers between the ages of 18 and 34, they are also affluent and particularly well-educated sports fans, with over 87 percent of them either currently attending college or having graduated from a college or university. College and sport have always made a good partnership and, increasingly, the place where that connection is being made is at the college bookstore.
The connection between sports teams and the colleges they represent has always been an essential component in the relationship Barnes & Noble College enjoys with its campus partners. “We’re continually looking to improve and expand the ways that the college bookstore can help support the school spirit and athletic mission of our campus partners,” says Barnes & Noble Colleges’ Consumer Marketing Project Manager, Carol Pinto, “and when we were building our athletic strategy this year, we really wanted to create something our students could get excited about,” she explains.
While campus stores have always championed their schools’ teams, the emphasis for this season was on supporting the fan and capturing the excitement of the college sports experience from their perspective. “We really wanted to find new ways of communicating and engaging fans on campus, and capturing that sense of game-day excitement,” Pinto explains, “We wanted to help show them their bookstore was just as committed to their school team as they are.”
Barnes & Noble College tracks the use of the hashtag #truefan on social media, and then contacts those #truefan posters with the opportunity to feature them on the bookstore website. “The TrueFan campaign is just another way to reach college sports fans, to help them both communicate and also engage in the celebration of game day,” Pinto says.
Someone who sees plenty of that kind of excitement every day in her campus store — especially now that her school’s football team is currently undefeated and ranked #1 in the nation — is Cecelia ‘Cecy’ Brooks, Store Manager at the Barnes & Noble at Mississippi State University. “We’re located just across from the Davis Wade Football Stadium, so the store is always a focal point for game-day fever,” she says, adding that the bookstore also manages two more outlets within the stadium and a trailer to provide on-site merchandising and gifts for the Bulldog fans. Come game day, Brook’s store is packed with fans looking for anything from school spirit wear to that last minute forgotten tail-gate item; while the store’s full-service café is also ready with grab-and-go snacks.
Notably, the best-selling item in the store is cowbells – a unique symbol of Mississippi State University (MSU) tradition since the late 1930s, along with other MSU souvenir items including everything from seat cushions to side panels. In Barnes & Noble College stores across the country, Pinto points to an equally wide range of gifts and merchandise encompassing tail-gate and spirit wear to teddy bears and tutus, to capture an entire fan experience. “We’ve also designed a dedicated in-store sign package that creates an eye-catching focal point in our stores, and a place for True Fans to find everything they need to fully experience and enjoy game day,” she notes.
If the range of fan merchandise is impressive at the MSU store, the level of service is remarkable, too. “Of the 60,000 people that come to the stadium on Game Day, we get to see more than half of those fans,” admits Brooks, who would be the last to complain about her store swarming with fan activity. “It’s a high for all of us to work Game Day,” she says, “The staff are all running registers, helping customers or restocking the floor, but a customer that comes in on Game Day is always a happy customer — happy to be here and happy to support their team with their MSU gear. Mississippi State doesn’t just have fans — we are a family.”
It’s a point Barnes & Noble College’s Pinto understands fully. “After all,” she reasons, “we’re fans too. We have the same passion for the game as our students — and we’re really excited to be part of it.”