Whether it’s football, basketball, Division I or Division III, NCAA or NAIA, it seems we just can’t get enough of college athletics. And if you ever doubted its popularity, a Harris Interactive poll reveals that around 45 percent of us now regularly follow college sports. Some 29 million fans have also attended a college sports event, and cheering for our school at a home game on a crisp fall afternoon has, for some, become the stuff of family tradition.
It’s a bright spot in higher education, where rising costs, concerns about enrollment and student retention have become a concern for some colleges. With athletics programs representing a multibillion dollar industry, it’s hardly surprising that the business of college sports is integrally linked to the school’s marketing and reputation — and it’s here where the campus bookstore is now playing an increasingly vital supporting role.
Exclusively College Sports Merchandise
Launched as a pilot with five schools last year, the popularity of the Barnes & Noble College ‘True Spirit’ e-commerce sites has been an overwhelming success. While the bookstore has always been a key source of collegiate apparel, this new initiative confirms the company’s commitment to support not only the academic side of the campus partnership, but also support the school’s athletics and alumni as well. “It’s an interest that emerged from the tremendous success of our bookstore sites,” explains Barnes & Noble College Vice President of Stores, Brian Stark. “Students, faculty, staff and general customers love the accessibility and ease of convenience to be able to purchase emblematic college merchandise online — and have their items mailed or picked-up in-store,” he says. ”And when you consider that we have the largest selection and inventory of that school’s athletic branded merchandise day-to-day, this is just a logical extension of our support of our campus partners.”
The move to develop the exclusively athletics websites comes from Barnes & Noble College’s own research, and from the input of sports fans and athletics departments, building an understanding that a solely athletics site could better support the college’s athletics mission. “We play Division I athletics,” points out John Sweeney, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business, and CFO for Providence College. “And we’re, frankly, one of the smaller schools to play in a major conference, but a year ago, there was a great demand when we won the Division I NCAA National Championship in hockey. We’ve made it to NCAA tournaments in a number of other sports as well, so we wanted to look at a different way that we could present and market our athletic apparel,” he says.
Working with Barnes & Noble College marketing and store design teams, Providence College was able to not only develop a more exciting showcase for team athletic apparel at the bookstore, but also extend that reach to a wider audience. “It goes beyond the physical impact of the store to how we want to serve our alumni all over the country — and all over the world — reaching them with our name, our logo and brand.”
Providence College isn’t alone in that goal. The new initiative has proved successful for all types of schools, and since its inception last year, has now grown at a pace of five new sites per week. Included in its roster are some of the top collegiate sports names including the University of South Florida, University of Kentucky, University of Central Florida, Florida International University, University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina Charlotte, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Tulane University, to name but a few.
The Larger Mission of College Sports
Athletics are increasingly becoming a way to help build the reputation and branding of a college, to increase revenues and maintain loyalty to an all-important alumni base, but the True Spirit sites are also designed to help with recruitment and enrollment, help foster school spirit, and capture the excitement of collegiate sports. “For our campus partners, this channel is another opportunity to expand their support beyond just the game of football or basketball,” Stark point out. “We can support all sports — whatever is important to meet the goals of that specific campus,” he says.
From Game Day to Selection Sunday, from football to softball, the new sites excel at not just supporting hot market events, but communicating the long-term athletic goals of the institution. As Providence College’s Sweeney points out, “Selling athletic apparel is a much larger mission that just the dollars and cents — it’s about getting your name and your brand out there to the widest possible audience and in a way that people understand.”