Twenty years from now, the most powerful person within an NCAA athletic program will no longer be the head coach. Instead, it will be the individual in charge of managing and building the program’s brand.
Having worked with countless NCAA head coaches and athletic directors through the years, it’s clear that there’s one thing on a university’s mind when it comes to building a successful athletic program: recruiting. From UCLA to Louisville or Michigan to Texas A&M, every conversation we have with athletic departments starts and finishes with recruiting.
Blue-chip athletes are choosing schools for different reasons than they did 20 years ago. No longer is recruiting solely dependent on your win-loss record, nor is it dependent on having a big-name coach.
Today, recruiting comes down to the strength of your brand. What makes your program different from the rest of the country, and why should an 18-year-old pack up his or her life and move to your city?
The days of traditional college sports are over. It’s not about Xs and Os. It’s the battle off the field, court, and diamond that matters most. Today, college sports are about polarizing uniforms and massive billboards in New York City. It’s about the school logo and what it stands for. When someone looks at that red Nebraska N on the side of a football helmet, what do they think? It’s the perceptions that come with those brand marks that dictate recruiting success, which ultimately leads to team victories.
This simple game takes three things: One is knowing the power of perception and using it to your school’s advantage. Perception is reality in the eyes of potential recruits. If your logo doesn’t make them look and feel cool, you’re not in the conversation.
Second, establish a positioning statement or story that differentiates your program from the competition. You can’t rely on your win-loss record every year to attract your next generation of athletes. Your unique brand position will always be your fallback, good season or bad.
And finally, scream your story from above. It’s all about consistency and frequency. Tell recruits what makes your program different, and tell them often.
Perception is what college athletic departments are built on. It’s the foundation. What people think about a university or athletic program dictates success because college teams with the worst record one year don’t have the luxury of acquiring the number one draft choice the following year.
Blue-chip high school athletes hold all the cards, and they’re choosing between brands. Today, defenses win games. Brands win championships.