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Whelan: Colorado Basketball’s marketing an institutional failure

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Sift through the fodder of popular message boards and what you’ll find is a fan base deeply dedicated to the daily happenings surrounding Colorado athletics. Many of those who make their way to these boards, or even pages like this, count themselves among the athletic department’s top donors—more than dedicated, yes invested, fans.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, how many of them can name, off the top of their heads, each member of the Colorado men’s basketball roster? How many of them, similarly, can name each of the staff members and their roles? They’ll know the head coach, Tad Boyle, but I’d guess that a fraction of them could identify everyone in the program, even fewer going so far as knowing their specific job. That ain’t a problem when talking Colorado Football, where everyone from graduate assistants to specialist consultants are identified and often memorized their first day on the job.

See, Boyle’s team might be suffering from a dismal start to conference play, but this problem goes deeper. The Colorado men’s basketball program is suffering from a branding problem.

I fully understand that, unless a complete paradigm shift happens, basketball will never be as big of a deal as football is, whether that be at Colorado or on a national scale. The numbers to support this don’t lie. Football is, at schools like CU, the bread winner for the AD as a whole, while also demanding the most attention due to its status as a window into the university for the general public. With all of that being said, there was a very clear moment, months before Mike MacIntyre’s program began their magical season, when things felt like they were turning around.

Darrin Chiaverini, fresh on the job at his alma mater, tweeted out a hashtag that became the rallying call of a once proud program. It also became their brand, from t-shirts and player gear to social media trends and a video series by CU Video which aired on Pac-12 Network. It may not have actually been overnight, but the tides turning in favor of The Rise sure felt awful sudden and aligned with a coordinated effort to make social media, and multimedia in general, work for them.

The complete opposite could not be more true for the men’s basketball program.

When Boyle’s program picked up new uniforms from Nike, the kind only perennial (at one point or another) tournament teams are suited up with, only those most clued into the program knew it. Promotion? Little, if any. A hyped up release? El oh el. A few seasons ago, as the excitement surrounding the program was at its peak, a Midnight Madness event was planned, where fans got a chance to see their team go through a light, often showcase-style practice that involves some sort of “fun and games” type of engagement with the crowd. Promotion for the event wasn’t just lackluster, it was nearly invisible. Held after a volleyball contest, and in conjunction with a cheer team practice-performance-no one really knows what, the "event" started late and, by the time it got going, there couldn’t have been 1,000 people in the stands.

It was an institutional failure.

During my junior year of high school in San Francisco, I remember our basketball program was invited to attend such season kick-offs at Cal and USF, both of which had prominent regional hip hop artists performing at some point during the event. It was the first time I'd ever been in the main gym at either school when not playing in a summer tournament. It was brilliant, an orchestrated move by the university to promote their brand, their athletes, their coaches, and to do so in a way that made them cool to younger prospective athletes and students. We've heard a lot of talk out of CU about the new speakers at the Coors Event Center and it being able to host performances in the future. There's one idea, just in case Matt Biggers, Chief Marketing Officer, is reading. The possibilities for events like these and many others are endless, with the majority of options likely costing the university less than hauling in a big name recording artist.

It's clear that new blood was shot into the marketing of Colorado football. It's about time the same happened for hoops.

Some time ago, a source inside of the program told me why they thought the basketball program felt like an afterthought so often. “Football is what makes the money,” they said. “As long as we don’t embarrass anyone, we’re not that important.”

Whether that’s actually true or not is irrelevant. It looks true. Too often, it feels true.

One former player, who wished to remain anonymous, issued what he called, his “plea” to the athletic department when asked about any differences he saw between the way he and his teammates were marketed compared to other sports, namely football.

“The athletic department has done a great job marketing with football and creating excitement around the program,” he said. “If the CU athletic department wants to rival some of the best in the country, then the next step is to increase marketing efforts in other sports. Men’s basketball seems like the next logical step.”

With it being said that the importance of building up the football program’s brand is obvious, whatever efforts from those in charge come to fruition in the future are too late. That former player is right about men’s basketball making sense, but where was the effort when Boyle led a team picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 to the conference’s tournament title?

“Over my four years there was growing hype around our team but I never really saw it on campus or in Boulder,” said former point guard, Nate Tomlinson. “I really think we could have capitalized on the momentum of the team and the stars we had at that time to make a bigger deal about us. I just hope CU can be one of the leaders in this because I think it helps not only with fan engagement but probably the most important thing which is recruiting.”

Tomlinson, and many others have voiced their support for former AD Mike Bohn and his presence around the hoops program. Bohn’s efforts with the C-Unit, Colorado’s student section, was perhaps the most publicly celebrated involvement. Following his dismissal, it was just perks like a paid trip to the conference tournament that disappeared. According to someone involved in the student section’s leadership, simple things like t-shirts and big heads became a rarity after the 2014-15 season.

If the C-Unit truly is the lifeblood of Coors Event Center, as Boyle has so often said, then the outdated arena’s pulse has gone flat on this administration’s watch.

The responsibility falls on the coaching staff as well. While Boyle has repeatedly said that he’s, “not an internet guy,” such a stance is unacceptable in 2017. Being an internet guy, whatever in the hell that actually is, comes with the job. Rodney Billups, who had the most visible presence on social media during his time in Boulder, has embraced Twitter as a branding platform since taking over at Denver.

Developing a brand for your program on social media feels, simply put, obvious. Getting more eyes on your logo, court, players, coaches…all of it makes so much sense that it’s almost silly we’re bringing this up. When things go south like they have since December for this team, a persistent message on a platform like Twitter keeps fans engaged and it controls part of the narrative surrounding the team. It assists in recruiting, as more and more prospects become familiar with what Colorado basketball actually is, and more importantly, who it is.

Whether Boyle or any other staff member, actually runs their own Twitter is beside the point. You don’t like the internet? Assign a graduate assistant to it. Don’t know what a hashtag is? Learn. If I’m a coach at somewhere like Colorado, which has far more disadvantages on a national scale than the majority of programs experiencing their recent success, I’m clawing for every inch of ground I can make up. There would be no rock unturned in my pursuit of finding ways to land more talented recruits, attracting more fans to my games, and building a more sustainable foundation for future growth. Ignoring social media is irresponsible for any coach at the college level.

So, how does this change?

It doesn't happen overnight, to be sure. Campaigns like this one take planning and time, yes, but most of all they take commitment and cohesiveness. Boyle has led CU to four of the six NCAA Tournaments appeared in since 1970 and delivered the program's first conference championship since the days of Russell "Sox" Walseth. He deserves the support of his administration with marketing and branding to fit his program's successes, especially if some of that brings about the realization that his aversion to social media is hurting his program.

There are enough people within the AD being paid enough money to come up with solutions, as evidence by the complete turnaround of how the world viewed the school's flagship program. It is well past time for men's hoops to reap the same benefits.

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