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Athletic sponsorships go forth in period without sport competition

The cancellation of Bradley athletics’ home games and nearly all community engagement efforts due COVID-19 isn’t business as usual for the Bradley Athletic Department’s marketing. The cancellation caused creative activation to take place for each corporate client and new creative content on social media has pushed out during the past few weeks.

Much of this content is sponsored and serves as activation of corporate partner agreements –  financial investments from exterior businesses that support the athletic department in exchange for promotions of sponsors – for the spring sports and events. 

Rocky Vonachen and Matt Russ are employed by Learfield IMG College, a sports marketing company, and are in charge of Bradley’s corporate partnerships. Neither Vonachen, the 25-year veteran of sports marketing, or the young, creative-minded Russ have ever had to change their career plans so drastically.

The duo has been moving agreements to digital spaces and converting public address and video board activations for baseball and softball games to social media posts. After the NCAA and Missouri Valley Conference canceled play, they met with the Bradley communications staff to activate as many sponsorships possible. 

This includes Kaboom! coloring pages, birthday posts presented by Golden Corral, “on this date” throwbacks with corporate logos, a video series of “at-home skills” sponsored by Two-25 restaurant and “top-moments” polls. Other sponsorship activations are constantly being moved upon. 

Luckily for the sports properties duo and Bradley athletics, the Braves’ spring sports have limited large partner agreements that need to be activated. They aren’t missing out on much and will not upset clients.

“Unfortunately, we’re fortunate [in that] we don’t have a lot of activation in spring sports. A lot of it centered around basketball, which was completed,” Vonachen said. “So we don’t have a lot of activation and if it is, it’s small stuff.”

There also hasn’t been a great financial loss or detrimental to partnerships. Bradley’s baseball, softball, outdoor track and golf teams do not draw many spectators. 

When the NCAA Tournament was canceled, Bradley lost out on ticket allocation, radio broadcast sales, social media promotions and a sponsored selection show watch party. Vonachen and Russ reached out to all of Bradley’s partners to make sure each business was doing okay in the times of uncertainty and have tried to find ways to help them.

“The [clients] were all appreciative of that,” Vonachen said. “So now it’s just finding ‘make goods’ for what they might have had. Pretty much everybody understood that it’s a tough situation for them and for us and they’re working with us. We’ve had great feedback from them.”

They are also working with IMG College and its constituents around the Valley and central regions. Vonachen said they are brainstorming ideas through video calls a few times each week. 

“[Learfield IMG College] has been great leaders in helping us make sure we are getting the needs of our partners,” Vonachen said. “We do a lot of sharing of ideas with others … We might have to tweak it a bit to fit this market, but we have a lot of resources and research to be able to do a lot of different things.”

Although the duo doesn’t foresee the loss of clients, the spring is usually a time of renewal for the next profit-generating basketball season. The larger partners such as Ameren, banks and insurance agencies, however, aren’t impacted as much, according to Vonachen. 

“[Our clients] are greatly affected by what’s going on, so are they going to want to or come back and do what they did with us?” Vonachen said. “It would be hard for me to call up a hotel or restaurant right now and say ‘Hey let’s start talking about next year’ … It’s a day-by-day thing and we have to take a look at each of our partners and see the best day to approach them and when.”

The duo is focused on the future as they help partners accomplish their marketing goals and objectives alongside the Braves. 

“I think the biggest question for me is how this impacts business long-term,” Russ said. “And that’s an answer that no one has yet. In the short-term, it’s about how to actively work to help out our partners, help out clients, make sure we are doing everything to support athletics at this time.” 

“How this impacts us a month from now remains to be seen and it’s very much an adjustment in terms of how the landscape looks.”

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