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Touchdown, Academics!

Published on March 2, 2016, at 5:30 p.m.
by Mackenzie Ross.

As football fans, alumni and students stepped off the plane at the Phoenix airport before the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship. A large billboard greeted them with the words, “Roll Phoenix Roll.” This sign was one of many that are part of a larger public relations campaign by The University of Alabama to promote its academic programs by building off the school’s athletic brand.

Linda Bonnin, who was named vice president for strategic communications for The University of Alabama in October 2015, has been working to close the gap between the college’s athletic and academic programs. While some people call for the separation of the two, Bonnin thinks the football team’s notable success can be used to entice prospective students to visit and, ultimately, attend UA.

“Athletics is a good way to get people’s attention, and that’s sometimes how you get on people’s radar,” Bonnin said. “They watch a football game. They see something that’s surrounding athletics that draws them to look even closer at the university, and that’s when you can tell them all the other wonderful things that are going on here.”

While the university and the athletic department communicate regularly about their activities, they have not collaborated on specific campaigns since there are two different marketing and communications teams. Although many colleges and universities continue to separate athletics and academics, Bonnin said it is important to “run toward it and not away from it.”

“We’re all one,” she said. “We’re all working toward the same goal. We’re all working toward student success, whether they’re student-athletes or they’re just students. We’re all working for the same thing at the same place, so let’s just come together and collaborate and embrace that.”

The recent collaboration involved campaigns through the UA Undergraduate Admissions Office that targeted cities where the football team traveled.

“What we’re doing is showcasing the university in a holistic way so we’re all successful,” said Mary K. Spiegel, associate provost and executive director of Undergraduate Admissions. “One example of this approach is the recruitment campaign we did in Dallas and Phoenix at the same time we were playing football there. It made sense to maximize our efforts during this time of high visibility and excitement.”

Courtesy of Linda Bonnin, VP for Strategic Communications for The University of Alabama

Bonnin referred to football as “one gigantic [television] commercial for The University of Alabama.” She said the university could never afford such extensive advertising. At the 2015 College Football Playoff games in Dallas and Phoenix, the advertising went one step further with billboards, airport banners, print ads and sticky notes on newspapers. Digital marketing targeted prospective students in Dallas, and the outreach culminated with a reception that 199 prospective students attended — 44 more people than the reception held this time last year.

Because UA Athletics has had such vast success, people might question whether the school only focuses on athletics, especially since many top-tier athletic schools spend more money on athletes than regular students. However, Spiegel said recruitment campaigns aim to highlight a different message.

“We do want people to know we’re more than that,” Spiegel said. “We have a great student body that excels academically. Our students’ credentials and accomplishments have never been higher, and people need to know that.”

Bonnin said that while athletes’ academic resources receive more attention, the very same resources are available to regular students. She cited statistics regarding the success of students as proof that the university recruits the best and brightest. This year, 36 percent of the UA freshman class scored a 30 or higher on the ACT, and 600 National Merit Scholars are currently enrolled at the university.

Some of the new campaign features images of the football stadium, the mascot “Big Al” and the new tagline “There’s no place like UA” will not be released until this summer, but Bonnin said they can get initial reads on the success of the campaign based on how many people attended the prospective student receptions in major cities.

Big Al in Bryant Denny

The new campaigns equally target in-state and out-of-state students, and Bonnin said the primary goal is to get students to visit The University of Alabama. “When you get people on this campus, they’re sold,” she said.

Other campaign strategies include monitoring social media to hear the concerns of the parents and students, updating banners on campus, improving UA’s social media presence and changing the format of the school’s website.

For schools interested in collaborating between athletics and academics, Bonnin recommended just starting the conversation. “Once you start the conversation, it is very easy to do because everybody is on the same page,” she explained.

While the UA campaign is relatively new, Bonnin has high hopes for it and wants the project to highlight UA’s traditions, including those that surround athletics.

“I wanted us to embrace that because it is part of who we are,” she said. “It’s not the entirety of who we are by any stretch of the imagination, but it is part of who we are as a university and so let’s tell that as part of our story.”

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