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College football is big business. The teams from the power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12, and SEC) bring in an estimated $2.8 billion a year. This number was also taken before several big apparel deals were finalized, including Nike with Michigan and Ohio State and this morning Under Armour making UCLA its marquee team with an estimated $280 million deal over 15 years.

In a report released by Adobe Digital Index, I showed that Michigan is the most socially fan followed team in my top 25 most social followed college football team rankings. I used Adobe Social to rank the college teams based upon Twitter followers, Facebook page likes, total social following, social mentions June – August, and positive sentiment.

As a top followed team, it isn’t surprising that Michigan was able to garner so much money from Nike. If you compare the numbers on a social basis to the top paid professional players it shows an interesting story on social currency premiums. For instance, Nike spent $11.2 million a year in sponsorship funds for the University of Michigan football team—that’s $6.50 for each of the team’s 1.7 million Twitter and Facebook followers. By contrast, Nike forks over $30 million a year in sponsorship and support for NBA star LeBron James—but socially speaking, that translates into just $0.67 for each of the Cleveland Cavalier baller’s 45 million Twitter and Facebook followers.

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If you look at Under Armour and Adidas you will see a similar data result. Under Armour spends $9 million a year in sponsorship for Notre Dame football, which boils down to paying $12.50 for each of the team’s 719,000 Twitter and Facebook followers. In comparison, it spends less than $4 million on the NBA’s Stephen Curry and just $0.60 for each of Golden State Warrior’s 6.6 million Twitter and Facebook followers.  

Prior to the deal with Under Armour, Adidas spent $7.6 million a year on the UCLA football team, and a whopping $41 for each of the teams 184,000 Twitter and Facebook followers. In comparison, it spends more than $14 million a year on Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, but just $1.16 for each of his 12 million Twitter and Facebook followers.

There are a lot of variables that aren’t accounted for in the social currency of team vs. player sponsorship, but it’s easy to think of reasons why Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas may pay a social currency premium for college sports.

  1. Large Viewership: College football was named as the 3rd favorite sport, behind the NFL and MLB, according to a Harris Poll done in 2014. So viewership is definitely a reason to pay a lot for college football.
  2. Access to Millennials: the 18-34 year old market always has a spotlight on it as a sweet spot for marketing. If Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas can gain appetite for their brand with both young college millennials as well as graduated alum, then it would be worth their investment.
  3. Access to amateur athletes: according to ‘a way too early’ mock draft from CBS sports, several athletes from Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas schools will be drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. By sponsoring their teams, these apparel companies can have access to build a brand relationship with these athletes that could ultimately land them the next crop of professional advocates.

 College sports is a great opportunity for all brands to latch onto an extremely engaged audience of passionate fans. I was one of those millions watching the Harbaugh era kick off last year against an emerging Pac 12 contender in Utah. The look of the uniforms and play on the field may even influence whether I buy Nike (Michigan) or Under Armour (Utah) the next time I visit my local sporting goods store.

Commentary on social networks is my own and does not necessarily reflect that of the company I work for. 

About Joe Martin

Joe is currently head of Social Insights at Abode. He has lived in Sao Paulo and Salvador Brazil, traveled to Japan, Korea, Europe and worked with companies all across the United States, EMEA, and APAC. Through his experience, he's learned how to better apply talents to help others in his field and across different nationalities and different functional teams. He has an MBA from the University of Utah.

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