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How will the Big 12 market themselves next?

I asked an actual expert:

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

One of the bigger college sports business stories over the last year has been the reinvention of the Big 12…not just from a membership perspective, but really, from a #BRAND perspective. Out with the old Texas And Friends…in with the new, the brash, the youth-focused, the envelope-pushing and the agenda-setting.

It’s one thing to talk about doing all that stuff. It’s another thing to actually do it. To better understand the nuts and bolts of how the Big 12 may actually go about the audacious task of a rebrand, I reached out to a buddy of mine, advertising creative and BYU fan Jake Welch. His thoughts are below:

When people talk about the business of college athletics, there is usually a set group of topics that will lead that conversation. Most recently conference TV contracts have been the main headline, but we also hear about coaching salaries, athlete earning potential via NIL, and schools leveraging corporate partners to help fund various aspects of their programs.

And while all of these topics are certainly worthy of discussion, there is a key element of this business that usually gets overlooked.

As someone who works in the advertising industry, my bias might be showing, but traditional brand messaging is a seldom-discussed force in the world of college athletics, specifically for conferences. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen how key players in the space (between in-house marketing departments or contracted advertising agencies) have been helping influence the most relevant brands in college athletics.

One of the most recent examples of this kind of effort is the Big 12 working with New York-based ad agency Translation to help lead their creative and strategic efforts. This unlikely partnership, a coastal agency (Translation has offices in New York and California) and an athletic conference consisting mostly of member schools from smaller college towns in the middle of the country, was brought about by the Big 12’s new enterprising commissioner Brent Yormark.

Before joining the Big 12, Yormark served as CEO and President of Business Operations for RocNation, whose founder Jay Z also played a role in launching Translation in 2008 with partner Steve Stoute. Instead of looking for a more local partner (their previous agency of record was LDWW based in Dallas), Yormark sought to bring in a reputable creative force that could help lead the conference in their new era.

Most advertising agencies will try to flex their cultural bona fides, clinging to the idea that the young people at their company can make work that resonates with kids in high school, but an agency like Translation has a leg to stand on in that regard.

The “we don’t create ads, we create culture” headline on their website might come off as trite, but their campaigns for the NBA, State Farm, HBO and Beats all resonated in a meaningful way. One of their more memorable campaigns was born out of a partnership with ESPN and State Farm. After COVID shifted the NBA season, and thus eliminated State Farm’s scheduled content with ESPN, Translation produced a series of ads using old SportsCenter footage.

The challenge for the folks at Translation is the fact that they’re not working with a brand or product that already has existing cultural clout

Their work for the NBA’s 75th anniversary was certainly compelling, but they also benefited greatly from a fountain of superstars participating in the league. And that’s not to say that any commercial with Charles Barkley, Shaq, Larry Bird, and Bill Russell is going to be a hit. We can roll out the film on the celebrity-endorsed ads that go over like a fart in church. 

Now Translation will go from LeBron James and Kevin Durrant to lesser-known college athletes that come from very different places around the country. But instead of seeing this as a challenge, they saw a space for opportunity.

“It can’t be overlooked that student-athletes are the heartbeat of all these institutions, " a rep from Translation said via email. “17-22 year old kids that live and breathe “the culture” and are the ambassadors of it on all their respective campuses, in Provo, Manhattan, Waco, and beyond. Our work aimed to, and will continue to not only star real student-athletes but also pull in creative elements that we know resonate with them – from the right music and voiceover choices, to partnering with creators behind the camera that make relevant, massively appealing work.”

In their first campaign piece for the Big12, Translation tapped Dallas rapper BigXThaPlug to provide voiceover over visuals that featured former and current athletes from the conference. The most interesting thing about the spot, which walks and talks like many others in the genera, is the line “we’ve always been greater than twelve.” At the time of its release, there was no certainty that expansion was on the horizon, but now with four more schools joining the ranks in 2024 it feels as if the tagline had a double meaning all along.

Another challenge in branding the new Big12 is finding a way to connect schools from across three different time zones

When asked about how they threaded the needle between places like Houston, Morgantown, and Waco, they spoke to their unifying strategy that made sense for the entirety of the conference.

“Competition and passion transcends any geographic boundary. Our goal was always to land on a strategy that would help institutions rally around the Big 12’s vision of pioneering and this new era of collegiate athletics. With that, we took the several nuances of each member school and interwove them around a core idea that would bind institutions to the Big 12’s mission.”

With the launch of the anthem video behind them, Translation will seek to provide strategic and creative guidance beyond traditional advertising. What might some of those elements look like?

“With the Big 12’s new wave of brand growth underway, (we’re) here to be a co-author and showcase how the Big 12 is just getting started and there is much more to come from the conference. Specifically, we’re developing a brand identity refresh around the logo mark that will modernize and remix the logo across several different sport-specific, season tentpole-specific, school-specific, and lifestyle merchandising variations (some of this refreshed design work has already started showing up on Big 12 social channels as well as on collateral at Media Days).”

Of course this isn’t the first time that a conference, or individual school, has hired an agency to help with the branding. Every fall college football fans are subject to university-sponsored ads that generally follow the same banal format (footage of a non-football or basketball athlete, Hispanic students handling lab equipment, some kind of performing arts, a diverse faculty member speaking in a high-tech lecture space, scenic shots of the campus that trick you into thinking that East Lansing is beautiful all year round, etc). These commercials are usually not a result of sparse creative talent (many schools with strong ad programs often create some tragically boring work) but rather the school board members that are demanding that their commercial, like a nightclub promoted by Stephon, has everything.

Hey look, it’s every college advertisement ever

One of the most memorable examples of a conference commercial came back in 2016 when the SEC hired The Richards Group of Dallas, who created the oft-memed “It just means more” campaign. The commercials, which featured “old barns, old cemeteries and even older libraries”, leaned heavily on the tradition and history of the SEC. In a press release sent out with the campaign announcement Bill Milkereit, a writer at The Richards Group said, “We set out to break all the rules of conventional and formulaic conference advertising. We went to great lengths to dig deeper than the clichés and be supremely authentic with respect to SEC tradition, passion and culture.”

The campaign, and the agency behind it, have since aged quite poorly. The air of condescension that games in the Southeastern Conference “just mean more” brought ire from most everyone outside the conference. Now whenever an SEC-related blunder is happening on the field you can see images of campaign spokesperson Wynn Everett in abundance on Twitter.

Then there is the agency. The Richards Group (since rebranded to TRG) hemorrhaged clients in October of 2020 when agency founder Stan Richards said in a meeting that ads for then client Motel 6 were “too black”. The Home Depot, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Cracker Barrel, and Motel 6 all ended their working relationship with the agency shortly thereafter.

As conferences continue to expand (and try to vie for more media money), it’s increasingly likely that more money will be dedicated to these types of branding efforts. The traditional TV commercial work will exist like it has before but we’ll see more creative partnerships (through branded content series or event performances like halftime shows) that will try to reach a younger demo that exists online in many different ways. Of course this will inevitably lead to many “how do you do, fellow kids” moments, where it will be painfully obvious that the conferences want to appear to be cooler than they are.

In the meantime it will be interesting to see what else Translation has in store for the Big12 and if they’ll truly be able to deliver on the innovation and elevation that Brent Yormark is looking for.

If you’d like to buy ads on Extra Points OR in ADS3000, good news! They’re affordable, and we still have openings for this year. Drop me a line at [email protected]. If you have news tips or FOIAs you want to share, I’m at [email protected]. Otherwise, I’m at [email protected], @MattBrownEP on Twitter, @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram, and @MattBrown on Bluesky

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