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Recession proof

Corporate money keeps flowing in college-football crazed state

The economic times in the nation, they are a’changin.

Unemployment figures rise and fall and rise again.  Fuel and food prices seem to be strangling the budgets of families in Mississippi and across the nation.

But college football is getting set to kick-off and corporate sponsorships for athletic programs at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, University of Southern Miss and Jackson State University appear to be stronger than ever, according to university representatives.

“There’s not a better time to be associated with Ole Miss than right now,” said Mike Smith, director of corporate sales for Ole Miss Sports Properties, an entity of TeleSouth Communications.  “If we were 3-8 last season, we might have taken a hit.  But coming on the heels of a Cotton Bowl win and a six-game winning streak, we’re looking to go over the 50,000-mark in season ticket sales. The demand for tickets has actually helped spur corporate sponsorships

“Winning (games) speaks for itself.”

Though corporate sponsorships are not new to college athletics, the state schools and those across the nation have become somewhat inventive when it comes to marketing their programs.

Mississippi State is no exception. 

The Bulldogs’ annual spring sports extravaganza is now officially named the Super Bulldog Weekend by Regions Bank.

“(Corporate sponsors) are looking to create a partnership with the school,” said Don Williams, general manager for Bulldog Sports Properties in association with Learfield Sports.  “I got here in December, and we didn’t know what we were facing, especially with the economy.  But we are faring better than most.”

Williams cites the MSU community’s positive relationship with Mississippi businesses over the years as a factor in retaining and growing sponsorships.

“We have a perfect situation here with a new coach (Dan Mullins) and a full season utilizing one of the finest high-definition video boards in the country,” Williams said.  “We try to offer the client a menu of options, such as radio and scoreboard ads, game program ads and corporate hospitality.”

In Hattiesburg, it is college football business as usual at Southern Miss.

“The economy has affected us, sure, but we are a specialized area with a captivated audience,” said Jamie Martin, general manager for the Southern Miss ISP Sports Network, the school’s marketing and broadcast services entity. “I think we’ve been protected by people’s affinity for USM.”

Added Martin: “We’ve been working longer hours and working harder to get and keep the business, but we have over 200 corporate sponsors of every size that are excited about Golden Eagles football and USM sports.”

Jackson State athletic director Robert Braddy said sponsorships for the Tigers football and basketball programs have actually increased due to stronger marketing efforts during the off-season.

“This year seems to be better than any year that we’ve had,” he said.  “We’re dolng a better job of packaging our corporate sponsorships and getting the word out to potential sponsors.”

In addition to local sponsorships, Braddy said that the Southwestern Athletic Conference has several national corporate sponsors that spread the wealth around to conference members.

“For instance, Russell Athletic has supplied uniforms and other apparel for member schools in the SWAC for several years,” Braddy said.  “Most of our sponsorships locally are from individuals such as lawyers, doctors and a medical clinic who have supported our athletic program for years.

“We are still trying to find one or two big corporate sponsors that would serve as an anchor for our program.”

Raising ticket prices is not an option anymore with most college athletic departments, particularly as fan and alumni bases are feeling squeezed economically.  According to figures released by the NCAA last spring, only six of the 330 Division I programs have operated in the black since 2004.

Schools big and small are reluctant to underwrite athletics without unconventional revenue streams such as rich corporate donors, who might possibly have their name affixed to a stadium or arena for contributing generously to the coffers of the athletic department.

The time is sooner rather than later, said Smith.  

“Ole Miss has a lot of tradition, but once we build a basketball arena to replace Tad Smith Coliseum, I think selling naming rights for the new facility will be something the university would consider,” he said.

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