August 27, 2023

The Brand Strategy of Football Conference Realignment

You’ll never “out-big” the SECs of the world. But you might outmaneuver them.

Football, like branding, begins with strategy.

By longstanding tradition, my fall Saturdays are often filled with College Gameday, noon tailgates, primetime shootouts, and Pac-12 after dark. That is to say, I love college football.

It’s the passion and chaos that make college football magical. The hearts on sleeves and raw energy that power inconceivable upsets and how-did-they-do-that final drives. A high-octane blend of adrenaline and joy and total anarchy. Momentum swings. That feeling in the air as the leaves start to change that on Saturday, anything can happen, and you’d better not miss it.

With each new billion-dollar TV contract and NIL transfer market mega deal, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re losing some of what makes my beloved college football so precious and rare. The joy of college football is a product of its unpolished and unpredictable nature. And now we’re trying to dress it up in a suit and tie.

Nothing represents this effect more clearly than conference realignment. There are now two divisions within college football. There are the “haves,” represented by the SEC and Big 10 conferences, and the “have nots,” everyone else.

To a brand strategist, this presents an interesting problem. If you’re the underdogs of the college football world, how might you pitch a classic Saturday upset and overtake the high-and-mighty? How might you inject a little bit of joy back into the game?

You can’t do it by taking on the SEC directly and playing by their rules. They’re too strong. Would you fight a grizzly bear, mano y mano? Of course not. As an aside, 6% of Americans believe they could defeat a grizzly bear in unarmed combat, which is hilarious.

The Big 12s of the world have to look to the places where the SEC and Big 10 can’t or won’t go.

The SEC and Big 10 are the undisputed premier conferences of college football. Big, loud, important. Tradition. Prestige. That’s them.

So, how do you beat the SEC? Not by trying to out-prestige them. That’s their domain. Like Willie Keeler said about baseball, in branding, sometimes you need to “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” The Big 12s of the world need to look to the places where the SEC and Big 10 can’t or won’t go.

The SEC always puts the conference first. It wants everyone to know how big and important it is. Like the NFL, the organization sees itself as greater and more important than the individual.

But what if the Big 12 didn’t do that? What if the Big 12 wasn’t about the Big 12 at all? What if it was the peoples’ conference, the players’ conference? What if the Big 12 was the destination for big personalities and colorful characters? Neon Deon, Mike Gundy, the Hypnotoad, Devils, Cowboys, and the smoldering couches of Morgantown.

Now you have a niche that sets the Big 12 apart. An ownable space. And one that directly leverages NIL to appeal to players and set the stage for growth. If you’re a standout player, do you want to be crushed under the mighty SEC’s strict rules and massive shadow? Or will you head out West where the stars shine brighter?

The lesson conference realignment has to teach us is familiar: If you’re David, and the other guys are Goliath, you’d better not reach for a sword. Go where they won’t go. Do what they won’t do. Take a calculated risk, carve out your niche, and own it. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a way to win. After all, anything can happen on a Saturday night in the fall.

Here’s to the underdog. Long live college football.

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