Hickman, Rock Bridge pioneer athletics marketing in Missouri high schools

Tuesday, January 3, 2012 | 3:56 p.m. CST; updated 4:23 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 3, 2012

COLUMBIA — Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools upgraded to brand new scoreboards in October, the first step in a new partnership between Columbia Public Schools and Columbia-based marketing company Kelly Sports Properties.

A division of the company, Kelly Press, has been providing professional marketing guidance to the high schools since March to raise additional funds for athletics programs. The scoreboards cost about $200,000 each, comparable to those seen on college fields. Standard high school scoreboards, which are usually limited to timekeeping and scoring, usually run between $5,000 and $10,000.


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Despite the higher-than-average cost of the scoreboards, the district hopes increased advertising revenue will help make up for the cost.

Battle High School will see one just like it once the school opens in the fall of 2013. Douglass High School, however, did not receive one of the scoreboards because its sole athletics team is men’s basketball.

Bruce Whitesides, director of athletics for the district, said the primary goal of the partnership is to organize marketing and increase revenue. Under the district's previous approach, individual booster clubs for each sport vied for donations and advertising from local businesses and benefactors.

“We decided to consolidate all our teams, all our schools, and make it one bundled group of entities for schools and sports,” Whitesides said. “Businesses around Columbia would be approached by one person, and revenue would come in one lump sum that would be shared among all (teams).”

The partnership with a private marketing company is something rare in high school athletics. The Columbia Public School District is one of the only districts in Missouri to come to such an agreement, and only one of a few in the country, though other schools have expressed interest, Whitesides said.

“It’s a sign of the times, to be quite honest. With budget deficiencies and cuts, we had to think outside the box,” Whitesides said.

Thinking outside the box for Kelly Press meant cultivating contracts with Landmark Bank, Subway, Columbia Orthopedic, Hy-Vee, Break Time, Boone Hospital Center, State Farm, Fletcher Motors and Columbia College. An average contract can cost up to $125,000 per company, and each contract will be for five years.

In return, companies receive advertising space at the schools’ facilities, schedules, programs and on the websites for Hickman and Rock Bridge athletics. 

Some sponsors have other conditions in their contracts. The district's contract with Coca-Cola, for instance, compels the school to serve Coke products at sporting events and in vending machines. With Subway’s contract, coaches can order sandwiches in bulk while on the road for away games. Adidas and Nill Bros. Sports signed a contract with the district in April to provide uniforms and other equipment to teams needing new supplies.

Under the new partnership, half of all funds raised through Kelly Press contracts will be allocated to the highest revenue-generating sports. Football, for example, receives almost 7 percent of the overall budget, while cross country receives 1 percent.

“Let’s say there are two dollars given. The first dollar is split among all the designated entities (19 sports). The second dollar is dispersed, percentage-wise, the way we’re already budgeted,” Whitesides explained.

According to Kelly Press Vice President Colin See, this helps level the inequalities among revenue-generating sports, such as football, and those that struggle to raise extra funds, such as softball or swimming.

“It takes a bigger hold by taking some of the marketing out of the hands of the parents and booster clubs,” See said.

Kelly Press earns a commission based on a graduated scale. The more money the company brings in through sponsorships, the more it makes.

For Paula Cunningham, Rock Bridge parent and co-president of the Rock Bridge Athletic Booster Club, the partnership with Kelly Press and additional business relationships formed within the past year have been financially beneficial to the schools.

“There are some folks that think (the scoreboards) are too busy, too big or unnecessary," Cunningham said. "Some people are wondering, ‘Are we really at the point where we have to sell everything?’ In my opinion, I think it is a good source of fundraising — it is the future.”

Cunningham has two daughters, Lindsey, a senior, and Sophie, a freshman, who play basketball and volleyball at Rock Bridge. The Athletic Booster Club interested Cunningham because she wanted to stay as involved as possible in her daughters’ school.

It is for this reason, though, that other parents are hesitant to join in supporting the marketing model the district has adopted.

These parents have an ally in Ines Segert, a former member of the School Board. Segert was one of two members on the board to vote against an alliance with Kelly Press in June 2010.

“With the parents and boosters, they felt like they were part of (fundraising), that they had a stake in it,” Segert said. “That’s important psychologically, and if you lose that, you lose some motivation and interest.

“If you start privatizing everything, parents may feel disenfranchised from the school.”

Segert also rejects the notion that the partnership makes fundraising easier for booster clubs.

“Teams would still have to compete with each other for that money,” Segert said. “(Kelly Press) was concerned that if every team went to businesses and asked for money, that people would get tired of getting hit up for money. You go to Kelly Press, but you still have to argue for a bigger share, which would mean other teams getting less.”

Whitesides said despite hesitation from some parents, the overall reception to the new fundraising model has been positive.

“Because the money hasn’t trickled its way down, there’s a little skepticism in the fact that (parents) are not sure how it’s working for them,” See said. “I think in the long term it’ll be a good thing. In the short term, I think there’s some getting used to.”

A lot of the concern, See and Whitesides said, lies in the wait for revenue. They said they believe a few years into the contract, teams will begin seeing the direct flow of dollars into their programs — then, they said, parents will support the privatization process. Until then, they said patience is key.

“Schools have been selling advertising for a long time. We just sell more of it," See said. "We’re doing a better job of it. Is it the right thing? I don’t know, but I’m confident our motives are right and the direction we’re taking is right.”

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Michael Williams January 4, 2012 | 10:43 a.m.

Is this really a good thing?

Heck...why not just sell naming rights to the schools? We could have:

Tostitos Hickman High School
Pepsi Rock Bridge High School
ColumbiaTribune Battle High School
Fritos Douglas High School

How about a wall in each school solely devoted to advertising? Or sponsorship of various classes: i.e., Ameren Physics 101 or Betty Crocker Home Economics 203 or Tostitos Fiesta Bowl gym 306?

I understand the "money" part but, sheesh, do we really want to go to this place? Do (or Did) citizens have a choice in this? This is the first I've heard of it. My initial reaction is rather negative.

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