Tap sports teams to tell the community college story

By David Murray

Partnering with regional sports teams has helped a Michigan college market to a wider audience.

Well before the pandemic struck, Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) was in search of something more, something bigger, to tell its story.

The Michigan college found its solution in an expanded advertising program with regional sports teams. Although many sports remain on pause for now, the program will pick back up once normal activities resume.

As a taxpayer-supported institution, GRCC’s goal is to make sure west Michigan residents are aware of what the college offers and how it adds value to the community. It’s important to appeal to a wide audience, even to those who may never take a class, and it’s an ongoing effort. What better way to do this than through students’ personal stories? After all, GRCC’s current and former students are the college’s best ambassadors. The college can easily market its programs, but student success stories can create a true, big-league impact.

GRCC is located in the nation’s top minor league market, as named by the Sports Business Journal in 2019. The city has three professional sports franchises, each affiliated with a major league team. Each team is successful and embraces serving the community, and each is willing to work with GRCC to leverage the team’s high profile so the college can find creative ways to share the successes of its students and programs. After all, college ads on the ballpark fence or hanging in a hockey arena are nice, but the real estate is limited to a logo or short phrase for fans at games during breaks in the action.

How it started

In a meeting with an account executive for the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team in mid-2018, GRCC’s marketing team expressed a desire for something other than this traditional arena advertising. The team wanted a way to tell spectators about the transformational impact of a GRCC education. The Griffins returned with an idea that was new to both sides: GRCC would get to select a student each month of the hockey season to ride the Zamboni – the machine that cleans the ice between periods – and wave to the crowd while the announcer told their story. The marketing team responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”

On top of the memorable moment for each honored student, GRCC staff members take photos and a video of the ride so the stories can be repurposed for social media, extending the impact beyond the fans at the game.

GRCC has used these in-game promotional experiences to celebrate students, salute high-achievers and highlight programs from welding to nursing to the sciences.

No-hitter recognition

The West Michigan Whitecaps, Grand Rapids’ Midwest League baseball team, liked the concept and developed something similar: Each month, a GRCC student throws out the ceremonial first pitch, and the announcer talks about the student while the action is projected on the video board.

One month, the spotlight landed on student-athlete Alexa Abrahamson, who was being recognized for pitching a no-hitter.

“These guys are baseball players. Whip it in there!” the on-field emcee told her before the pitch.

She didn’t hesitate on the mound and went right into her full windmill delivery. Abrahamson hurled the bright yellow ball into the catcher’s mitt with a whap that echoed through the ballpark, drawing applause and reminding fans of GRCC’s strong athletic program.

The Detroit Tigers’ affiliate also allowed GRCC to participate in its “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up Night” promotion. Professionals representing various occupations set up information tables on the concourse to talk about their profession, and GRCC set up its mobile manufacturing lab in the parking lot. This large trailer contains a virtual welder, a 3D printer, a mini mill and a mini lathe, all designed to introduce people to both careers in the professional trades and GRCC’s certificate programs.

GRCC has also implemented similar promotional activities with the Grand Rapids Drive basketball team, an affiliate of the Detroit Pistons.

To maximize campus buy-in and strengthen the wave of enthusiasm, faculty and staff play a critical role in selecting students who are featured during the games. After all,

faculty members work most closely with students and know who has inspiring stories about overcoming adversity or is most deserving of special recognition for a job well done. Faculty members’ familiarity with the college’s academic offerings is also critical in identifying the best programs to feature.

The local sports franchises in Grand Rapids have offered most of these promotional opportunities to GRCC with little or no additional investment beyond what the college was already spending on arena and program ads. As the teams help show off the college in new and exciting ways, GRCC has turned right around and supported them with tags and mentions on social media.

It’s a win-win.

This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.​

David Murray

is director of communications at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan.