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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sports

Becoming one with Houston


The Cougars provided a visual link to the Bayou City by leaving open a view of the Houston skyline in the western corner of its new $120 million football stadium.  |  Fernando Castaldi/The Daily Cougar

The Cougars provided a visual link to the Bayou City by leaving open a view of the Houston skyline in the western corner of its new $120 million football stadium. | Fernando Castaldi/The Daily Cougar

Less than five miles from UH’s on-campus sports facilities is a billboard enticing downtown drivers to join the growing chorus of Houston Dynamo fans.

Just across the freeway, the faces of NBA stars James Harden and Dwight Howard are plastered on the right side of the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is not far from the Houston Astros’ 41,000-seat Minute Maid Park in the heart of the Bayou City.

The battle for Houston, a sprawling metropolis with a thriving economy, is being waged by several collegiate and professional teams. UH is looking to brand itself with its host city, but has challenges that its peers aren’t facing.

While Texas and A&M are the biggest sports teams in Austin and College Station, respectively, UH has to compete with the Houston Texans in the football-crazed Lone Star State, the two-time NBA champion Rockets and the Astros, a popular squad when the team is competitive.

“Houston is similar to most major markets. Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas — It’s a crowded marketplace. You’re competing with several other schools. The other difference is you’re fighting for floor space with professional teams too.” LRG brand manager Brad Coley 

Making the most of its resources
Houston’s four professional teams also have bigger marketing budgets so UH tries to compete by capitalizing on grassroots campaigns, unplanned opportunities and increasing its retail presence.

“There is a challenge of how you can compete effectively and efficiently and stay under budget, which may mean sometimes some of the mass media outlets aren’t as available as they would be to a professional organization,” said Rob Stewart, associate athletic director for Marketing, Promotions and Sales.

“From there, it’s trying to tie in as best we can to alumni groups or a lot of grassroots marketing and the social media aspects and trying to pull from recent graduates to be able to really make a difference.”

After billboards, which proclaim “I choose Houston,” and scoreboards that bear the Bayou City’s name as opposed to UH, the next plank in the University’s plan to brand itself with the city is its $120 million project.

“To be able to walk around with parents and prospective students athletes and for them to see the changes that are happening on campus — it has a great impact,” said athletics director Mack Rhoades. “What it shows is that this University is improving each and every day… and that gets people excited.”

UH’s new football stadium, which opens in August, will prominently feature the Houston skyline through an opening in the western corner. The “trademark area of the stadium” is expected to serve as a visual link to the city.

UH hopes the stadium will allow it to pull in the casual Houston sports fan. To accomplish that, the University is hoping to create a great game-day experience.

“If somebody’s not fortunate to be there for the first game, I want them to talk to somebody who was. The best thing you can do is hear from your friend that they had a good time and that this is the place to be,” Stewart said. “The most powerful marketing that we can have is being able to brand and create an exciting event.”

Managing the unknown
Branding success will also take some flexibility.

UH was thrust onto the local and national sports stage when legendary former quarterback Case Keenum earned his first NFL start in October. The city buzzed with enthusiasm when the local collegiate star earned playing time with the Texans.

Each time the Houston Chronicle or a national media outlet did a story about Keenum’s ascension, his UH roots were mentioned along with his record-setting college stats.

UH was ready to capitalize on the publicity.

Once Keenum became more recognizable, the Cougars used the former quarterback as the face of the program and made its current coaches and players more accessible to media outlets to expand the buzz around the program, which could allow UH to sell more retail gear as more people become familiar with the brand.

Matching product with demand
But the push to increase its retail presence has been in place for three years. Key adjustments have helped UH place more products in the hands of Houston residents. Since UH switched to Licensing Resource Group three years ago, it has almost doubled licensing revenue and put more UH products in stores, Stewart said.

LRG brand manager Brad Coley said working closely with UH has helped the two navigate a tough Houston market.

“Houston is similar to most major markets. Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas — It’s a crowded marketplace,” Coley said. “You’re competing with several other schools. The other difference is you’re fighting for floor space with professional teams too.”

In February, the athletics department and the Student Government Association created a task force for lobbying retail stores to see the value in carrying more UH products and finding areas where there is demand.

SGA President Cedric Bandoh said there is a need for a greater diversity of products, especially with women’s clothing. He said the University hopes to expand the amount of colors and styles and hopes to increase the amount of plus-size clothing for women. The new base of clothing will also include UH products for pet owners, Bandoh said.

But for as many factors as UH can control in its branding efforts, there are just as many that it can’t. Stewart and Rhoades can’t call plays on the football field or force NFL coaches to play former standouts, so working frugally and capitalizing on organic opportunities to grow the brand will always be key for UH to reach its marketing goals.

“As a marketer, it’s your job to adjust and react to it,” Stewart said. “It’s being able to adjust and build off that, and hopefully while the city is going crazy, you can make it go crazier, and you can kind of build on that to be able to help you brand and market your program.”

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