Mary Sudasassi|Dec 2, 2014

I love pretty much all sports for the same reasons: An admiration of the strategy, the emotion, the effort, the heart and the display of skill and talent. And, of course, I love the unexpected nature of sports.

However, what I did not expect was that public relations would be part of a college football team’s playbook. Baylor University, one of the top six teams in contention for a playoff berth, recently hired a public relations firm to help advocate for the football program with the national media. Thanks to Baylor, it turns out that publicists may be as strategically important to college football teams as the coaches and players are.

As a college football fan, I’ve become accustomed to the pendulum swings and controversies for determining a national champion. It started with the subjectivity of reporters and coaches voting in polls (human), followed by the computer-infused “objectivity” of the Bowl Championship Series and the “Plus 1” game (non-human). Now we have the four-team College Football Playoff (CFP) with teams methodically chosen by a 12-member committee (human again).

At some point, playing the actual game on the field has become secondary to the hotly contested debate about which college football program should be the top team in the country. With only a few games remaining, teams are jockeying for position, arguing their case of quality wins and hard-fought losses to the media as a means to get behind the CFP committee doors.

Which brings us to Baylor. The university and their new PR firm both claim that the hiring is only meant to help with media relations efforts, not influence opinion. What is PR if not exactly that – influencing opinion?

A key finding from a study released this summer highlights the effect PR can have on ad campaigns as applied to brand perception and sales. Respondents overwhelmingly cited word of mouth (74 percent) as the most powerful factor when it comes to consumers’ relationships with brands.

It’s not a huge leap to connect the dots between brands and the college programs vying for the purchase power of the highly-coveted 12-person consumer base.   Unless there is a plan to sequester the selection committee like a jury, Baylor will have an opportunity to build their relationship with the committee by telling their story to The New York Times, USA Today, AP, ESPN and other respected outlets why it deserves selection consideration.

Sure, PR has its role in the sports arena – from branding to crisis control to reputation management. (I’m looking at you, NFL.) And the college PR machines are certainly in full swing when it comes to campaigning for the coveted Heisman Trophy. But this feels different.

I don’t think it’ll be so much about the strategic X’s and O’s to secure the W’s (wins), as it will be about the brand positioning and strategic messaging to secure the highest Q score.

I certainly can’t fault Baylor University for recognizing that a high Q score may be just as important, if not more so, than the final scores of the games played. As a sports fan, I cringe at the thought of a team of suit-clad publicists having this much influence on the game. As a PR professional, I can’t help but think it’s as shrewd a move as any coaching decision made on the field.


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