Branding, all companies need it, most do it and that certainly includes college hoops programs and conferences where more often than not image is everything and perception can be more powerful than reality.
The Atlantic 10 is coming off two-straight seasons of five or more NCAA tournaments, yet remains a league fighting for attention and relevancy in the ever-changing college athletics landscape.
The plan? Take the Cinderella label often handed to the league’s schools and challenge it.
“Cinderella? Cinderella’s a fairy tale. We’re writing our story on scoreboards across the country. And anyone who thinks we’re make believe, we, make, believe.” A quote taken directly from the league’s “Who Wants Next” twitter page, the A-10 is challenging the idea that this is just another mid-major conference full of little guys. Instead, this is a conference full of teams that have gotten results on the court and on the grandest of stages no less. That’s the narrative, whether it sticks outside of the fans of the 14 member institutions remains to be seen.
But despite that success within the 94 feet of hardwood, many have challenged the A-10’s standing in the college hoops hierarchy.
Just this past March, legendary Duke head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, argued against the idea of extra A-10 bids, suggesting that his newly bloated ACC was a more worthy conference. “I said to [N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried] at the end of the game, “I hope you guys get in.” I don’t understand it. They won at Tennessee. They probably should have beaten Syracuse twice. I think they’ve played a really good schedule, and they’ve got one of the best players in the country…. I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it. Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”
Even I found myself in an A-10 versus ACC Twitter war (140-characters or less at a time), taking on ESPN analyst and die-hard Maryland Terp, Scott Van Pelt, after hearing SVP side with K while tuning into his show one March afternoon.
Me (@MatShelton): “And
@notthefakeSVP is a Maryland guy. Terps lost to GW but beat UVA. Go figure.”
SVP (@notthefakeSVP): “cool and St Louis, who was ranked 10th, went to ot twice a/mason. What’s GW buzzer beater win over md w/o Seth Allen mean?”
SVP: “what I figure is it’s a good league. The acc is better is my hunch. Do I get to cherry pick who the a-10 lost to as well?”
Me: “First off, love your show. My point is I think people have forgotten the OOC, forget that’s where RPIs were basically made.”
Me: “And Syracuse, who was ranked No.1, lost at home to Boston College.”
SVP: “Syracuse, Duke, unc, md all won titles since 02. A-10 has none. Some is ancient history (my Terps) but I believe history”
SVP: “more to the point , acc or a-10 have more playing 2nd weekend? I know what I think.” (shots fired!)
Me: “Do I smell a friendly wager? If it’s ACC I’ll smoke my whig to look like yours. If it’s A-10 you wear a VCU shirt at Final 4.” (shots recognized, challenge initiated)
Me: “A-10 only has 3 “seed favorites” (VCU, SLU, UMass) to ACC’s 4 (Cuse, UVA, UNC, Duke) but I’ll still gamble…”
SVP: “I’m pro VCU. I just want to be right. And if I’m not, I will say so” (challenge dodged)
Me: “No I know. And I’m pro SVP (hence the follow and listen today). Just gotta stand up for a great season from the A-10.”
By now we all know who would have won that bet. The A-10 went on to receive it’s six bids despite Coach K’s campaigning, and in a twist of fate, that NC State squad he had campaigned for found itself on the losing end of a matchup with an A-10 squad (great comeback, Billikens) while Duke saw a first-round exit to an Atlantic Sun team. And with my non-accepted bet with SVP tied up by the Sweet 16, ACC champ UVA took a loss to Michigan State at Madison Square Garden while Dayton went on to advance to the Elite 8, thus eliminating the ACC from the 2014 NCAA tournament while the Atlantic 10’s regular season fifth-placed squad marched on to the Elite 8.
But examples like that are forgotten with each new season and the so-called “power conferences” are once again given the benefit of the doubt by analysts and recruits, even if their schools are long-removed from NCAA tournament action
And this is where the A-10 conference, it’s schools and it’s networks find their one of their biggest battles. The best weapon to fight that battle? Well success of course, but second to that is the ability to capitalize on that success in reminding everyone — recruits, writers, fans, etc — that the A-10 is a badass mother-f’er that is here to stay.
VCU is perhaps the best example of how to properly do that.
The Rams have gone from mid-major “David” when upsetting Duke in 2007 to a national player after turning a 2011 Final 4 run into sustained momentum that has resulted in massive program upgrades including the nation’s 14th-ranked 2014 recruiting class (three ESPN top-100s and another just on the cusp). Their “havoc” brand is one of the most known in the country and, like a political talking point, is a word they don’t let you forget. It’s sung by their students in a haunting chant that is somewhat reminiscent of Kansas’ “Rock Chalk” chant, is printed on the back of player warm-ups and on the chest of student apparel, and is waived on a massive banner that covers a large part of the Rowdy Ram student section prior to every VCU home game. In short, fans, recruits and TV personalities know exactly what VCU is about.
When a player from another school in another conference on another network makes a “havoc-wreaking” defensive play, there’s a good chance of a VCU or Shaka Smart mention, and that’s what branding is all about.
Other A-10 programs are in the process of building their brands as well. George Washington in particular has hammered home the “Raise High” branding, which, combined with some success on the court, is actually starting to stick.
“The words were taken from our fight song, but they stand for a larger belief in striving for excellence in everything that we do,” athletics director Patrick Nero told the GW Hatchet. “It means raising high expectations, raising high achievement and raising high sportsmanship.”
“As you see in notable examples at other universities, ‘Roll Tide’ at Alabama, ‘War Eagle’ at Auburn, ‘Fight On’ at USC, ‘Raise High’ is GW’s way of bonding students, alumni, supporters and fans of this great university,” Nero said.
Other A-10 schools have attempted a number of branding strategies, but how many can you name? Does “Rise” ring a bell? How about “True Team” or “P.A.I.N.”?
Whatever each school comes up with, branding is a vital part of the growth of each program and the league as a whole. After EARNING six NCAA tournament bids this past season, now is the time for all involved to attack that success, wreak “havoc” on it, if you will. And if in doing so you come up with something that looks great on a t-shirt or fits well in a song, even better.