Thinking outside the box and utilizing the communication of the time got the University of Akron men’s basketball team something it needed and probably deserved — some national exposure.
Despite an 11-game winning streak and a 6-0 start in the Mid-American Conference, the Zips haven’t received a lot of attention beyond the Midwest for their efforts.
But a savvy promotion from the athletic department changed that overnight. As a facet of Social Media Day on Saturday, the men’s team will don new black uniforms in a nationally televised game at 5 p.m. on ESPNU against Ohio, in a battle of MAC unbeatens.
The fade to black promotion has been used by sports teams with regularity for more than a decade. If nothing else, Oregon proved that sports uniforms are no longer uniform.
But the Zips planned something different — besides the color change, the shirts were to include the Twitter handle (@ZipsMBB) in place of the players’ names on the back.
But the NCAA shot down the idea, saying it breaks their rules regarding game uniforms that allow only for a player’s name, the university’s name, the mascot’s name or nothing to appear in the space on the back. The Zips will wear just their names on the back.
Despite the NCAA ruling, what began as part of a larger promotion evolved into something bigger when national basketball writers took note of it on Twitter, other online outlets and the traditional media.
“Absolutely brilliant marketing strategy by Akron in preparation for its Social Media Night this Saturday,” CBSSports.com’s Jeff Goodman said in a Monday afternoon tweet.
Goodman and his colleague, Matt Norlander, at CBS’s sports site even got into a back-and-forth over the jersey’s merits. Norlander wasn’t exactly wild about it.
But for UA, the promotion had its intended effect.
“You have to think of different ways to get your brand out there because there are 347 Division I programs,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “Any kind of publicity is good for your brand. We got a lot of big-time national publicity out of it. We could win a lot of games and still couldn’t get that.”
Some of the reaction has caught university representatives a bit off guard. The promotion grew out of an idea for the football program.
“I expected it would be a splash because as I’ve been told we were the first to do it,” UA director for marketing and promotions Brad Swanson said. “I didn’t expect the breadth of coverage. I figured we’d get something out of it, but what I didn’t anticipate is the explosion on Twitter nationwide.”
At least one writer, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, thought the NCAA was off base with the ruling.
“Akron’s jerseys are legal, notwithstanding denial,” he tweeted Monday. “NCAA should give waiver and begin the search for its credibility.”
In theory, because the “Zips” appears in UA’s Twitter handle, they could have argued that the use of the handle used the team’s name. For now, however, there’s a sense of satisfaction that UA put a spotlight on a deserving program.
“There’s a lot of competition and we’re always fighting for recognition and people’s attention,” Swanson said. “We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”
The athletic department chose 12 writers and LeBron James to receive the jerseys based on assorted criteria, including their interest in mid-major college basketball programs. With the payoff growing beyond expectations, UA might have found another piece of apparel to sell at their team shop. Swanson said the decision hasn’t been made on whether to sell the uniforms.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.