Highlands eager to play ball with advertisers
If they are not already fans of “Mad Men,” Highlands School District officials may soon join that group.
Cable TV's hit show about Madison Avenue advertising executives might provide some pointers as Highlands delves deeper into marketing advertising space and naming rights at its athletic facilities.
“We're still exploring what the possibilities might be,” said Superintendent Michael Bjalobok. “We need to sit down and determine what it is going to look like.”
The district has dabbled in advertising at its athletic facilities before. But district officials are refocusing attention on it since the school board adopted an official policy on athletic facilities advertising in March.
Board members also view it as a way to generate revenue as Highlands, like so many other school districts across the state, has had to adjust to reductions in state financial aid along with increasing costs.
Hitting the jackpot
It has worked out well for Hempfield School District in Landisville, Lancaster County.
“We have had a significant success,” said Dan Forry, the district's director of enterprise and operations. “I think we are into our sixth year now. We have a third party, Market Street Sports Group, that does all the marketing, sales and contract work for us, which is key to that process.
“Over those six years we have seen over $100,000 to $175,000 net to the district per year,” he said.
That is after Market Streets Sports gets its 30 percent cut as a fee, he said. Add in that 30 percent and it makes the total value of the advertising sold worth a whopping $130,000 to $250,000 per year.
Opening up the sponsorship/advertising proposition apparently signaled a change of heart for the Highlands board.
Highlands Athletic Director Matt Bonislawski said he previously pitched the idea, using a sports marketing company.
“I made the proposal about three or four years ago and they (board) said, no, they didn't want to clutter up the facilities.”
Audrey Guskey, a Duquesne University marketing professor and one of the country's top consumer experts, said that is because times have changed.
“It's almost like you assume the schools would be sacred and the marketers would not get their hands on the schools, but the schools are desperate for money,” she said. “I think that is how and why this is happening.
“This kind of grass-roots getting-in-your face advertising seems to be working and companies are taking advantage of it.” Guskey said.
Whenever Highlands' athletic teams travel to other schools, Bonislawski said there always seems to be advertising in the facilities.
“For a sign to put advertising up, it's really easy money,” Bonislawski said.
Signs for six sponsors grace the scoreboard at Golden Rams Stadium in Harrison, where the district's football and track teams compete. Scores of residents also exercise daily there by walking the track.
Signs for local businesses include: Highland Tire, Nick Chevrolet, Allegheny Valley Hospital and a local Verizon Wireless store. One is regional, PNC Corp., and one is from a national company, Coca-Cola.
Highlands Business Manager Jon Rupert said the Coca-Cola sign was a result of a larger deal a number of years ago. That deal involved Coke becoming the district's official soft drink. That is no longer the case, but it is an example of the kind of money that advertising can produce.
“I did a Coca-Cola deal for $200,000 for 10 years, and they threw in another $5,000 for a sign on the scoreboard,” Rupert said.
Getting in gear
All of the signs, which Rupert said brought in about $45,000 to the district when the stadium was done back in 2002, are overdue to be replaced.
There were no contracts in place between the district and the advertisers that specified how long the signs would stay up, he said.
In reviving the advertising idea, he said the board was looking primarily at small signs but then it quickly moved into selling naming rights.
Peters Township School District in Washington County is in the midst of getting its sponsorship into gear.
“We started about a year ago, and it took us about six months to get four or five people on board,” said Brian Geyer, Peters Township High School's athletic director. “We are getting more interest, and we will probably get some more on board for the fall.”
He said the district has not sold field and gymnasium naming rights yet, but have received inquiries.
“What I would tell Highlands is that if you know a couple people or businesses who are willing to do it, get them on board early,” Geyer said. “We had some people who saw signs and called and said, ‘How can we get involved in that?'”
When Highlands' board approved the policy, indications were that all options regarding the facilities were on the table.
Bjalobok thinks there probably will be at least one exception: the former football stadium that is now used by the schools soccer teams. It was named Staresinic Stadium a number of years ago to honor the late Nick Staresinic, a prominent district superintendent.
But that doesn't mean that the actual field couldn't bear the name of an advertiser. Ambridge Area did that in 2011 when Shop 'N Save supermarkets signed a 10-year deal to advertise at the district's Moe Rubinstein Stadium. It became Shop 'N Save Field at Moe Rubinstein Stadium.
“I don't think we would want to take the name of a respected individual off the stadium, so that would be a possibility,” Bjalobok said.
“I think you have to do things tactfully, tastefully,” he said. “There's got to be a limit to what we are willing to do.”
Still, the whole naming rights proposition is “pretty wide open” according to Rupert.
“If you do something long term, it would have to be for some big bucks,” he said.
Seneca Valley School District in Butler County was among the first districts to sell its football stadium's naming rights back in 2006. Bjalobok was an elementary school principal in that district at the time.
NexTier Bank paid the district a total of $50,000 over ten years to put its name on the stadium. That amount seems paltry compared to fees paid out today.
“Now it does but, back in that era, that was a lot because it was cutting edge,” Bjalobok said. “Districts weren't doing that.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.