Why One College Sports Conference Had to Build a Brand From Scratch

Commissioner Mike Aresco on the Rush to Create the American Athletic Conference

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What's in a name? Plenty when the future of a beleaguered college sports conference depends on creating a new brand and logo from scratch, said Mike Aresco, commissioner of the new American Athletic Conference.

The new AAC -- or "The American" as it prefers to be called to avoid confusion with the Atlantic Coast Conference -- was born earlier this year as the legal successor to the old Big East Conference. During the realignment craze that reshaped college sports from 2010-2013, the Big East was torn apart as schools seeking more TV money jumped to other conferences. In the final blow, seven basketball-centric schools voted to break away last year and form their own "new" Big East conference.

Under the deal finalized this year, the so-called Catholic Seven got to keep the 34-year-old Big East brand name.

Mr. Aresco, a longtime TV executive, had accepted the Big East Commissioner's post just months before his conference imploded. He continued as commissioner of what was left: an unnamed hodgepodge of ten mostly football-playing schools covering the Northeast (Connecticut, Temple and Rutgers) the South (Louisville, Memphis, Central Florida and South Florida), the Southwest (Houston, SMU) and the Midwest (Cincinnati).

As with most things in college sports, the decision came down to money. Mr. Aresco had to choose between financial security or keeping the Big East name.

"Ultimately, we opted to give up the name. But essentially get virtually all the cash," he said.

Mr. Aresco's successor conference got to keep around $100 million of the old Big East's estimated $110 million war chest.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco
AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco

Starting from scratch
But from a marketing point of view, the former CBS Sports executive had no brand, no logos, no trademarks. He had to do something, fast, just to keep his foundling conference in the same conversation as the powerhouses like the SEC and Big 10.

"I woke up and said: 'We've given up the name. Now what do we do?" recalled Mr. Aresco in an interview. "We had to come up with a real name that worked, that people accepted. Plus a set of [trademarks] that people could rally around and feel proud of."

Mr. Aresco knew time was of the essence. He didn't want a "public circus," with shock jocks pushing their own monikers. "I didn't want our conference to be the No-Name Conference or the Conference-to-be-named-Later," he said.

The Commissioner himself vetoed some of the wackier proposed names. In the end, Mr. Aresco worked with sports marketing experts and school presidents to come up with the new name and logo.

"The name was just absolutely critical. We wanted the name to sound big; to keep us viewed as a conference that mattered," Mr. Aresco said.

With a blank canvass to work on, Mr. Aresco brought in Jeff Hunt of PulsePoint Group consulting in Austin, Texas, to confidentially research names. Then Mr. Aresco asked crisis PR advisor LeslieAnne Wade of Wade Media Management, her partners at New Jersey-based ad agency MadCreek Advertising and Mr. Hunt to cut down the initial list of hundreds of proposed names to a manageable list.

Among the most popular? Those with either "American" and "National" in the name, said Ms. Wade, ex-PR chief for CBS Sports.

Focus-group confusion
But focus-group results varied depending on geographic regions. "Metro" scored well in the tri-state New York metropolitan area -- but poorly elsewhere. "United" scored high in the Midwest, home of the Chicago Bulls' United Center arena.

Focus groups still liked the word "Big," but only in the context of the Big 10 or Big East, Ms. Wade said. They didn't want any new "Big" conferences. Monikers featuring numbers finished at the bottom. When the name "American 12" was leaked, it was panned -- likely because of other conferences with numbers in their names, including the Pac 10 (now Pac 12) and Big 10, were outgrowing them. (Indeed, two of The American's strongest teams, Louisville and Rutgers, are departing next year -- Louisville to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big 10.)

Once they whittled down the list, Aresco's team sent two dozen finalist names to school presidents and athletic directors. Ms. Wade traveled around the country talking to presidents, AD's and student-athletes. "American" consistently scored highest.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the conference had been quietly trademarking names, setting up a web site (www.theamerican.org) and Facebook/Twitter pages.

Focus groups indicated they liked "Athletic" as part of a new name, said Mr. Aresco. And the commissioner himself preferred "conference" over "league." In a happy coincidence, research indicated a combination of "American," "Athletic" and "Conference" would work best.

Once the named was settled, Mr. Aresco quickly embraced the logo created by MadCreek: a large blue "A" with a red star and the word "American" underneath. After a final conference call with member schools, the American Athletic Conference was announced April 3.

Mr. Aresco breathed a sigh of relief when the new conference's TV partners, ESPN and CBS, publicly embraced the American.

No controversy
"We wanted something that's simple, easy to remember, and strong -- but not controversial. At this point in our history, we just don't need anything controversial."

Maybe. But Madison Avenue branding expert Allen Adamson thinks the conference played it too safe by opting for the most "generic" of names. He thinks the new logo looks "amateurish."

"Big East was strong because it defined a region. The 'American Athletic Conference?' You have no idea what means," said Mr. Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates. "The word 'American' is very hard to own because it's used so many ways."

Good point. But like Humpty Dumpty, the truth is the old Big East is gone and can't be put back together. Football money drives today's college sports, Mr. Aresco noted. If the new conference wants to be known more for football than basketball, then a new identity is not a bad thing. And when it comes to conference logos, collegiate fans don't exactly demand cutting-edge design. Going forward, the conference's bigger challenges will be the loss of key teams to the bigger conferences and not getting an automatic berth into the football playoffs that start during the 2014 season.

One other positive sign: The American is close to signing a new marketing merchandising deal with IMG, said Mr. Aresco. IMG spokesman Andrew Giangola declined to comment.

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