Sports marketer Canham dies at 87

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Donald B. Canham, whose revolutionary marketing ideas as the University of Michigan athletic director helped turn collegiate sports into a booming business, died May 4. He was 87.

Mr. Canham, Michigan's athletic director from 1968-88, is generally considered the pioneer of merchandise licensing, now a billion-dollar business for colleges across the country. When he found out he could license the university's "block M" logo, he promptly put it on everything from pennants to cups to T-shirts to ashtrays to bumper stickers, creating an additional revenue stream for the school's athletic programs.

"You create an image and you market the hell out of it," Mr. Canham once told a marketing class at the school. "You might have the best product in the world, but if you don't put on the hard sell, no one will buy it."

Mr. Canham launched the first major direct-mail and advertising program for a collegiate sport when he began marketing the Michigan football team, using ads in Time and Newsweek, and even hiring a plane to fly a banner over Tiger Stadium in Detroit during the 1968 World Series encouraging people to buy tickets to Michigan football. At the time, average attendance was 67,991 per game. By 1975, the Wolverines began a streak of sellouts at 107,501-seat Michigan Stadium that continues to this day.


Ironically, much of his marketing for the manly sport of football was geared toward women, whom he felt were the decision-makers when it came to family entertainment.

"I thought making a family day of a football game might encourage more women to become interested in coming to Ann Arbor," Mr. Canham told The Detroit Free Press in 1985. "We understood that women controlled the weekend."

He was also among the first to anticipate the emergence of cable TV. In the early 1980s, Mr. Canham helped Michigan and the Big 10 Conference negotiate an option to its deal with ABC. If a team wasn't to be featured in a nationally televised game, it could still have the game shown on a cable station. That helped give rise to the plethora of college football games today that are shown nationally on cable.

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