In an effort to understand the scope of the commercial and revenue generating aspects of athletic websites, this paper examines the quantity of advertising and content on the homepages of all twenty-six schools in two major conferences in Division IA of the NCAA: the Big East and PAC-10. The study also provides a detailed analysis of the different products, services and advertisements displayed on the homepages. An analysis of the variability of the advertisements across the schools was done for various types of the schools.
In his 2009 State of the Association Speech, Myles Brand, President of the NCAA, discussed the relationship of commercialism to sports and in particular, “the dramatic changes in the media, including especially the sports media, that have generated new and greater opportunities for commercial activity associated with athletics” (Brand,2009, p.3). In noting that there are now “three different types of screens to watch,” (TV, Internet, and handheld) Brand concerned his remarks with the question of the “balance point” between “too much and too little commercial activity” (Brand, 2009, p.4).
University athletic department websites provide content that serve a wide array of constituencies (current students, alumnae, the press, and perspective student-athletes). However it is clear that athletic departments also see their websites as a revenue generation opportunity as evidenced by the numerous advertisements displayed on many of the sites’ pages. With Brand’s statement in mind, this research seeks to examine the extent of commercial activity on university athletic department websites to see if the “balance point” between commercial activity and content has tipped.
An inventory of major studies of public impressions of issues relating to the media between 1986 and 2006 (Cooper, 2008) found that across all media channels, invasive and excessive advertising was a major concern for a majority of consumers. Further research on online advertising has focused on consumer first impressions and loyalties. McCoy et al. found that “consumers’ first impressions (and loyalties) are made in the opening moments of a Web site visit and the degree to which that visit may be intruded by pop-ups, pop-unders, and banner advertisements” (2007, p. 84).
The sports marketing literature also provides insight into the consumer’s perception of in-arena signage and virtual signage which may relate to websites. A study by Bennet et al. looks at viewers’ attitudes towards virtual advertising (digitally superimposed images in television broadcasts). The researchers found that “virtual advertisements inserted near the score display were less intrusive than all ad locations” (2006, p.77). One reason for this, they theorize, is that sport consumers are accustomed to such placement of signage on the field of play, with advertisements placed on or near the scoreboard or sidelines. However, advertising images superimposed onto the playing field were viewed more negatively. Sport fans may not like their attention distracted from the game (Bennet et al, 2006). Rotational signage in stadiums and arenas has also come a long way in reducing advertising clutter and delivering a more consistent message to the sport consumer. Some arenas now feature an entire façade of upper tier rotational digital signage offering one consistent message over the course of 1,000 feet. Such signage is usually sold as a part of a marketing package which may include smaller signage in the arena. It offers a clean look and avoids sponsor conflicts (Cifareli, 2000).
The few studies of athletic department websites that exist used those sites as a source of data to research other issues in sport. In studying gender equity, Cunningham and Sagas (2002) used word count as a measure of coverage in articles on athletic department websites devoted to various men’s and women’s sports. Sagas et al. (2004) also studied gender discrepancies and media coverage using articles on athletic websites. Cooper (2008) used content analysis and position of content on the websites to study the same gender bias issues.
Data Collection Methodology
The data collected was limited to the homepage of each university athletic website. This decision seemed reasonable as it is most likely that advertisements and links to revenue pages will appear on the homepage. We did find that advertising on team pages is prevalent but what advertising is there is a duplication of that which appears on the homepage.
Each athletic department homepage was printed on the same printer, at the same resolution, and manually coded. One trained coder performed all measurements. Therefore there was no issue of inter-coder reliability. The output of this coding was a page that was segmented into independent areas measured by their square inches. The following classification process was used:
Product / Services
Each area on the page was reviewed to see if the text or image on the area appeared to be a link to a product/service being sold by the athletic department. Each item on the menu navigation bar was clicked and scanned for menu items that were suggestive of being a product/service. In both cases, the linked page was brought up to confirm that there was a product/service being sold by the athletic department or its agent.
Each area on the page was reviewed to see if the text or image on the area was an advertisement from an organization not affiliated with the athletic department. A determination was made if it was from a regional or national company. Our interest in categorizing the advertisements was to see if there was any relationship between national companies and more nationally recognized athletic programs such as football programs. We also wanted to see the variability of advertisements from regional companies across schools.
Calculating the number of advertisements on web pages is complicated by two design ideas that are commonly used. The first is the use of rotating advertisements where multiple advertisements are displayed in the same area at a fixed time interval. Using this technique, the owner of the webpage can sell more advertisements at attractive positions on the webpage. In our calculation, we treated each of the advertisements in the rotation equal to any other advertisement. It could be argued that the use of a changing image on a webpage will draw more attention than that of a static advertisement. A second technique uses tabs to allow the web designer the ability to reuse the same webpage area multiple times. Here a small area at the top of the advertisement is carved out with multiple tabs that have a suggestive heading and are clickable. When the user clicks on a tab, a different advertisement is displayed. Again, in our calculation, we treat each tab equally.
Percentage of Content
The importance of revenue generation on the website was measured by calculating the percentage of the homepage that was devoted to content. To get greater insight into the importance of revenue generation, we also measured the percentage of the homepage devoted to content that is “above the fold.” We use the term fold as an analogy to a fold in a newspaper where stories above the fold have more prominence. In terms of a webpage, above the fold is the area that the viewer sees when the homepage is first displayed. The implications for web pages are that material that is below the fold is less likely to be seen by the viewer. This is similar to Cooper’s idea of “nonscroll coverage” (2008, p.232).
Areas that were either product/services or advertisements were considered to be revenue generators. The other areas on the page were either content, navigation or what we termed community. Our view of what constituted content was broad. We considered the following as content: images, captions of images, video, fan polls, scores, schedules, pictures of athlete of the week and league standings. Space on a webpage has to be devoted to navigation around the website. An example of this would be a menu bar that has a dropdown list of links. Additionally, all of the homepages the authors examined had links/advertisements to non-revenue generating sites. An example of this would be a link to school’s conference homepage. We called these areas community. For our calculation of the content percentage, a page = content + ads + navigation + community. The percentage of content is therefore the content area divided by the size of the entire homepage. For rotating or tabbed advertisements, the area taken up by the entire advertisement is apportioned based on whether it is content, product/service, advertisement, community or navigation.
Schools in Sample
As the thrust of the study was revenue generation, Division IA institutions were selected as the focus. In establishing a representative sample of Division IA institutions across the country, the authors chose to use two Division IA conferences, the PAC-10 and Big East Conferences, as a basis for their research. These two conferences were chosen as they represent a distribution of small, medium and large, private and public institutions ranging across the country. Some of the schools are located in major urban areas, and some in college towns. Some of these institutions have major football programs and some do not. All have major basketball programs and very competitive sports programs for both men and women. All have at least one nationally recognized team. And all are at least 100 years old and have a major athletic tradition.
The following details the results of our examination of the 26 homepages. The products and services sold are first described with Table 1 showing the percentage of schools that had links on their homepage to these items. This is followed by a discussion of data on advertisements found on the homepage.
Table 1: Percent of Schools That Have Links to Products/Services Sold on the Homepage
|Product / Service
|Percent of Schools That Links to the Product / Service
|Ringtones for Cell Phones
Products / Services Sold by Athletic Department
Ticket Sales: As the most important source of revenue for most sports, advertisements with links to ticket sales are prominent and, in many cases, displayed in multiple spots on the homepage. On a significant number homepages a large banner advertisement appears at the top of the homepage. Additionally, there is a menu option that provides links to the various ways that tickets are sold. Before a big event, such as a bowl game, many schools display a splash screen before showing the homepage on which a link for purchasing tickets is provided. Finally some schools now provide a link to StubHub, their official site to allow fans to buy and resell tickets.
Merchandise Sales: Another staple of athletic websites is the link to the fan store where hats, shirts and other souvenirs can be purchased online. This link is often prominently displayed at the top of the homepage.
Multimedia/Media Guides: Some schools have traditionally used media guides as a source of revenue which are now being sold via the website. In addition, some schools are selling DVDs of famous teams from the past, bowl games and other video content that would be enticing to their fans.
Video: The Internet now provides schools with an easy to use mechanism to transmit live or taped games that are not being broadcast commercially to their fans. This content is typically of games that are not being broadcast over-the-air or via cable. Some of this content is broadcast for free but the bulk of the programming is sold via either a monthly or yearly contact. All but two schools charged $79.95 annually or $7.95 per month. The outlier schools charged $99.95 annually or $9.95 per month.
Auctions: For many Internet users who know of or have used auctions sites like eBay, the idea of purchasing a piece of memorabilia via a website is common. Athletic departments are now running their own auctions of game-worn uniforms and equipment. In addition, items such as basketball bench chairs, autographs on programs signed by the coach or former players, and autographed plaques are also being auctioned off.
Photos: The sale of both still and action photographs appears on many athletic websites. Typically there are photos for sale for every team fielded. The photos, which are of professional quality, range from the standard team poses to action scenes taken during the game. The photos are of both current and past players.
Camps: Summer sports camps, in a variety of sports, have become a standard product at well known athletic programs. As many athletic departments provide these as a source of compensation for their coaches, it is unclear how much revenue is realized by the athletic department for this product. We have included it for completeness.
Ringtones for Cell Phones: As cell phones allow users to customize ringtones, a market for specialized ringtones has emerged. Athletic departments have added this service to their portfolio of products by offering music that has an affiliation with their school, such as the university fight song.
The values in Table 2 show the number of advertisements from regionally-based companies, national companies, products/services sold by the school and the total of all advertisements on the homepage. Except for the first column, which shows all the schools in the study, the other columns show comparisons of different types of schools: PAC-10 versus Big East, public institution versus private institution and schools with varsity football programs versus those without varsity football.
Table 2: Average Number of Ads on Homepage
|Type of Company Placing the Ad
Table 3 displays this advertising data as a percentage of the area occupied on the homepage.
Table 3: Average Percent of Homepage Devoted to Advertisements
|Type of Company Placing the Ad
Table 4: Percent of Homepage Devoted to Content
Table 5: Percent of Homepage Devoted to Content Above the Fold
Discussion of Results
The key finding in our work is that on average only 33.3% of the homepage of the schools in the study is devoted to content. The amount of space devoted to advertising is 33.6% and the balance is either navigation or community. For two reasons we think that the advertising amount is understated. First, a practice of many of the athletic departments in our study is to have sponsored content areas. In this arrangement, area devoted to content will also have the corporate name or logo of a sponsor displayed in a prominent spot. We counted this as content as the bulk of the area is non-advertisement but it is clear that there is some form of commercialism in this area. The average number of sponsored content areas in our sample was 2.4. Second, a common content area on homepages is a video clip window where a user can see video content ranging from game highlights to coaches interviews. In our calculation, this was considered content. However, many times the clip displayed included an advertisement for an upcoming event.
Another consideration in assessing the commercialism of the website is the placement of advertising. In 62% of the schools in our sample, an advertisement was placed at the top of the homepage. In some cases, more than one advertisement was placed at the top, either above and/or beside the school name and logo. In many cases the advertisements were for ticket sales or school merchandise. However, in five cases, the advertisers were national companies. The impact of this idea is reduced somewhat by noting that more of the advertising occurs below the fold than above.
Whether this ratio of content to advertising is consistent with Brand’s “balance point” is impossible to determine. We believe it is not but we leave it to the reader to form their own judgment.
Additionally, we found the number of advertisements from regional companies was markedly smaller than those from national companies. The most likely explanation is that in addition to supplying technical support, CBS Interactive and JumpTV (the largest providers of web services for intercollegiate athletic programs) also sell web-based advertisements to national companies and place the advertisements on their customer’s websites. CBS Interactive and JumpTV have a revenue sharing agreement with those schools where advertisements are placed.
In comparing the characteristics of different schools/conferences, the largest difference between groups occurred between the PAC-10 and Big East in the average percentage of page devoted to advertisements. While there may be many factors that influence this, we speculate that schools with football programs have greater followings and therefore more views of their website. This in turn would cause more companies to place advertisements. Our contention that football is the cause is bolstered by the difference in football versus non-football schools value in Table 2. Note that only 7 of the 16 schools in the Big East have football while all do in the PAC-10.
We observed that the homepages in our study seemed cluttered and busy which is supported by our finding that the average number of advertisements is close to 19. With the addition of area devoted to content and links to other pages, the number of distinct areas on the homepage averages 30. This appears excessive given the size of most computer screens.
Finally the breadth of products and services sold seemed comprehensive. While we anticipated that selling tickets and clothing on the website would be a natural service desired by users, we were surprised that athletic departments would be in the business of selling ringtones and running auctions.
In conclusion, the development of university athletic websites will continue to evolve. In the period from our data collection until the present, most of the websites we reviewed have added, as an example, RSS news feeds and links to Twitter. It seems most likely that athletic departments will continue to seek new ways to use their websites to generate additional revenue. Whether they are mindful of the balance of content and commercialism remains to be seen. Future research should objectively test if the amount of commercialism on the websites is excessive by surveying the impressions of the users of the site.
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