By Barry Janoff
August 3, 2016: In sports, it is not unusual for teams to win games by close margins in the closing seconds, send their players and fans into frenzied celebration and generate a mass of interest.
A new campaign from Russell Athletic is flipping the story, looking at high school football teams that in 2015 lost by a touchdown or less, sometimes in the closing seconds, sending their players and fans into the throes of defeat.
According to Russell Athletic, 101 prep teams last year lost in their respective state championship game by a touchdown or less. Six of those teams are at the center of "Team On," a multi-platform campaign that will show how these squads and their coaches are using that agony of defeat as motivation for success in 2016.
The season-long focus includes prep schools New Palestine, Ind. (head coach Kyle Ralph pictured above, who is also featured in the campaign's initial TV spot); Glynn Academy, Brunswick, Ga.; Lummi Nation in Bellingham, Wash.; Marion Local in Maria Stein, Ohio; Tri-County Academy, Flora, Miss.; and Deerfield-Windsor, Albany, Ga.
"We want to tell the story about the other team, the team that was a close second," said Matt Murphy, SVP-Marketing for Russell Athletic. "The team that lost the state championship by eight seconds, that came up one-yard short, that missed on one play last season, and how that are using that adversity as motivation this season.
Russell Athletic's previous comprehensive national campaign, "Together We Are," launched in 2011. A subsequent Russell Athletic "Together We R Team Award" honored teams that "overcame unforeseen barriers during the season and finished the year with accomplishments that exceeded their expectations."
However, "Team On," with the tag "Settle Your Score," is not only a new marketing push but a re-defining of the vision and mantra for the Bowling Green, Ky-based sporting goods company, which traces its roots back to 1902. The campaign includes TV, Internet, social media, billboards and participation from Eddie George, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1995 ((Ohio State) and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection during his pro career with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (1996-2003) and Dallas Cowboys (2004).
Lead agency is Barkley, Kansas City, Mo. Ketchum Sports & Entertainment is handling PR.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Taylor Vernier, who has been a marketing executive with Russell Athletic since 2008 and in 2015 was named Senior Director of Marketing, during the "Team On" national launch event, which took place last week (July 28) on the field of Union City (NJ) High School (pictured below), about how the new campaign will affect the company, the challenges facing prep sports and the impact that Russell Athletic intends to have on the sports landscape.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How did this campaign come together and why is it being unveiled now?
Taylor Vernier: We've been talking about teams for a lot of years. This is more than a campaign. It's a new brand vision. It is telling our story through the story of teams across the country. We first huddled up about this during the middle of 2015. We did not approach it thinking, What's our next campaign? It was always about the Russell Athletic brand and the direction in which we wanted to take the brand. So what we are now doing is not just about advertising. We are putting a lot of these fundamentals into the way in which we build products, the way we go to market. We are focusing on two core markets: The solution seeker and the athlete. We are putting the consumer first. And we believe our consumers start with the teams.
NYSJ: In gathering information about the 101 teams that last year lost their high school state championship games by seven points or less, what was the process that narrowed the field down to the six teams being featured in the initial leg of this campaign?
TV: When we went through the process, we wanted to talk about the untold story of teams. We envisioned a lot of chapters on how this would roll out. Focusing on six teams happened to be one of them. We had other ideas we might use in the future. One would be showing how two rival schools in the same are had to merge due to finances. So one of the actions would literally be to help them re-brand to create one new identity.
The six schools in the current campaign are Russell Athletic teams, meaning that we provide some product for their pre-season practices and training sessions. The (tag lines) will be on each of the respective team's shirts: One Yard. Eight Seconds. One Play. 99 Yards. 24W-1L. Under that, in the shirt is sa weat-activated technology, so when they workout and sweat, the words #SeattleTheScore will appear in place of the (tag line). The back of the shirt will have the respective school name and the Russell Athletic logo. So we are helping the coaches with some motivational tools.
"What we are now doing is not just about advertising. We are putting a lot of these fundamentals into the way in which we build products, the way we go to market."
NYSJ: Will the campaign then follow the teams through their seasons?
TV: Yes. At each of the six schools, the team is bigger than the 11 kids on the field and the 55 kids who wear the football jersey. It's the coaches, the athletic department and certainly the fans, the other students in the school. So as part of the effort, we will have a student photographer in each of the schools, we will give them homework, themes, every couple of weeks, and they will take photos and drive images to the Web sites of the schools and our Web site. They will be working in conjunction with renowned photographer Robert Clark, who has done many amazing things, including taking the photos for the book Friday Night Lights (authored by Buzz Bissinger). It will evolve and be authentic and native to each school.
NYSJ: Was there any push-back from the schools themselves, perhaps not wanting to put their kids in a national spotlight?
TV: Overall, the response was positive. I'd say the only schools that didn't want to participate were in the middle of a coaching change. They felt it would an added layer of complexity when they were trying to get a program under a new coach up and running. But many, many of them saw this as an opportunity to support their programs and their kids. This hits home with many high school coaches. Not just the 'Settle The Score' aspect, but Russell Athletic putting focus on the team and how dedicated the coaches are. Kyle Ralph, the coach at New Palestine, considers his players to be his sons. So it's not just about winning games or winning championships, but for the coaches it's about making an impact on the futures of the kids on their team.
NYSJ: When NFL players are introduced, you always hear them give props to their college, but would you like to see them also mention their high schools, perhaps continuing what the NFL did before Super Bowl 50 when the league honored the high schools of players who have appeared in Super Bowls.
TV: Players remember where they came from and what impactful experiences they had in high school. In speaking with Eddie George (left), he remembers his years in Fork Union (Va.) Union Military Academy and all his coaches and the people there who had an impact on his life and career. A lot of players remember when they were 16, that one coach who pushed them in the direction of who they became.
NYSJ: What has Russell Athletic learned in building and now getting Team On to the public?
TV: One of the things we've learned is that 70% of us played team sports before the age of 18, but that number drops to the low 20%, high teens by the time we are 22. So seven though the majority of players on the field this season might not play another team game after high school, the impact of what they are doing now will affect them for the rest of their lives. So we see a dip in overall participation, not just football but all sports. And that concerns us. We believe that sports is an avenue for a lot of kids to stay in school, to learn life lessons.
NYSJ: Dick's Sporting Goods, through its Sports Matter program, has been raising awareness for high school sports programs and to help raise or restore funds that have been cut in programs nationwide. Would you like your Team On campaign to help drive awareness for high school sports and perhaps raise or restore funds that have been cut in programs nationwide?
TV: That would make us happy. We use the word 'mission,' and we don't use it lightly. We use it internally. We are working on is how what we are doing is going to impact the growth of high school sports. We have invested on a study (regarding high school football), which we are sharing with coaches across the country. We are investing in these untold stories so that people can learn about and become engaged with high school sports.
NYSJ: Would the next evolution of the Team On effort involve different sports, other story lines?
TV: Honestly, that's what we are thinking. How can we get into prep basketball, for example. We are working on some ideas. It probably won't be the same premise of a team that lost a game in the last eight seconds. A story we have been discussing is about a girls JV basketball team. They have been undefeated two years in a row. But they are playing in front of maybe ten people. And this is a very good team. So we would show up and pack the house for them. Get that team to play in a (gym) filled with fans. Nobody talks about girls JV basketball. But that would be a great story. For those players, coaches, their families, it is important on so many levels.
NYSJ: Where do you see awareness for Russell Athletic and the brand itself among consumers?
TV: It's funny to say for a 100-plus-year-old brand, but we certainly would like to build and raise awareness for Russell Athletic. We've been here for a long time and we plan to continue to be here for a long time. We realize that general awareness of our brand might not be top-of-mind among consumers. But we have a lot of strong programs and we are seeing more of our product on the street among casual wearers. There is a connection between consumers and Russell Athletic; a lot of people have our product in their closet. I like to say there is a burning ember. We would like to put some fuel on the fire. People care about quality. They care about transparency. We make great products; we always have.
Russell Athletic's 'Team On' Turning Agony Of Defeat Into Motivation For Success
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