University of Minnesota promotes image of its women athletes

Gymnast Shelly Brown never imagined she'd be on a billboard, but people in the Twin Cities are accustomed to seeing her in a much-bigger-than-life, 14-by-49-foot advertisement. The ad reads: ``The scholar and the athlete strike a balance,'' and pictures Brown poised on a balance beam.

As a Big Ten Conference all-around champion, she makes a good model in the university's campaign to promote women's athletics, the first comprehensive marketing campaign of its kind.

It all started last year when the women's athletic department set out to increase visibility, improve attendance at events, bolster recruitment, boost financial aid, and create role models for youngsters.

``My mission has been to present a positive image of women in sport,'' says Merily Dean Baker, director of women's athletics at the university and originator of the campaign.

With the help of Grey Advertising Inc., which contributed its services, the ``Watch a scholar'' theme leaped into view.

Ads such as ``Watch a scholar overcome a hurdle,'' featuring hurdler Stephanie Stoltman in action, and ``Watch a scholar reach a conclusion,'' picturing basketball player Carol Peterka shooting, appeared on billboards and transtops (bus shelters), as well as in local and national newspapers. The ads were such a hit that they began disappearing from the transtops.

``We've had people from all over the world write for posters,'' says Pam Holt, who until recently was director of promotions with the women's athletic department.

Since the campaign began, attendance has increased in every sport but basketball. In the most dramatic results, paid attendance has shot up 112 percent at gymnastic meets, and 98 percent at track and field events since last year.

Businesses have gotten behind the effort. For instance, a local caf'e serves a free salad in exchange for a ticket stub from any women's athletic event. In other offers, ice cream coupons and haircut discounts are given out just for picking up game schedules.

Symbols of the marketing strategy include the school's mascot, the Golden Gopher, and the ``Ms.'' trademark, taking the ``M'' for Minnesota and adding the ``s'' to make it feminine.

The campaign, which could soon inspire a host of imitations on other campuses, promotes all nine women's sports, although gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, and softball receive more emphasis.

Next school year a television commercial will be added to the marketing mix, which already includes public-service announcements, one of which is made by Shelly Brown and her father, Bill, a former Minnesota Vikings running back.

These announcements use $50,000 of air time. Other cost savings result from the generosity of Transtop of Minnesota, which donates $25,000 of bus shelter space, and Naegele Outdoor Advertising Company, which provides $16,200 of billboard space. Wells and Company, a public relations firm, volunteers their services free of charge. Aside from donations, the athletic department works with a $30,000 special promotions budget.

The target audience of the campaign is families with daughters. Keeping this in mind, the women's athletic department deliberately schedules certain events on Sundays. ``We have to be in a family's consciousness when they decide how they're going to spend their entertainment dollars,'' says Baker.

The athletes serve as role models for youngsters. ``Little girls need heroes as well as little boys,'' Baker explains. ``We're a natural outlet for that. We not only have a lot of families coming out to see our events, we've got little girls lining up for autographs.''

The athletic department is already planning for next year's phase of the campaign, and hopes to attract more corporate funding. ``Our horizons are wide open,'' says Baker. ``We just need to continue with the resources to accomplish more. And we're finding ways.''

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