Circling the city of Raleigh, North Carolina lies one of the richest groupings of colleges and universities in the country.
Known as the ‘Research Triangle,’ it is comprised of elite collegiate sports programs like Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State. Other well-known colleges in the area include East Carolina, Charlotte, and UNC-Wilmington, among others.
As the most prominent professional sports team in the Raleigh area, the Carolina Hurricanes have looked to take advantage of the numerous local colleges and universities, and are now turning to them to help further expand its fanbase.
In 2017, the Hurricanes launched the College Colors campaign, partnering with four schools to feature a co-branded hat at select home games at PNC Arena. Those schools were Duke, ECU, NC State, and UNC. One year later, they expanded the program to nine schools, where games hosting ECU and NC State were sold out with Duke and UNC promotions being near sellouts.
Now, as the 2020 Spring semester is approaching, the College Colors program now stands at 13 colleges and universities.
“We thought it was something in utilizing each school’s color and their logo, but making sure there was a Canes logo front and center,” said Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy Mike Forman. “That was where we were saying, ‘they could all join together and that they’re Canes fans first and putting that as the forefront.’ Here’s my school that I’m passionate about and proud to be a part of. But regardless of whether I’m in a red Canes hat or a teal Canes hat, I’m a Canes fan first.”
The schools that are part of the Hurricanes’s College Colors campaign include Appalachian State, Campbell, Charlotte, Duke, East Carolina, Elon, NC AT&T, NC Central, NC State, UNC, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington, and Wake Forest.
The first College Colors Night during the 2019-2020 school year was held when the Hurricanes partnered with NC State to offer a deep ticket discount to active students, alumni, employees, and unaffiliated fans for the Jan. 10 game against the Arizona Coyotes. It also came with a limited edition co-branded hat. Ticket prices along with the hat ranged from $40 and $60 for terrace value and lower level seats, respectively, to $92 for club select seats.
There were 16,476 fans in attendance for the occasion, a slight dip from the Hurricanes’ average home-game crowd of 16,543. Both the Hurricanes and NC State did not comment on how many College Colors Night tickets were sold for that game.
With more colleges and universities now beginning the start of their respective spring semesters, Campbell and Wake Forest will be hosted by the Hurricanes on January 17 when the team plays the Anaheim Ducks.
Already, Campbell – who had previously never worked with a professional sports property – have sold out their share of tickets, where discounts ranged from 29.8% and 43.6% for terrace value and lower level seats, respectively, to 31.3% for club select seats.
“We started working with the Hurricanes this year,” said Kevin Underwood, Campbell’s assistant director of marketing. “They approached us about joining the College Colors program, and we jumped at it. We hope that this will strengthen our relationship with them moving forward and also strengthen our relationship with the community in the Raleigh area.”
Hosting the January 17 College Colors Night with Campbell is Wake Forest, which has internal ties to the Hurricanes. Forman graduated from Wake Forest in 2007, where he served as an intern in the athletics department under Mike Odom, who currently is the Demon Deacons’ associate athletic director of strategic communications and championships .
Over the years, Forman and Odom stayed in touch, connecting again last year around hosting a College Colors Night for Wake Forest.
While Odom declined to comment on the success of last year’s College Night, he expects to see growth ahead of the Hurricanes-Ducks game on January 17.
“The more we can get our logo associated with brands like the Hurricanes and in the Triangle market as part of the ‘Big Four,’ we want to grow our brand not only regionally, but nationally and internationally,” Odom said. “Opportunities like this help us take a step forward.”
Other teams across professional sports have looked to connect with college students as a way to find new fans.
In the 2017 MLB season, the Braves launched their inaugural College Nights program at SunTrust Park, said Senior Vice President of Marketing Adam Zimmerman. Directed at both active and former college students, included in each ticket package was a Braves co-branded hat with additional merchandise for fans to purchase in the team clubhouse store coinciding with their college night.
By 2018, 14 universities partnered with the Braves, said Zimmerman. Schools like Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee finished tops in terms of retail sales and ticket packages across their College Nights.
With 22 schools now working with the Braves on College Nights, Zimmerman sees potential to now expand the program to major high schools around Atlanta. The Braves have also grown – and will continue to grow – their collegiate portfolio by targeting more historically black colleges and universities, said Zimmerman.
Last season alone, five HBCUs collaborated with the Braves on College Nights: Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M, Morehouse, North Carolina A&T, and Spelman. As the Braves get closer to their season opener on April 3 against the Miami Marlins, Zimmerman hopes to lock down more HBCU partners for College Nights.
“We have fantastic, powerful HBCUs right here in our footprint,” Zimmerman said. “We have the opportunity to craft relationships with historically black colleges and universities. There’s a preponderance of HBCUs in the South, and it’s something that resonates with our fan base.”
While sports seasons always have an end date, an alumni’s pride for their alma mater is more long-lasting. When looking back over the past couple of years, Forman has grown to appreciate the passion that fans at College Night – whether it’s students or alum – have for their school.
Despite already working with 13 regional universities, Forman knows that it’s difficult establishing relationships with every school. Having grown from four collegiate partners in 2017 to 13 in 2019, there already is potential of expanding to 18 by the end of 2020. Whatever number he winds up working with, Forman is making sure the Hurricanes aren’t just adding partners without any careful thought around it.
“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew,” Forman said. “We joke about it, but it’s true internally: we could offer 999 schools in this program, and someone that’s a fan of that 1000th school could be upset that we didn’t include their school.”
“We understand that, but we’re trying to be strategic with making sure that we roll it out and can roll it out in a way that we’re setting ourselves up to be successful,” he said.