championship-game

I’m a pretty avid college football fan, and tonight is the College Football Playoff National Championship game, the culmination of another exciting season. The game pits the undefeated Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) against Southeastern Conference (SEC) powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide.

scrolltide450It’s worth noting that I’m a South Carolina native and a proud graduate of the University of South Carolina. So the national championship game features my Gamecocks’ cross-state rivals (Clemson) vs. fellow SEC team (Alabama). The conundrum for Gamecock fans, like me, has been: Who do you root for? If my Facebook feed is any indication, it looks like most Gamecocks are cheering for Alabama (or depending on your point of view, cheering against Clemson).

But I think it goes deeper. If Clemson had fallen to the Oklahoma Sooners on New Year’s Eve and not made it to the championship game, I think most fans from SEC schools would still be cheering on Alabama tonight. I also attended the University of Georgia for graduate school, so I have a fondness for the DAWGS as well as the Gamecocks!

The SEC has done a masterful job of making all its schools believe that when one of us wins, we all win. In fact, a few years ago, Discover Card – with the help of pollsters at Rasmussen Reports – proclaimed SEC fans as the most loyal in college football, But how has the SEC been able to cultivate such diehard fans? It’s followed some of the basic principles of building brand loyalty. Here are a few:

Deliver Consistent Quality. In a piece written for Inc., Otterbox founder and CEO Curt Richardson wrote, “When I think of premium brands, quality is the first word that pops into my head. A quality product will land you customers, but brand loyalty is created by consistency.” The SEC has won seven of the past 10 national football championships with four different teams. That kind of consistency speaks for itself.

RVA GamecocksProvide an Inspiring Brand Experience. “We live in an experience-driven world. Consumers gravitate toward those experiences that provide them with the stimulation they are looking for. People have become sensitive about how they spend their time and what inspires them to do so,” writes Glenn Llopis for Forbes. Whether it’s at an SEC football stadium, on a social network or in some other way, the SEC provides its fans with a true brand experience. For instance, in Richmond, Va., where I live, for the past several years the alumni clubs of the SEC schools have gathered together for a “100 days ‘til kick-off” happy hour for camaraderie and good-natured inter-conference ribbing. When alumni from the SEC’s two newest schools – Missouri and Texas A&M – seemed a bit timid because they were the new kids in the SEC, the alumni from the other schools made a point of welcoming them to the SEC family, perpetuating the SEC brand.

Continue to Invest in Your Brand. Whether building new athletic facilities, investing in top-notch coaches and providing other resources, the SEC continues to invest in its brand, and it has the money to do it. In fact, in 2014, the SEC debuted its new television network to the delight of millions of SEC fans “who can’t get enough coverage of the most powerful conference in college sports.” While I was at that “100 days” event in 2014, SEC alumni clubs were passing out flyers and spreading the word about the new network, encouraging everyone to contact their cable providers to insist that it be available in our region. It is.

It goes without saying that for all its prominence and loyal fans, the SEC has many haters. On more than one occasion, I’ve had friends from schools in other conferences proclaim how overrated the SEC is. And the SEC certainly doesn’t have the monopoly on fan loyalty. When I think college basketball, I think of the ACC.

But SEC must be doing something right. In 2014, the conference generated $476 million between payouts from football games, the NCAA Tournament and TV deals. That comes to about $34 million per member school, easily the most of any conference in the country, according to Forbes.

None of that would be possible without a great brand and a loyal fan base.