The Quiet Constituency in Tennessee Vols Saga: Sponsors

Recent incidents involving the University of Tennessee athletics program would likely rather be forgotten by many followers of the Big Orange. Three Vols football players were arrested in November for their involvement in a robbery of a convenience store. On New Year's Day, four men's basketball players were arrested on drug and weapon charges. Then, last Tuesday head football coach Lane Kiffin made an abrupt departure after only one season to take the head coaching position at the University of Southern California. Kiffin's resignation set off a fury of protests from students on campus, feeling that their football team and university had been betrayed by Kiffin.

One constituency that has not been heard from during this spate of unwelcome events is the corporate sponsors of Tennessee athletics. National brands such as Coca-Cola, Ford, State Farm, and Verizon Wireless are among the sponsors on the Vols roster. These sponsors as well as others spend large sums of money to associate their brands with UT sports. Why? They want to access the loyal audiences that follow Tennessee sports. In theory, the image of the property being sponsored (UT athletics) influences the image people hold of sponsors. If that is the case, do sponsors really want their image to be shaped by the negative events of recent months? I do not believe that is the outcome they had in mind when signing on as sponsors.

How should we interpret the sponsors' silence? Do they not care that the happenings in the Tennessee athletics department could reflect negatively on them? Or, do the sponsors have confidence that UT athletics director Mike Hamilton will effectively manage the situation and maintain the integrity of the Vols brand name? In either case, it is very important that Tennessee athletics proactively manage the program's image. The action taken (or lack of action taken) sends signals to different stakeholder groups about the brand. For the sake of the fans of the Big Orange as well as corporate partners, the signal that needs to be sent loud and clear is that leadership will take whatever steps necessary to portray Tennessee positively.

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