By James Summerlin, Sports Editor
Athletic programs are some of the best public relations programs for universities.
Those who are not sports fans may not believe this, but the student who watches SportsCenter when he or she wakes up knows the colleges that have the best athletic programs and facilities. The athletic programs that win often make headlines in the sports section and front page of the newspaper.
Here is a short test to prove this point. How well would the general population do at answering these three questions?
- In the Princeton rankings this year, who has the best career services department? (University of Florida)
- Which school has the best library? (Harvard)
- Which school was named No. 1 in the South in U.S. News and World Report? (Ouachita Baptist University)
- Turning to athletics, who is No. 1 in the college football preseason poll this year? (Oklahoma)
- Who won the NCAA championship in basketball this year? (University of Connecticut)
- Name a school that is currently in a sports scandal. (Whatever you said was most likely correct.)
Sports bring attention to schools. That is why it is important for some schools to have decent athletic programs. For some schools, an athletic program is not a top priority, and it works for them. However, some students do want to go to schools that succeed in sports because they hear about them on television.
I am not saying Union is an unknown school, buried along with the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. Union is a top-notch campus and is known by Christian leaders, especially Baptist leaders, as one of the best Christian universities in America. Union has a niche audience, and that niche continues to support the school. For a Union student, the expectations are high in academics, education and spiritual walk. Union has been blessed, and those who know about Union know what it has to offer its students.
But for the secular student or Christian student who does not aspire to a Christ-centered education, the Union University brochure may not send the persuading message to the high school senior looking for a school if there is not enough national buzz surrounding it.
We have seen two instances in which Union’s name gets national attention. The first instance was the 2008 tornado. One could not watch a cable news channel Feb. 5, 2008 without seeing the destruction the tornado left behind. This happened the semester before I enrolled, and when people asked where I was going to school that year, I found it easier telling them it was the school that got hit by the tornado. Secular audiences heard the name Union for the first time and made the connection that it was in Jackson.
The second thing that has brought media attention to Union is winning in championship play. Union has made a name for itself in sports, especially women’s basketball. When a college is able to compete at the national level, it gets attention.
The brand name of the NCAA allows Union to become more recognizable to the future student and the potential employer of the Union graduate. Brand names are important. They are the reason Nike products sell better than Russell. Someone in the market for a television would buy a Samsung before they would buy a Vizio. The brand name gives a reputation you want to have.
Branding does not make the Union degree more or less prestigious, but it gives the school an exposure to a secular market the NAIA could not give. It gives a secular audience a reason to pay attention.
This branding allows Union to put its name on a national platform. The results of the change may not be shown immediately, but years from now Union can showcase among secular colleges as not only a top academic institution, but a superior athletic program as well.
The Union administration should be commended for their hard work in athletic re-alignment. The impact of this decision should positively affect Union and the direction it goes in years to come.