Heisman Trophy Campaigns

Last Updated on September 23, 2014

Back in the summer of 2011, Heath Nielsen, Associate AD for Communications at Baylor University, knew the school had something special in Robert Griffin III.  At the time their goals heading into the season were to win enough games to make it to a second straight bowl game and help in any way possible to get RGIII to be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in New York City, not because they thought he could win that year but because being a finalist in 2011 could be the springboard for a big run at the trophy in 2012, which would have been his senior year.

Convinced that universities were moving away from traditional Heisman “campaigns,” Baylor opted to take a subtle, “less is more” approach.  Instead of flashy high-priced advertising and traditional weekly mailers, they settled on an RGIII trading card set that were sent to media/Heisman voters throughout the season.  In addition to the trading cards, Baylor also created a website, put out weekly videos, and embraced Facebook and Twitter as platforms that could get the word  out.  They created a “Join the Third” movement on Facebook and Twitter where they asked fans to add a “III” at the end of their name or a #JoinTheThird hashtag and post a declaration of support for RGIII and found that quite a few non Baylor fans even joined in to support RGIII.

We all know RGIII went on to win the Heisman Trophy, go second in the NFL draft, and become a house hold name for football fans . . . but what did it mean for Baylor University?   The answer is staggering.  When it was all said and done Baylor spent less than $10K on a promotional push for RGIII. Nielsen says experts have estimated the media exposure, increased tickets sales, and giving to the University received during and after RGIII’s Heisman run have a value of up to $250 million. Not a bad little investment for a school who believes one of their own can make that magical Heisman run.

So with results like Baylor’s, Texas A&M must have had a similar campaign for Johnny Manziel last year with something like it coming this year too right?  Not exactly.  While Baylor had the luxury of RGIII being an established player heading into the season, Johnny Football erupted on the scene last year as a freshman playing for a team whose coach doesn’t allow his freshman players to talk to the media.  However, where Manziel’s lack of communication with the media could be seen as a drawback, Texas A&M had a different area where they thought they more than made up for it.  Texas A&M joined the SEC last year, and according to Jason Cook, Senior Associate AD External Affairs at Texas A&M, it was a game changer. “I firmly believe Johnny Manziel playing for Texas A&M in the SEC is a very big reason why he won the Heisman Trophy,” said Cook.

How much did Texas A&M feel they had to spend to adequately promote Manziel for Heisman last year?  Nothing.  Cook is adamant the exposure Texas A&M and Manziel receive on a weekly basis playing a nationally televised game against a likely nationally ranked opponent is an advantage they have over other schools outside the SEC.  If you’re a college football fan, chances are you remember this play at Alabama on CBS that ended up catapulting Manziel into the Heisman race and being a big reason why he ended up winning it.

What Texas A&M decided to do instead was to simply focus on the facts by comparing Manziel’s numbers to other Heisman winners and against other finalists from last year.  They put up a website, provided facts, and acted as a public relations influencer under the premise that Manziel’s play against the SEC conference spoke for itself.

Where Texas A&M set itself apart from others is what they have done since Manziel won the Heisman.  Instead of running a traditional campaign while he was in the midst of his run they have flipped the script, knowing that Manziel will be around another couple years, and have done all their marketing since he won the award.  In the offseason, college football followers have heard and seen a lot of Johnny Manziel: there was a billboard in Times Square and there was the appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno where Johnny Football presented actress Megan Fox with a Texas A&M jersey for her new baby.

So will we see Manziel on a billboard in Times Square when the season starts?  Probably not.  Texas A&M has no plans to change what they do during the season should Manziel be up for consideration again.  Texas A&M is under the belief a lot of schools with preseason Heisman candidates are under these days: it’s not about the money you spend promoting your player in the preseason anymore, it’s about capturing that “Heisman moment” and what you do with it from that point on.  Should Manziel have another moment like he did at Alabama, or another season like he had last year, Texas A&M will have a plan to capitalize, but they will not be running any sort of “campaign” for Johnny Football.

Texas A&M isn’t the only school with a preseason Heisman trophy candidate who believes this.  Tim Tessalone, USC Sports Information Director, has been at USC for numerous Heisman winners and candidates.  This year receiver Marqise Lee takes center stage for the Trojans and they, like Texas A&M and others, don’t have a campaign set up for him.

Tessalone has seen changes in the way schools approach promoting Heisman candidates over the years. “In the past, the off season was when we’d work to bring name recognition to a player, so that going into the season media and the voters didn’t just know the name of the player from the previous year but they knew he had ‘Heisman Candidate’ next to it coming into the new year.”

Now schools have realized that putting money behind a certain player before a season even starts can be risky business.  Of the last three Heisman winners (Cam Newton, RGIII, Manziel), none were considered favorites heading into the year.

Tessalone says the Trojans will take a low key approach to promoting Lee. They will most likely do something similar to what they did with Matt Barkley when he was a candidate last year: put together a website, do some video series featuring Lee, and perhaps do an app for fans where they can follow the team as well Lee.

Having seen and been through it all at USC, Tessalone is seeing what other schools are seeing these days, with younger guys coming out of nowhere to win the Heisman, it’s all about timing and being ready when the “Heisman moment” happens. In talking to numerous schools who have preseason Heisman candidates the feeling amongst them is the same, with schools forgoing the traditional campaign route and relying more on Twitter, Facebook, and social media in general to help capture the “Heisman moment.”  The term “campaign” doesn’t even really apply to promoting a Heisman candidate these days, now the general sentiment amongst schools is more of a wait-and-see approach where they simply have a plan in place for if and when it is needed.

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