EUGENE, Ore. » In the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, Oregon sent customized football jerseys to some of its famous fans, including guitarist Tommy Thayer of Kiss, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and retired boxer Lennox Lewis.
The jerseys were part of a social media campaign to draw non-football fans to the Ducks. The attention-grabbing promotion was the latest for an athletic department that is known for innovative marketing. Now the school’s academic side is joining in.
Even before the Ducks face Ohio State in the national championship game Monday, overall university efforts — like the jersey campaign — are translating into the "Flutie Effect."
So named for the surge in applications at Boston College following quarterback Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary against Miami in 1984, in recent years the phenomenon has touched several schools. Boise State, for example, cited a 135 percent jump in online academic inquiries, record merchandise sales and an increase in donations following its perfect 13-0 season in 2006.
The Ducks aren’t leaving their Flutie Effect to chance.
Just before the Rose Bowl victory against Florida State, Oregon launched its new academic website. That was not a coincidence, said Tim Clevenger, the university’s associate vice president for communications, marketing, and brand management.
It was decided before the season started last fall to kick off a four-year overall marketing campaign using football as a welcome mat.
"As the season progressed, the Heisman announcement came out, we won the Pac-12 championship, and then we’re going to the Rose Bowl, the whole thing just steamrolled," Clevenger said. "It was an opportunity to say, ‘The excellence that the football team and the whole athletic program in general represent is what the University of Oregon is all about.’"
Billboards went up across Los Angeles. There were prospective student rallies. And Oregon debuted a new TV spot that ran for the first time during the Rose Bowl — taking advantage of the free 30-second ad the opposing schools both get during the game broadcast — which will run again on Monday during the game between the Ducks and Ohio State.
The effort, which is being privately funded, paid off. In the hour after the ad aired, Oregon’s web traffic quadrupled, Clevenger said. The traffic from the school’s main home page to the admissions page was six times what is was the previous year when the Ducks beat Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
The traffic to the academics information page doubled, and an "Explore Majors" page surged with six times the hits, Clevenger said.
"So it’s very clear that the broad awareness that our team brings is translating to people checking out the university and finding out about us," he said.
The evolution of the Ducks’ athletic brand has been an ongoing process for more than a decade, starting when Nike co-founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight posed a simple question to the athletic department: "What do you need to get to the next level?"
That brought new facilities and state-of-the-art locker rooms that gave way this season to the sparkling Hatfield Dowlin Complex adjacent to Autzen Field, with the Ferrari-leather seats in the team auditorium and Italian marble in the showers. The idea was to help lure top recruits to Eugene in a conference where Los Angeles and Seattle are more attractive destinations.
And it brought those countless flashy uniforms the team is known for.
Amid all the Nike-facilitated flash, Oregon also started winning. In the past 10 years, the Ducks have the most wins among power conference schools with 106; LSU is second with 103. Coach Chip Kelly brought in an unconventional hyperdrive spread offense in 2007 that the Ducks have built upon even now that Kelly has moved on to the NFL.
And that’s key to their brand development, said Ed O’Hara, chief creative officer and senior partner at SME Branding, a brand-building firm headquartered in New York.
"That’s the Flutie Effect right there. It (winning) gives validity to everything they’re doing on the branding side," O’Hara said. "They’re proving it on the field, so it’s a beautiful harmony of these bold new brand presentation ideas and success. That’s a great, great combination."
O’Hara said what Oregon — with Nike’s help — does best is use surprise as part of the strategy.
"It really has upset this notion of tradition, in my opinion. Change and innovation is part of their tradition. It’s a funny use of those two terms, ‘Change is their tradition,’ but that’s what you’ve come to expect," he said.
Oregon’s athletic department is more than happy to share those ideas with the academic side.
"From our standpoint, it truly is a great window into the University of Oregon, because there are going to be people watching the college football championship, and those that watched the Rose Bowl, who are going to be exposed to the University of Oregon for the first time," said Craig Pintens, senior associate athletic director of marketing and public relations. "So that kid in South Dakota, who might only be familiar with us because of football, hopefully is curious enough to go to the school’s website and learn more."