Highly visible sports marketing efforts are drawing recruits into U.S. Army ranks
For many years, the U.S. Army was - to paraphrase one of its own advertising slogans - all that it could be. At least when marketing itself to prospective recruits.
"Back in the days I was enlisted, there were three places the Army could look for young people: ABC, CBS and NBC," says Tom Tiernan, chief of event marketing and promotions for the U.S. Army Accessions Command in Fort Knox, Ky. "Today, with the wide range of entertainment options available to young people - the Internet, 300 cable channels, satellite TV - the Army cannot afford the amount of advertising it would take for us to meet our recruiting mission if we depended solely on traditional advertising."
That's why the Army now spends upward of $24 million a year on sports marketing initiatives, including title sponsorship of the annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school football game, a presence at Arena Football League games and sponsorship of racing teams competing in NASCAR and National Hot Rod Association events. Though other U.S. armed services branches have dabbled in sports economics, the Army is clearly at the head of the class. "All of us are involved with NASCAR in some form or fashion," Tiernan says. "But because our recruiting mission is equal to all the other services combined, naturally our advertising budget is much larger. We have more money to put toward it."
By "recruiting mission," Tiernan means that every year the Army looks to sign between 100,000 and 120,000 new recruits to contracts, which commit the typical soldier to anywhere from two to six years of service. In fact, it was a recruiting mission shortfall, in 1999, that sparked the first sports marketing initiative. The following year, Congress, which had long placed limits on sponsorship spending, directed the Army to conduct a five-year motor sports outreach test.
"The congressional language also required us to have an education component attached to whatever we did in motor sports," Tiernan says. "The NHRA has a program called 'Youth in Education Services,' which brings middle school, high school and college students out to the track for a 45-minute career seminar. They hear about career opportunities within the NHRA. They get to talk to a crew member from our top-fuel dragster team. They get to hear from our driver. And they get to hear from a recruiter, who talks about his experiences in the Army and how the Army has helped him."
The affiliation with the NHRA proved so successful that Congress trusted the Army to build similar partnerships elsewhere in the sports world. January 3 will mark the third time the four-year-old All-American Bowl will be played under Army sponsorship, and the relationship continues to grow. Cheerleading and band competitions complement the game, and a coaches clinic will debut with the upcoming event. Broadcast nationally the past two years by ESPN2, the game itself brings the top 78 high school senior players in the country (as selected by renowned recruiting analyst Tom Lemming) to San Antonio's Alamodome, but only after the Army has traveled to every player's hometown to announce his selection.
It's hard to put a number on the actual contracts the selection tour and the All-American Bowl (with its abundance of in-arena Army signage) produces each year, says Tiernan, adding, "I do know that we more than double the number of leads who would have talked to recruiters at some other point along the way."
Keep in mind that it's not necessarily the athletes who the Army is targeting, since those who participate in the All-American bowl are destined for four-year college playing careers, and perhaps ultimately the NFL. Rather, the game and its peripheral events serve to bolster the Army's image among its target demographic group within the tour communities and among the game's attendees. "It's one way that the Army can show that we do in fact provide door-opening opportunities for young Americans," Tiernan says. "It's also an opportunity for us to illustrate the common values between football and the Army. Both teach you about teamwork, leadership and dedication. And both help to prepare you for success in life, no matter what course you choose to take."
The Army considered football such a good fit that two years ago it began partnering with the Arena Football League and arenafootball2. (The latter partnership was not renewed following this season; the Army will reach a contractually dictated number of target markets when the original AFL expands next season.) Army recruiting kiosks with interactive football skills elements and prize giveaways can be found in every arena during the AFL regular season, and special pregame and halftime ceremonies are common. "We probably had more than a thousand kids sworn in at Arena Football League games this season," says Tiernan, who notes that recruitment soared during the Iraq War. "We were at a game April 5 in New York, and we did a swear-in of these brand-new soldiers," Tiernan recalls. "The crowd went nuts. The kids were beaming. You could see their chests puffed out. They were very appreciative of how the crowd reacted to what they were doing."
While other branches of the military may still be finding their sports marketing legs, Tiernan admits that the Army is spread about as thin as it can go right now. "We've probably peaked on sports, as far as major sponsorship," he says. "This year, we decided to take the plunge with NASCAR, and we just added a motorcycle team to NHRA with two motorcyclists. But we also need to look at some other areas to make it truly sports and event marketing."
If it does nothing else on the sports marketing front, the Army already has tapped into a pair of fan bases that tend to count athletic youths among their most loyal - just the types of individuals who make good soldiers. Says Tiernan, "Just like much of corporate America, the Army has had to change its business practices in order to compete and be successful in getting America's best and brightest into our ranks. We have to go where the kids are."