Coca-Cola High School
Marketing at Westlake: It's the Deal Thing
Professional and college sports teams have long been targeted by sneaker and soft drink makers eager to put their logos on athletes and in front of fans. High schools have become the new battleground. And the Eanes Independent School District (EISD) has become the first district in the Austin area to jump on the commercial endorsement bandwagon. Under a recently signed contract, Coke became the sole soft drink supplier to all eight EISD campuses. In return, Coke paid EISD $350,000 in cash up front and agreed to provide three scoreboards -- which, presumably, will have Coke's logo on them -- worth some $20,000. In addition, EISD will get a commission on every soft drink that Coke sells on its premises.
According to Bill Wheeless, the director of support services for EISD, the bulk of the cash EISD received will be used to pay for the new softball field at Westlake High School. And he says the deal simply solidifies Coke's position with the district. "Coke has always been the supplier and had individual deals with the schools for the vending operations. What this does is consolidate all of those arrangements."
Westlake is one of a half dozen Texas schools and a growing number of schools around the country that have signed lucrative commercial deals with soft drink makers. (The Bozeman, Montana School District just struck a four-year deal with Pepsi, which paid the district $12,000 up front to switch its 5,000 students from Coke to Pepsi). Here in Texas, the Clear Creek Independent School District near Houston made one of the most lucrative deals among the state's school districts last spring when it agreed to give Coke vending rights to the district's 29 campuses. Rick Gay, an assistant superintendent at Clear Creek, says that the district will get $180,000 every year from Coke. In return, Coke gets to sell its product to Clear Creek's 28,000 students. "It made sense to find a revenue source for our activity funds, which the principals use for club activities," he said. "The rationale for what we wanted to do was to get money so kids would have more time for academics and not have to be doing bake sales and car washes all the time to raise money."
The Austin Independent School District is thinking about siphoning off a few soft drink bucks of its own. "It's something we are looking at doing, not to generate revenues for the district, but to fund a program, for teacher training and development," says James Veitenheimer, the Area 1 superintendent for AISD. Veitenheimer says he currently has two "substantial" proposals in hand, one from Coke, the other from Pepsi, but declines to reveal the amounts of the potential deals.
Ron Lynch, the athletic director at Alvin High School, which recently signed a deal with Coke and is now negotiating a shoe contract with Reebok, says the deals help financially strapped schools provide opportunities for students. And he explains that high schools are simply tracking the big leagues. "If it's happening in the pros and colleges, it's eventually going to work down to the high schools," he said.
The shoe deals in the pros and college ranks first reached the high school level in the late 1970s when the Pony shoe company outfitted DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland. But Pony faltered and was replaced by the company that has become the marketing monolith of the Nineties: Nike. Nike -- which may be the most aggressive promoter of its product in the high school ranks -- has been sponsoring high school basketball programs since 1984 and currently has exclusive shoe deals with more than 100 schools. Last year, Nike paid St. Patrick's High School, a basketball powerhouse in New Jersey, $20,000 to switch from Adidas to Nike.
"Just like IBM and Apple, which give computers and software to schools, we donate equipment to high school basketball programs," says Nike spokesman Lee Weinstein. "We are trying to stay in touch with the game at the grassroots level."
Turf metaphors are common in the $11 billion-a-year athletic footwear business. Chris Persinger, a spokesman for Adidas, says, "The grassroots is where Adidas has started paying a lot of attention in the last three or four years."
Like Nike, Adidas donates its products to elite sports teams at the high school level, and both companies also work extensively through local dealers who sell discounted shoes to schools. Adidas recently completed deals with eight Oklahoma high schools which have agreed to wear Adidas shoes, socks, T-shirts, and other apparel.
Tom Ballenger, the athletic director at Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, one of the schools that signed with Adidas, explained that his school will get a 30% discount on all Adidas products. In addition, the school will get an 8% rebate if it buys other equipment -- like benches, bleachers, or water coolers -- through Adidas. Still, Ballenger was one of the few educators interviewed for this story who expressed misgivings about the trend toward shoe deals for high schools. "Our kids are so brand conscious it's unbelievable," he said. "Most coaches would like the kids to not be so brand conscious." But Ballenger added that his students will be wearing athletic logos in one form or another anyway. "Even though we don't like it that much, we are getting such a good deal that it outweighs the commercialization issue."
The move toward commercial endorsements in high schools "reflects, obviously, the inadequacy of public funding," says Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Schools are no longer able to provide the kind of programming that the public expects with the money the public provides." But Molnar, who has written a book on the commercialization of schools called Giving Kids the Business, says the trend is "an erosion in our culture between what is public and what is private. It represents a subversion of the idea that the school is for the public welfare."
Tamara Schwarz, program coordinator at the Oakland-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, says the sneaker and soft drink deals are "part of the growing trend of marketing to kids in schools." Schwarz points out that the Seattle school district recently rejected a plan to sell advertising space inside its schools. She says companies "are claiming to be concerned about education, when in reality, this is just marketing." Schwarz said that studies have shown that school children often don't know how to distinguish between what is advertisement and what is not. She adds that when students see products advertised "in school, it must be something the school is endorsing."
Given current trends, the commercialization of high schools will likely accelerate in the coming years. Fox Sports Southwest, which televises high school sporting events in Texas, has made sponsorship deals with several corporations including Pepsi, Gatorade, Dodge Trucks, and Sonic. And the University Interscholastic League, which governs high school sports statewide, has hired a Dallas marketing firm, Universal Sports America, to find more sponsors for its events. That firm's marketing and sales manager, Brian Corcoran, told the Houston Chronicle last week that for corporations, "There's not a better way to make an impact on their consumer than to get them when they're young."
Given that Corcoran's statement is undoubtedly true, Molnar is surprised that so few educators are opposing the intrusion of corporations into the schools. "Look," he said, "the devil didn't offer to take your soul for nothing. It was always for something people wanted."