The Big Ten men's college basketball championship final last weekend at Madison Square Garden had a new type of brand sponsor: SoFi. The San Francisco-based personal finance brand joins a small club of finance startups making a name for themselves through a connection to sports. Quicken Loans has long-established sports sponsorships, including naming rights to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and links to college sports teams; and Credit Karma is playing in gaming, by becoming the "official personal finance partner" to eLeague, the gaming league formed by Turner Broadcasting and IMG tournament two years ago.
“As part of an overall media buying strategy across a number of platforms and formats, we’ve identified sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the Big Ten tournament and the X Games as excellent ways to reach our target audience," said Margi Brown, SoFi's vice president of marketing and media. "Our marketing strategy is driven by meeting our members where they are, with a unique focus on brand awareness marketing." Big-name sports sponsorships have long been the domain of big banks. Bank of America and Citi, the two largest bank sponsors of sporting events, each spend between $80 million and $85 million per year on sponsorships, according to consultancy ESP Properties, with some flagship examples including B of A's relationship with Major League Baseball and Citi Field. But now, startups like SoFi are getting into the sponsorship game. SoFi is using sports sponsorships to become more of a household name and strengthen its connection to customers and would-be customers, recent graduates and students.
Though SoFi's use of sports as a marketing tool began two years ago with Super Bowl ads, it's since branched out to other sporting events. The multi-year Big Ten agreement makes SoFi an official presenting sponsor of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament giving it a prominent on-site presence at New York's Madison Square Garden, including courtside signage and logo placement throughout the venue. SoFi was the official presenter of on-air television coverage on the Big Ten Network and was featured on Big Ten advertising throughout tournament week. The basketball tournament amplifies its relationship with the Big Ten, for which it became an official corporate sponsor last year. SoFi also sponsored extreme sports event X Games in Aspen in January.Marketing efforts to boost brand recall and awareness are a growing area for SoFi. Sports events serve two purposes: to build visibility among a mass audience, and enhance its relationship among customers and prospects. Prominent sporting sponsorships present the company as a large, well-resourced entity capable of standing on its own alongside other larger consumer brands. For example, as a corporate sponsor to The Big Ten Conference, SoFi joins the likes of Gatorade, Shell, State Farm and T-Mobile. The company declined to comment on how much the sponsorships cost, but said they amount to a "small portion" of the company's overall budget. "You can still have that impact both on television and with a live audience in an arena as somebody who walks in expecting to see Chase or Wells Fargo -- all of a sudden, SoFi is there, it puts them on a level playing field with the deeper-pocketed competitors," said Jim Andrews, vice president of ESP Properties. While SoFi aims for a big brand presence at par with financial giants, focusing on college events also lets it zero in on the college community audience. College events let the company reach a captive audience of customers and would-be customers, including students who may need to refinance their loans after graduating, along with alumni and friends who may be interested in SoFi loans and other products. "Think of it as a ticket to the locker room," said sponsorship consultant Raymond Bednar. "It allows them to stand out against the sea of new fintech offerings by connecting to their target in a non-fintech way." Images via SoFi