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.
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.
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