by Amy Skidmore
In 2014, the Golden Bears from Upper Arlington High School earned a spot in the championship game for Ohio Division I boys’ basketball. It had been 76 years since the last U.A. team had advanced to the state finals, and I can tell you it was a season to remember.
More than 18,000 fans packed the Ohio State University basketball arena in Columbus to cheer on their team. The tournament organizers said they had never seen such a crowd. But the turnout was not surprising to those of us who knew the team’s path to that point. The tournament was simply the culmination of something quite remarkable.
This was a talented team, no doubt. But state finalists? It sure didn’t look like it on paper. The other teams were bigger and owned some impressive stats. But those Golden Bears were hard workers. They dedicated themselves to grueling practices year round. They had the basketball smarts and the skills, but they also had something else, and it was something that can’t be underestimated. They were a team —top to bottom, starter to bench — and they brought the community along for the ride. In short, they shared their experience, and they did so with honesty and personality. Looking back, it’s clear to see they were actually incredible marketers and their “campaign” created a momentum that couldn’t be stopped.
The charm of this team was its transparency. You knew who were the starters and you knew who sat the bench. While that can often fracture a team, it instead created an opportunity, and “The UA Bench” was born. An initial tweet from @TheUABench morphed into an identity for all to embrace — the team, their classmates and the community. Everyone looked forward to hearing who was the bench player of the week, whether it was for their 65 high-fives during a game or their lunchtime assist of passing a napkin to a teammate. A simple logo was added to t-shirts, and the student section adopted them as their official uniform and insisted on wearing them to every game lest the “mojo” be disturbed.
Like any great marketing, the power and the appeal of the UA Bench was that the message was humble, human and inclusive. Can you say your marketing has led to a fan base of thousands? Do you think it takes too much money to make an impact? Are you afraid to show too much personality because it isn’t what “business people” do?
I think the Golden Bears proved otherwise. The message always matters more than the dollars spent.
In case you were wondering, the Golden Bears led the entire championship game until a last second three-pointer in regulation led to ultimate defeat in overtime. Several sport reporters declared it the best high school basketball game they had ever seen.