Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A strong case made for the University at Buffalo to change their name

New University at Buffalo athletic director Danny White made some noise in July with his rebranding efforts at that university.

The University is officially "The University at Buffalo, The State University of New York" and has historically marketed their sports teams as "The Buffalo Bulls".  White is choosing to focus on the "New York" part of the name.  He has begun to feature "New York" a brand.  He dreams of a day when the university's teams might be commonly known as the "New York Bulls".

In marketing terms this is a great idea, potentially helping expanding the appeal of a weak brand university by changing the brand.

Other universities have tried similar tactics.  Division I schools like The University of Memphis, Texas State University, Missouri State University and others have worked to develop more marketable brands.

But they did it differently.  They changed the names of the actual institution.

Unfortunately what is being tried in Buffalo is clearly a workaround --- and in that is a little unstable.  Really the optimal marketing move would be for the university to tweak their official name to take over the unused "New York State University" brand.

On, a poster by the name of Buffalo Lion very lucidly made the point that if the university made such a move, it would likely strongly improve their chances of securing a Big Ten invite.

On the surface the idea may seem laughable to many, but I think his argument is actually very sound.  It is both well made and worth expanding upon. 

As it stands today, UB has no shot of getting in. "Buffalo"  is far too limited and parochial of a brand for the Big 10 to accept.  There is no way to sell that as a peer to Penn State and Ohio State.

A name change to New York State might very well make them a much stronger candidate by eliminating that huge speed bump.

But there are hurdles to such a name change.

The SUNY system

The State of New York has a university system called the "State University of New York" - SUNY - system.    There are 13 degree granting campuses in the SUNY system.  Four of those are termed university centers -- the universities at Buffalo, Albany, Binghampton, and Stony Brook (on Long Island).

The thought is that Buffalo isn't going to pursue an outright name change because the current Chancellor of the SUNY system, Nancy Zimpher, sees all 13 degree granting campuses as equals and as such would be disinclined to allow one of them any advantage over the others.

"It you know it won't be approved, why try?" Seems to be the current line of thinking

For people who understand the power of a good collegiate brand, it is pretty plain that allowing the University at Buffalo to use the name "New York State University" would be a dramatic upgrade to that university's ability to market itself.

"X State University"  is usually the second strongest public university (and occasionally the strongest - ie. Louisiana State, Ohio State) in a state.  In that, the naming convention carries easy connotations to sports fans and the general public.

To people outside of New York, unfamiliar with the universities in New York State, the assumption would be that this renamed UB would be a big deal in the state, second only to New York University.  For those in that crowd who understand that NYU is a private school, they would accurately recognize that this renamed UB would be the New York equivalent of Penn State --- with NYU mirroring Ivy League school Penn.

That is exactly the understanding that would resonate with Big Ten supporters, making a dip down for a less developed athletic program potentially politically tolerable in Big Ten circles.

The trouble is that it would also give UB an SUNY approved advantage over the other 12 SUNY degree granting campuses and specifically over the other 3 university centers.

That is however, not a strong enough reason to say no.

Zimpher is a graduate of Ohio State and presumably as such is fully aware of the benefits being part of the CIC could generate.

She has however had to step in as head of the SUNY system and deal with a gross abuse of power in a grade changing scandal at the athletic program at Binghampton, one of the university centers.  That scandal saw the president of that university retire, the athletic director resign, and the head basketball coach dismissed. It lead to the SUNY system refocusing to ensure that athletic success remains secondary to academic success.

One can understand if the idea of helping a university's athletic program grow seems very much against her instincts.

But that view of the idea of Buffalo joining the Big 10 is very much an oversimplification. The benefits of this are not primarily athletic in nature.

What would UB be athletically in the Big 10 if admitted? For the next 10-15 years, as the school ramped up it's facilities, they would likely be just another program in the Big 10.  They would likely be hard pressed to make a bowl game in football or make the NCAA tournament in basketball most years until their facilities and fan support caught up with their competition.

Perhaps recruiting could dramatically improve as UB transitioned (especially in basketball), but one would think the likely end result for a New York State University in the Big Ten over the next 20 years would be a program the caliber of Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, or Northwestern. 

The real benefit would be academic.  Anything that is good for UB could easily be good for the other SUNY schools.  One would think an academic would see many ways to leverage a SUNY school's admission to the CIC.  (Perhaps she could request the additional admission of Stony Brook --- another SUNY AAU member --- into the CIC?)

Having the CIC's lobbying effort pumping federal research dollars into UB (and potentially all four university centers) would be a big net academic gain for students in the SUNY system.  And that is the point of her job, isn't it?

Blocking UB amounts to Zimpher cutting off the SUNY system's nose to spite it's face.

The needs of the city

The city has struggled to retain citizens in the face of economic troubles. Since the bills were founded in the 1960's, the city has lost over half of it's population.  In the last decade alone one can see the troubles facing Buffalo.  The city lost over 10% of its population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

That's a bad trend for an NFL city.

Sooner or later Buffalo will lose the Bills.  Ralph Wilson is 94.  The next owner of the Bills may not feel any need to pass on Los Angeles or a brand new stadium in the Inland Empire to continue to serve a much smaller and poorer community in Western New York.

That is, unfortunately, the national identity of Buffalo.  "The city most likely to lose their NFL team due to population erosion."

Having "Buffalo" in your name is not a strong position for a university.  UB fans like the city name in the title and enjoy how "The Buffalo Bulls"  mirror "The Buffalo Bills", but keeping the name is not a net positive for the city.

Even if the university isn't commonly known as "Buffalo" and doesn't have Buffalo in it's name --- it's still going to be located in Buffalo!

The city will still benefit from all the high paying jobs it creates.  The city will still benefit from all the people the university brings in.

So really the question is "What name would bring in more money?"

It may sting the heart of a proud Buffalo resident, but dumping Buffalo from the name could very well rev up the university's ability to rebuild the city.

If (and when) the Bills leave, it would be very reasonable to imagine Bills fans switching their support to the Bulls, if the Bulls are in a conference like the Big 10. That would largely validate the school's admission among Big 10 power brokers and could in turn transform the football program into a strong lure for even more students.

Consider the similarities between Austin and Buffalo.  Buffalo may be small for an NFL team, but should they lose the Bills, it is the perfect size to support a major college athletic program.  Buffalo will never attract another NBA team, but they could fill a Big 10 basketball arena.

Principles in the City of Buffalo need to be thinking about re-branding the city for the post Bills-era.  Being host to a Big 10 school would be a great transition.  Mayor Byron Brown and other influential Buffalo residents should be joining former Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano in pushing school officials to push the SUNY system to allow UB to adopt the "New York State" name.

(A few years ago, Golisano reportedly offered to give the university $8 million if they changed their name to New York State.  The gift was conditional reportedly because Golisano felt his money would not have the desired impact without the much better New York State name opening doors for the university.)

Never be scared to try to be great

I think the best move for Nancy Zimpher is not just to allow UB's personnel to change the university name, but rather to strongly encourage them to change their name and more, to do so immediately.

Buffalo Lion has is exactly right.

The parochial sound of  the "University at Buffalo" will prevent that university from ever gaining consideration for Big 10 admission.  It effectively takes UB off the board as a candidate.  In very simple terms, regardless of the financial benefits of such an admission, there would be no way for the Big Ten leadership to sell it to their rich alumni boosters.

None of those people want to talk with SEC and Pac-10 boosters about admitting an athletically under performing "city" university --- from the MAC, of all places.

Changing the name to specifically "New York State University" (no reference to Buffalo) in effect puts all of the SUNY systems's cards on the table and dares the Big 10 to pass.

It sets an expectation of an unlimited future for that university.  That is something Big 10 boosters can accept and talk about without embarassment.  "It is not just about money, NYSU is stepping up, just like Rutgers."  They can say when challenged by SEC and Pac-12 alumni.

At that point, the negatives become largely irrelevant.


In such a scenario, the fact that UB athletics do not draw Big 10-type numbers seems temporary.  Being in the Big 10 will create masses of UB fans and curiosity viewers in Buffalo.  Additionally, Buffalo is very close to historic Big 10 territory and would see much stronger turnouts in conference play, fueled by Big 10 alumni in western New York.

Non-competitive Football

On the football field NYSU might be slow to develop, but the kinds of athletic payouts the Big Ten Network would potentially create ($30-45 Million annually per school) could fund major facility upgrades and speed up the development of that program into a bowl caliber one. And, if the Bills do leave, UB athletics would likely inherit NFL caliber facilities.

Non-competitive Basketball

Basketball would likely respond quite quickly.  New York City is one of the premiere basketball talent hotbeds in the nation, Bobby Hurley is a well known guy, and with only 5 players on the court, one star can make a program. A single year's Big 10 share could transform basketball at the university.

What does it matter if NYSU is strong in basketball and weak in football in the Big 10?  It doesn't.

At that point, it boils down to some simple questions.

Changing UB's name makes the decision a financial one for the Big 10.

Does the big 10 want another school that can potentially generate games in or relevant to New York City AND New York State viewers?

Does the Big 10 want in state cable payouts from a state of 20 Million?

Does the CIC want NY's huge number of congressmen pushing research dollars their way?  Do they want another AAU school (or two) in their voting bloc?

The admission of the university (along with a strong football school to balance it) actually becomes quite a compelling argument. One hopes Chancellor Zimpher, the people of Buffalo, and other principles on the UB side see the potential there.

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