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UCLA athletics' enhanced branding and marketing efforts are starting to take shape

UCLA athletics' enhanced branding and marketing efforts are starting to take shape
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen wears an Under Armour jersey during practice on Aug. 16. UCLA's new deal with Under Armour includes $1 million per year for marketing. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA's offense is going to cover a lot more ground this week.

Images of quarterback Josh Rosen and receiver Darren Andrews adorning Metro Rail cars will whoosh along the Blue and Gold lines that run across Southern California. Rosen can be seen clutching a ball in his hands at the end of one car awash in school colors, searching for a receiver. At the far end of the adjacent car, Andrews holds his left hand out as if to signal that he's open.

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Commuters slogging along area freeways might also have caught a glimpse of UCLA's enhanced branding and marketing efforts less than a week before the team's season opener against Texas A&M on Sunday at the Rose Bowl.

Nine billboards across the region feature a football player holding his arms up and pointing his thumbs at the back of his new Under Armour jersey. Three nearly identical billboards have been erected in the Bay Area.

The Bruins also are rolling out digital and newspaper ads; a digital commercial; outdoor "wallscapes" at The Grove over the holiday season; banners covering an elevator tower at The Americana at Brand; and a daylong event scheduled for Oct. 7 at Venice Beach that will feature the men's and women's basketball teams.

"That's all stuff we've never been able to do before," said Josh Rebholz, UCLA's senior associate athletic director for external relations who oversees the department's marketing efforts.

It's all made possible by UCLA's record 15-year, $280-million deal with Under Armour that includes a yearly $1-million outlay for marketing purposes, allowing the school's athletic department to more than triple its previous marketing budget.

The Bruins hope the huge bump in resources can help them claim a bigger slice of a crowded local sports market that now includes 11 professional teams in addition to crosstown rival USC.

"I think it's going to work to the degree that it's getting the UCLA brand out there, it's getting people thinking about UCLA, but it ultimately depends on how well UCLA does the first several games, really," George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State, said of the efforts to promote the Bruins football team.

"I think we've gotten to this position where it's like, man, if you're not winning almost every game, if you're not competing for the Pac-12 title or if you're not a top-10 team, it's like, OK, we've got other options, we're ready to move on to somebody else. You've just got an intensely competitive landscape here right now."

Under Armour's marketing expertise was part of the allure for UCLA when the Bruins agreed last year to partner with the apparel company to supply uniforms and shoes as part of a cleaner, more streamlined look. Under Armour had already rolled out promotional campaigns for Notre Dame, Auburn and Wisconsin, among other schools, before adding UCLA to its stable of major college programs.

"They worked shoulder to shoulder with us to come up with a comprehensive new branding initiative that maintains tradition but also evolves the UCLA brand," Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "Once you have a cohesive brand look and story, you have to showcase it and talk about it. We intentionally built a dedicated annual marketing spend into the deal with that in mind."

Some of the initiatives' impact is easier to measure than others. Outfront Media, which operates the UCLA billboards, estimates that 991,000 people per week will see the one located at Lincoln Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport, though it's much harder to gauge how many of those passersby will buy tickets. Each billboard costs as much as $20,000 per month, depending on location.

An ad for football tickets on Facebook generated 424,000 impressions during a two-week period this month as well as 69,000 views of an accompanying video, Rebholz said. The ad cost was $3,682 but triggered 63 purchases and $13,000 in revenue, resulting in a return of more than 3was½ the investment.

Football, men's and women's basketball and women's gymnastics, the athletic program's top revenue producers, are no longer the only sports being heavily peddled as part of the new push. A weekly ad in the sports section of The Times has promoted women's soccer matches and will list home events for all 25 varsity sports the rest of the school year.

Just last week, UCLA athletic officials got their first look at a digital commercial that encompasses a wide swath of teams. Rebholz said the hope is that the ad can eventually run on local television as well. Digital ads for football and men's basketball tickets have already popped up on Facebook, Instagram and Google.

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The Metro Rail ads featuring Rosen and Andrews are scheduled to start running this week — with each player's consent after they signed waivers to use their likeness. (The player wearing No. 17 featured in the billboards is not a member of the team but an actor.)

The partnership between UCLA and Under Armour — and the brands' accompanying cross-promotion — involves reciprocal benefits. UCLA fans who see ads for their beloved school covering the elevator tower at The Americana at Brand in Glendale might be tempted to visit the adjacent Under Armour store and buy UCLA gear, with both the apparel company and the school profiting.

Similarly, attendees at a free, co-hosted Venice Beach event in October could buy one-of-a-kind Under Armour shoes through a custom design station while also snagging UCLA basketball tickets after seeing the men's and women's teams take halfcourt shots during an open practice.

UCLA and Under Armour are only beginning to contemplate what might come next.

"We have a bunch of crazy ideas," Rebholz said. "We want to make a splash, we want it to be classy and clean, we want it to really show our brand well, but it also needs to be something that UCLA fans and alumni walk by and they're proud of."

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