Behind the Development of the BTN Big 10K:
By Delivering a Unique Big Ten Experience, the Big Ten Network Incentivized its Fan Base and Created a Message That Resonated With its Viewers

Written By Erin Harvego, Vice President of Marketing, Big Ten Network
Edited By Yashna Malhotra, Medill IMC Class Of 2015

Published on 10/21/2015


Like many good marketing ideas, this one started with a no.

In the early summer of 2012, we were planning for the upcoming football season. It was a big year for the Big Ten Network (BTN). The Big Ten had just added Nebraska to the conference and we were looking for a way to connect with our everexpanding fan base.

Each year the Conference holds its annual Big Ten Kick-Off Luncheon in Chicago, which brings in coaches, players and fans from all of the Big Ten schools. We knew this would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the network and our fall programming.

Chicago was also the ideal location. Not only is it the third-largest city in the U.S. and an important television market for BTN, it’s also home to the most Big Ten alumni in the country: over 345,000 live within this media market.

But it’s also a crowded market. With plenty of entertainment options and strong pro sports franchises, there is plenty of competition for viewers’ attention.

As we searched for a unique way to stand out in a tough marketplace, we were approached by Chicago-based running store Fleet Feet Sports. Fleet Feet executives pitched an idea to create a Big Ten race for alumni. Initially, I said no. A race? Running races are standalone events. They aren’t used as marketing vehicles to promote something else.

But as I looked into the idea more, I realized there was absolutely no reason why a race couldn’t be used as a marketing vehicle. There are enormous branding and tune-in opportunities within a race – from the race shirts, to the signage, to the pre-race communication — and it couldn’t be a more perfect demographic for us.

The other persuasive factor was that there was no other event like this. College is a unique, defining period in people’s lives. The emotional connection one has to his/ her college experience is hard to recreate. By bringing Big Ten fans together to actively participate in a race, BTN could give people the opportunity to represent their alma mater one more time and thereby connect with its fan base in a powerful way.

Without having any kind of benchmark, we set an initial goal of 3,000 runners for the inaugural race, which had both a 10K and a 5K option. To reach this, we knew we had to create an event that was different from the many other races that dominate the Chicago running scene during the summer. It also had to appeal not only to serious runners, but also to the Big Ten fans who had never run a race in their lives.

The first thing we did was to create 12 different BTN school-specific race shirts — one for each Big Ten school. Normally, a race creates one shirt for their event. But we knew it was critical to create school-specific shirts so runners could showcase their school spirit on race day as well as after the race. The shirts became a huge promotional tool that helped drive registrations.

The next step was partnering with all the Chicagoland Big Ten alumni chapters to help promote the race to their alumni constituents. The BTN Big 10K was a great conversation starter with these organizations. We had been looking for a way to connect with our alumni chapters in a meaningful way. This race became the vehicle that benefited all of us: we could reach their fan bases while at the same time helping the alumni associations recruit new members from runners who participated in the race.

We needed some star power to help drive word of mouth about the race. So we asked our talent and Big Ten celebrities like Michigan’s Dhani Jones, former Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter and Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne to not just show up at the event, but to actively run alongside Big Ten fans. The network also arranged to bring the Big Ten mascots and cheerleaders to the BTN Big 10K to cheer on runners. We also asked our celebs to reach out to their social media bases to spread the word about the race.

Within a month, BTN reached its goal of 3,000 runners. It expanded the course to accommodate an additional 2,000 runners and sold out within 64 days. Now BTN had to deliver on the expectations. We had thousands of Big Ten fans who were excited to be a part of this.

Now we had to deliver a first-class experience that authentically captured the Big Ten spirit. First we enlisted two-time Super Bowl champion and BTN analyst Howard Griffith to give the pre-race pep talk to runners. Griffith also personally high-fived each runner as he/she crossed the finish line. We dressed up street team members in referee uniforms to run alongside the runners. At each mile mark, we played a different Big Ten school fight song, and the finish line was decorated to look like an end zone.

Figure 1
Figure 1

We followed the race with a Big Ten tailgate party with opportunities for runners to test their football throwing accuracy, kick a field goal or take a picture with the Big Ten Football Championship trophy. Tickets to the Big Ten Football Championship game were also given out to the runner who dressed up with the best school spirit (Figure 1).

By creating a Big Ten fan event, we were able to use the opportunity to talk about the network and its upcoming programming to potential viewers. Programming messaging was incorporated into pre-race newsletters as well as the race and post-race tailgate public address announcements. BTN branded schoolspecific premiums were given to each runner. Both on the race course and at the tailgate, we branded two BTN waterslides, which ended up being one of the most popular activations at the event.

As the Big Ten Conference expanded (from 12 schools to 14), so did the BTN Big 10K. By 2014, the BTN Big 10K grew to 15,000 participants. Runners weren’t just coming from the Chicagoland area, either. This year’s BTN Big 10K drew fans from all 14 schools, 47 states and nine countries including Madagascar, Singapore and Nigeria. Press coverage appeared everywhere from local broadcast networks and newspapers to a national feature in the Wall Street Journal and #BTNBig10K as a trending tag on Instagram.

Beyond the positive marketing opportunities it offers the network, the BTN Big 10K also benefits the community. The last two years BTN has teamed up with Special Olympics Chicago as its charity partner. The Special Olympics in Chicago has been able to raise money for its organization in exchange for providing the much needed volunteers that make the race a positive experience for the runners.

In just four short years, the BTN Big 10K has turned into one of the signature Chicago events of the summer. But perhaps the best part of the BTN Big 10K is the long-term relationship it has helped BTN develop with Big Ten fans. BTN created an opportunity for fans to come together and celebrate being part of the Big Ten community. By using incentives like the school-specific shirts, the mascots, the cheerleaders and the Big Ten celebrities, BTN tapped into the passion fans have for their schools. Rather than just try to market to fans, the BTN made its viewers part of the experience. That’s what made the BTN Big 10K so successful.

Just a few months after that initial race, I was in the South Loop having brunch with friends. As I looked out the window, I saw a couple jog by. He was wearing the BTN Big 10K race shirt for Minnesota. She was wearing the Michigan State race shirt.

It was exactly what I had hoped would happen…raise awareness for BTN and connect with our fan base in a unique way. I was happy I said yes. [END]


YASHNA_erin harvego Erin Harvego is the vice president of marketing for the Big Ten Network, where she oversees consumer marketing for BTN including brand positioning and strategy, media buying, on-air promotions and event marketing. She is the winner of numerous national cable competitions including multiple ACC Beacon, Addy, CableFaxie, CTAM Mark and Cynopsis awards. Erin recently developed the BTN Big 10K, which has quickly grown into one of the largest 10Ks in the country.
DSC_7465* Yashna Malhotra worked in marketing PR and social media before starting graduate school. She also worked in fundraising and resource mobilization for Save The Children India. Yashna also pursued a postgraduate degree in marketing management from the Welingkar Institute of Management in Bombay.

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