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Play Time

On presentation day, College of Business Administation students walk into the Pittsburgh Steelers' south side headquarters, up the steps to the coaches' floor, and past the franchise's six Vince Lombardi trophies. Instinctively, students reach for their cell phone cameras. No - play it cool. There will be time for pictures after the presentation.

During the 2011 season, the students worked with the National Football League and the Steelers to devise a marketing strategy promoting NFL PLAY 60 in Western Pennsylvania. PLAY 60 is a league-wide initiative aimed at reducing childhood obesity by getting young fans to exercise at least 60 minutes daily. On this chilly February morning, the Pitt students are about to make their final presentation. They set up in a conference room that is normally occupied by Steelers players discussing Xs and Os. Today, it hosts the students and community relations officials from the Steelers, the NFL, and the American Heart Association.

The students are here because of the Projects in Marketing course taught by Clinical Associate Professor Bob Gilbert (PhD '97). The course connects students with prominent real-world clients in commercial and government sectors. When the NFL and Steelers "hired" the CBA class to act as marketing consultants, they got the real thing. The students modeled their organizational structure after an advertising agency. They brainstormed. They developed ideas and tested them with market research. They conducted focus groups with school children and teachers.

Ultimately, the students created their own campaign theme — Make Every Day Gameday—and brought it to life using an arsenal of promotional tools: television spots, radio ads, print pieces, social media tools, a Web site, even guerrilla marketing tactics. "The theme demands that the audience make each day as intense and exciting as NFL game days," explained Alison Kretschman, a senior who headed up the students' agency, during the presentation at Steelers' headquarters.

Imagine telling the NFL that the theme developed by a bunch of college seniors tested better than the theme developed by experienced marketing professionals in one of the world's most recognizable organizations. That's what students said about the NFL's existing PLAY 60 theme — The NFL's Movement for an Active Generation — and they pointed to market research from crucial categories to back it up: Does it catch my attention? Do I remember it? Do I understand it? Do I want to learn more about it? Do I like it?

Pint-sized People, Big Dreams

The students' presentation culminated an odyssey that began during the fall term. Working with the Steelers was challenging because most of the team's season is set in advance. It was also exciting, because students spent time outside the classroom to execute their advertising strategies. For example, at two Steelers' home games, the students set up a promotional tent outside Heinz Field. On these cold December days, students formed a "street team," grabbing people's attention with human pyramids, PLAY 60 chants, an exercise flash mob, and three-legged and wheelbarrow races.

Students also visited schools in Allegheny and Washington counties, since one of their goals was to increase the number of schools participating in PLAY 60. The Steelers already send players to schools to get kids excited about exercise. However, when the students surveyed more than 100 teachers in Allegheny County, they found that only one-third of teachers could accurately describe the program, but 95 percent were interested in bringing it to their school.

In December, the Pitt team staged its own in-school event: calling it a Gym Class Invasion of Elizabeth Forward's Central Elementary School. The team created four distinct exercise stations: hydration, challenge yourself to a healthier lifestyle, practice like a Steeler, and exercise bonanza. Children received T-shirts and Polaroid pictures of themselves with large cutouts of Steelers players Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark.

That morning, the gym's concrete walls and floors reverberated with tiny shrieks of joy — and intermittent squeaks from kid-sized sneakers. "It really hit us that the kids enjoyed us when they started asking us for our autographs," said CBA student Anthony Gentile. "I loved it. I wouldn't be surprised if I had the most fun of everyone."

Lynda Hoffman, a physical education teacher in Elizabeth Forward, presided over the fifth and fourth grade and kindergarten classes that participated. She says childhood obesity is a serious problem. "Programs like this make a real difference," Hoffman said. "The fact that it's coming from University of Pittsburgh students, they have this mystique that the students respond to."

With the Pitt students leading the way, the kids hopped, jumped, skipped, threw footballs, and jump-roped. They did pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and relay races. Manny Garder, age 5, practiced his end zone celebration dance, his T-shirt hanging past his knees, the sides of his SKECHERS sneakers flashing green lights. "Quarterback is my favorite because you get to hike the ball all the time," he said.

Ten-year-old Tanner Rankin's favorite station was the passing one. He modeled his throws after his favorite player: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "I like exercise because you can stay healthier and live longer," Rankin said.

Rookie Project Sets the Standard

The NFL advertises PLAY 60 nationally, but leaves it to individual clubs to promote it in their own market. The 32 teams draw from their own budgets and use their own people to coordinate events. The result: a hodgepodge of approaches and not always enough attention during the NFL's frenetic season.

Jacque Skowvron (A&S '09, CBA '09) is a marketing coordinator at the NFL and former student of Gilbert's. She approached him about having the NFL and Steelers be a client for his Projects in Marketing course. First, Skowvron and Gilbert got buy-in from the NFL, and then they approached the Steelers. She saw the value in getting an unbiased opinion of PLAY 60 and trusted the students to deliver quality work, since she herself completed Gilbert's course.

"Your work blew me away," Skowvron told the students after their presentation. "The cool thing about it for you guys, is we're going to use some of this stuff. It is something you can point to and say, 'Hey I had a hand in that.' " Skowvron says the Pitt team did such an excellent job that the NFL may wish to explore similar partnerships with colleges and universities in other NFL markets.

During the presentation, the students discussed their work in-depth. They played a video they created with Steelers Defensive End Brett Keisel, filmed at the team's practice facility. They displayed a variety of print advertisements, including a campaign that focused on exercising during each of the four seasons. Their winter print spot ran in the Steelers' Week 16 game day program. The students also created radio ads. One, called "Four Seasons," features two kids talking about how the weather affects when they play.

The Steelers personnel were equally impressed by the students' work. "On something that we've struggled to identify, you did a great job breaking it apart," Michele Rosenthal, the Steelers' community relations manager, told the students.

The students also had digital marketing ideas. Those include sending out daily text messages or Tweets with exercise suggestions, or creating a customized Steelers' Facebook page, which could be promoted by leaving player cutouts at various locations and encouraging children to send in photos of themselves with the cutout. The students also suggested that the Steelers create a PLAY 60 Web site.

Following the students' presentation, they had time to snap photos of themselves with the Lombardi trophies. They were even given a tour of the facility. But the highlight was when they bumped into Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin in the hallway. Tomlin shook hands with everyone and spoke with them for several minutes. When the students told him about their PLAY 60 slogan — Make Every Day Gameday — Tomlin grinned and said, "I like that better. I like that."