Decorative tubs of iced Cokes were available at 9:30 a.m. Thursday as the Coca-Cola Co. and Georgia Southern University announced a 10-year, multimillion-dollar continuation of Coke's exclusive marketing deal on campus and for Eagles athletics.
The Eagles' move into the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference has multiplied the value of the marketing agreement about tenfold, GSU President Dr. Brooks Keel told reporters.
"Our recent joining of the Sun Belt Conference and moving our football program up to the FBS is turning heads and is putting Georgia Southern in the national spotlight," Keel said in his remarks at the lectern in the Bishop Alumni Center. "Because of this, we will be able to focus this spotlight on all of the outstanding academic programs and accomplishments of this great university."
During the announcement, neither he nor the top Coca-Cola executive on hand divulged just how many millions the agreement would be worth. Approached immediately afterward, they declined to provide estimates beyond Keel's statement of "multiple millions."
However, the university later released the agreement, which takes effect Sept. 1, on an open records request. Many sheets of the 109-page document are marked "classified-confidential," but it contains a statement acknowledging that the public university is subject to the Georgia Open Records Act and that the terms are not confidential.
The agreement states that, over the 10 years, Coca-Cola will provide the university's foundation $3 million for scholarships — to be known as "Coca-Cola Georgia Southern University Scholarships" — in annual $300,000 installments, and that the university itself will receive another $3 million in sponsorship fees. Other terms refer to a 40 percent commission to the university on sales of Coke products with a guarantee of at least $1.7 million over the decade.
"It is truly in a multiple of millions of dollars for over a 10-year period of time," Keel had said in a post-announcement interview. "This is the largest business contract deal in the history of the university, and the exciting thing for us is that almost half of the entire package is going to go towards academic and athletic scholarships."
In particular, the announcement revealed a funding source for Georgia Southern's plan, which Keel had announced earlier, to double-match state REACH scholarships. With the acronym "Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen," this needs-based program introduced by Gov. Nathan Deal provides students who sign a commitment in middle school, maintain their grades and meet other requirements, a renewable $2,500 scholarship for use at a HOPE-eligible institution. Georgia Southern will add $5,000 to each scholarship.
During his public remarks, Keel portrayed the Coca-Cola contract as a vindication of the move to the Sun Belt. Some people, he said, argued that moving the athletic programs up was too costly and of limited worth to the university.
"However it's becoming very apparent every day as a result of this move that Georgia Southern's brand value has increased exponentially, and we're now beginning to see firsthand the importance of this increased value," Keel said. "This added value to our brand makes partnerships with the university even more effective for business and industry."
Top Coke exec
After noting the Eagles' six historic Division 1-AA football championships and last year's era-capping upset win over the University of Florida Gators, Coca-Cola North America President J. Alexander "Sandy" Douglas praised Georgia Southern for academic achievements.
"Along with athletic prowess, Georgia Southern is doing great things in the classroom," Douglas said. "The university is recognized for excellence in engineering, education, business and many other fields."
Since 1989, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, given to the Coca-Cola Co. by its bottling companies — which are separate corporations — has awarded college scholarships to more than 5,400 high school seniors, he noted.
"As a part of our new agreement with Georgia Southern, we're proud to fund thousands of new scholarships, ranging from $500 to $6,000," Douglas said.
Coca-Cola has also agreed to work with the university on environmental sustainability efforts, such as recycling programs. Officials noted that students voted last year to increase student fees by $10 per semester to fund sustainability projects.
"We're pleased to be working on that with you and thrilled that we'll be able to team up with Georgia Southern's innovative sustainability department," Douglas said. "Together we'll work on local recycling initiatives and get input from students and faculty to develop ideas and concepts and put them into action through an annual sustainability summit."
Under the agreement, Coca-Cola will develop customized, football-related marketing to expand Georgia Southern's brand recognition in the Savannah and Atlanta markets, the university announced. The contract also refers to marketing in Jacksonville, Florida, and states that Coke will spend $100,000 on campus and local marketing during the 10 years and donate up to $50,000 worth of bottled and canned products annually for faculty and student special events, plus $5,000 worth of athletic equipment, such as squeeze bottles and towels.
Meanwhile, the university has to give the company some free event tickets.
Coke's presence will be seen on campus in new signs, fountain outlets and products in the Dining Commons, Russell Student Union, Paulson Stadium and other areas, the university announced.
"Now, we hope to sell a few cases of Coca-Cola along the way, but the theme, as Dr. Keel said very clearly, has always been it's about the students," said John Sherman, senior vice president of Birmingham, Alabama-based Coca-Cola Bottling Company United Inc.
His eldest son, Jack Sherman, played football for the Eagles a decade ago.
Azell Francis, the 2014-15 GSU Student Government Association president, also spoke, thanking officials. Scholarships are greatly needed, she said, citing an average student debt of $35,200 for the Class of 2013.
"Scholarship dollars have not increased at the same rate as enrollment, so more scholarships are needed to attract high-quality students and leaders from around the world," said Francis, a second-year graduate student originally from Trinidad and Tobago.
After saying he was thankful for partnerships that benefit students and "the Eagle Nation," Georgia Southern Athletics Director Tom Kleinlein went for some laughs.
"In closing, I'm really honored to be partnered with a group of people who produce Powerade, which helped us power past that organization that drinks Gatorade," he said.
Herald Editor Jason Wermers contributed to this report.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.