Every Saturday during football season, the Grove at the University of Mississippi is decorated with colorful tents and fans decked out in their nicest navy and red outfits.
One thing the Grove lacks on these favorite football Saturdays are businesses advertising, selling or handing out samples of their latest products to the more than 100,000 people gathered to celebrate Ole Miss football in the Grove.
Businesses could take advantage of the crowds that flock to the Grove to gain publicity for their brands. However, the university has a strict policy regarding the sale and advertising of products in this space on campus.
The policy — which has been in effect for as long as Michael Thompson, the deputy athletics director, can remember — cracks down on any sort of brand promotion.
“We don’t allow any solicitation of any kind of product serving, advertising or political campaigns,” he said. “There is not even any sort of approval process to get businesses into the Grove with their products, because it just cannot happen.”
Thompson said the university takes this policy seriously. Officials patrol game days to ensure that there is no illegal advertising or promotional activity.
“We have a lot of eyes and ears to help monitor people advertising or selling products against the rules,” Thompson said. “The Grove is a great opportunity to promote business, so it happens. And that is a conversation that we have to have with those people.”
The University Police Department plays a key role in helping the university patrol and enforce this policy.
“Our officers will walk through the Grove, and if they see any type of advertising, they will respond by asking the party to take it down,” Ray Hawkins, chief of University Police, said.
There are not too many rule-breakers, and Hawkins said it only happens a few times each year, depending on the game and what is going on at that time on campus. In the past, however, major brands have attempted to get around the policy and take advantage of the marketing opportunity.
“Two or three years ago we learned that Red Bull was setting up a stage to do a mini-concert the night before a game, and we had to crack down on that extremely quickly,” Thompson said.
The majority of the time, however, Hawkins said the offenders are subtle, and they are usually not even aware that they are breaking a university policy.
“It’s usually a business trying to advertise, but from time to time there will be political signs. And that is something we definitely have to address,” Hawkins said.
Kathy Tidwell, manager of Contractual Services and director of University Licensing, said the university does not have the acreage to allow businesses and vendors to set up without creating an overcrowding problem in the Grove on game days.
“Ole Miss is considered a small campus, and when we have as many people coming in for game day as we do, we like to keep our campus fan- and family-friendly. So there is just no room for businesses to come in and set up,” Tidwell said.
The policy is in place, in part, to maintain the aspects of campus people are familiar with.
“The policy is to help protect our students and campus,” Tidwell said. “Our students live here, our faculty and staff come in and Ole Miss is an educational facility, not a mall.”
The only exception for advertising in the Grove occurs when SEC Nation and ESPN College GameDay come to campus, and they are allowed to temporarily set up sponsored elements for brand promotion.
Outside of the Grove, there is one other exception where brands and products are allowed to be present.
“On the stadium side of American Drive, there are two spots where things can be official corporate marketing involvement, sales and sampling,” Thompson said. “Ole Miss Athletics sponsors are allowed to set up and sell. So, different brands like Facebook, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola have all been featured in that area.”
Thompson said this gameday policy helps to maintain the Grove as a special place for fans to enjoy on Saturdays, free from advertising.
“The reason we’re doing this is because we don’t want the Grove to become an experience where people are walking around trying to hand you stuff left and right,” Thompson said. “That’s not what it’s supposed to be like, and part of what makes the Grove so special is that that isn’t what it is.”