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Student's Award-Winning Research Could Influence Future of Sports Marketing 

two people in silhouette watching a sporting event at a large arena

April 13, 2023

Alicia Romano combined her passions for sports, research and teaching in the University of Northern Colorado’s Sport and Exercise Science Ph.D. program. She chose a sport administration concentration and conducted novel research that could have major implications for sports marketing. One of the highlights of her UNC education was her research “Consumers’ Visual Attention and Explicit Memory of Sponsorships: An Eye-Tracking Investigation at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.”

Romano said, “This research is unique because it’s never been done before in a natural environment. The eye-tracking glasses determine consumers’ pupil location in relation to their world view and are used to track consumers’ visual attention to sponsorship information at live sporting events.”

The eye-tracking technique allowed Romano to determine the number of times and for how long spectators fixated on sponsorship signage during the U.S. Olympic swim trials held in Omaha, Nebraska in 2021. When she surveyed spectators afterward to determine their recall and recognition of sponsors, she got a surprising result.

Alicia Romano

Alicia Romano

“What I found was that the amount of time an individual views sponsorship signage does not influence their recall and recognition, but the number of times was influential to consumers’ memory in a natural setting. This contradicted previous laboratory studies that found both duration and frequency influenced consumers’ memory. The distractions present in a natural setting, including the sport action, may explain the difference in results,” she said.

Romano said a key to this type of research is its ecological validity. In other words, “real-world results” are important to the sport industry because sponsors are looking for tangible evidence of their return on investment.

Her work earned the Outstanding Student Paper Award at the Sport Marketing Association Conference in Las Vegas in 2021. Romano’s advisor, Professor Alan Morse, program coordinator for Sport Administration and director of the Sport Marketing Research Institute, wasn’t surprised.

“I encourage my students to do research that can be implemented in the real world. Her research reflects this by giving sport and corporate marketers tangible evidence of sponsorship effectiveness.”
—Alan Morse

“Researchers had yet to use the eye-tracking technique in a natural environment, setting her research apart. Her research also was accepted for presentation at an international conference in Taiwan, but unfortunately, the conference was canceled due to COVID-19,” Morse said.

Morse said COVID-19 impacted Romano’s work in other ways, too.

“COVID occurred right after Alicia purchased the eye-tracking glasses, so the research was put on hold. However, Alicia’s patience paid off when the director of national events for the Olympic swim trials, a former student from our doctoral program, caught interest in the research project. Alicia did a great job of proposing and educating the Olympic Swim Marketing Committee on how she was going to perform this research,” he said.

Morse said Romano’s work ethic stood out.

“Her ability to work hard, stay focused, and accomplish goals showed her passion and ownership for her research and education,” he said.

He believes Romano’s research could change the industry’s approach.

“I encourage my students to do research that can be implemented in the real world. Her research reflects this by giving sport and corporate marketers tangible evidence of sponsorship effectiveness,” Morse said.

Romano earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a master’s in Post-Secondary Biology education from Northern Michigan University, where she was an NCAA athlete who competed in cross country and track and field. She will graduate from UNC in May 2023 after three years in the program, during which she worked as a graduate assistant and teaching assistant.

“Working with Dr. Morse was vital to the success of my research. He was encouraging and supportive throughout my academic and research journey at UNC. This is a testimony to the whole program. Everyone wants to see you succeed and is willing to help you achieve your goals. My colleagues and my cohort were all important to my success,” she said.

This fall, Romano will begin a new job as an assistant professor at Idaho State University, where she plans to continue her eye-tracking research.

“I would love to bring in graduate students and get them to experience doing research like this,” Romano said.

— written by Brenda Gillen