It’s that rare time of year when we indulge in a long lunch or keep an extra browser open so we can watch the game. March Madness draws all eyes to colleges and universities across the country. But your local universities offer much more than a team to cheer for. They can have a major impact on your bottom line.  Here are three ways to team up with local colleges and universities to help grow your business:

Scout out universities’ procurement policies to score an easy contract layup 

U.S. colleges and universities collectively spend $200 billion annually on goods and services; better, they’re beginning to prioritize contracting with local and diverse small businesses. The University of Pennsylvania is perhaps the UK Wildcats of local procurement: Through its Buy West Philadelphia program, UPenn has increased spending with local suppliers from $2.1 million to over $90 million over the past two decades. Likewise, the University of Virginia has committed to increasing spending with small, woman-owned and minority-owned businesses by 5% each year.

Aztec Promotional Group, a promotional licensing company located near University of Texas-- Austin is one company that has reaped the benefits of university procurement. The company creates promotional materials for student organizations affiliated with the University. As Texas enters the NCAA tournament, Aztec is prepared to jump on related business opportunities. Your company should be prepared to service universities, too.

Use colleges to find seasoned players who will stick around for contract extensions

Having well-trained talent on your team is critical. It’s no secret that local educational institutions can offer a deep talent pool, but they also can provide workforce training. An analysis of more than 600 successful urban firms shows that these companies invest twice as much on training as the national average, resulting in lower turnover and higher productivity.

Many of these businesses turned to community colleges and universities for up-skilling their employees.   

Job-specific training programs are housed within community colleges in every state, and many community colleges will work with you to develop a training curriculum to meet your business’ needs. The North Carolina community college system creates and implements training programs for local businesses that are free of charge and tailored to the needs of companies. Each year, more than 500 fast-growing companies take advantage of this service. Using these programs and investing in workforce development will help prevent your star players from being drafted by other teams.

Seek the advice of university mentors to help you devise a winning game plan.

Many universities offer world-class advisory and consulting services: take advantage of it! Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is college basketball’s winningest coach of all time (927 and counting), but he did not achieve success without support.  He learned the ropes from his legendary mentor, “The General” Bob Knight. Your business should be looking to universities for similar mentoring and advisory services.

Many universities use their human capital and expertise to help build the capacity of businesses within their local community. Many offer advising, consulting or mentoring to small, local businesses. Invite faculty to serve on your company’s board, seek legal advice, or serve as a case study for research. These services are typically offered at low or no cost to entrepreneurs.

Also, be sure to seek mentorship opportunities from purchasers. While you may not initially be prepared to take on a large university contract, universities are often willing to work with local and diverse suppliers to position them for future contracts.

Telrose Corp., a minority-owned office supply company in West Philadelphia, was a three-person delivery company and subcontractor for Office Depot.  UPenn persuaded Office Depot to help Telrose become the prime contractor with Office Depot as its supplier. Over the last 10 years, Telrose has grown its share of the contract from $300,000 to $50 million. As a result, both Telrose’s revenue and number of employees have skyrocketed.

As the teams in the tournament dwindle down this March, look to expand partnerships with local colleges and universities to grow your business.

Mary Duggan and Amanda Maher contributed to this article.