Bowling for customers

In the 20-plus years of corporate sponsorship of bowl games, companies are now turning to PR departments to enhance their ROI.

In the 20-plus years of corporate sponsorship of bowl games, companies are now turning to PR departments to enhance their ROI.

The college football bowl season continues to expand as more bowls and more corporate sponsorships take to the field in December and January. More than a century after the first bowl game ? the Rose Bowl ? was played in 1902, there will be 28 college football bowl games during the three-week bowl season, beginning on December 20 and ending, with the national championship game on January 4.

Long unaffiliated with corporate sponsorships, the first bowl game to be sponsored was in 1983 when the Tangerine Bowl was renamed the Citrus Bowl after an irresistible offer from the Florida Citrus Commission. Slowly but surely, others followed suit and, in 2005, only four of the 28 bowl games being played do not have an implicit corporate sponsorship in the bowl name. Sponsorship of a game, which can cost multiple millions of dollars, is a big deal for a number of companies who need to justify that marketing spend by proving the ROI.

"From a bowl standpoint, there's a lot of clutter," says Mark Beal, managing partner at Alan Taylor Communications. "There are so many games that some are meaningless to the average consumer unless their team is in those games."

Some companies are establishing long campaigns in the ramp-up to the actual bowl game. For instance, Capital One has held a multiple-week contest asking customers to pick a college mascot of the year at Rather than limit its outreach to fans of Wisconsin and Auburn, the teams playing in the Capital One Bowl, it has included mascots from 12 universities in its challenge.

Mascots are big for both colleges and sponsors.

Diamond Foods PR manager Vicki Zeigler says the company will have its mascot appear at a pre-Emerald Bowl rally in Union Square in San Francisco. Diamond is also launching a new consumer campaign, along with two new commercials, during the Emerald Bowl. It will also announce a consumer-focused contest on or around the day of the bowl, Zeigler says. At the game, Diamond Foods will give out food samples and interact with the crowd.

But Amy Atkinson, VP of marketing and PR at Gaylord Hotels, says the company pays attention to which teams are still eligible each week.

"We want to know what schools are coming, so we can do targeted media relations," Atkinson says, adding that the company works the National Sports Council and sends out a "Bowl Watch" advisory every week to its various hotels.

And even if the company does outreach to a college that ends up not being invited to the bowl, Atkinson says those colleges are still eligible to come the next year. Once it learns the participants in early December, it ramps up its media relations in those marketplaces and offers discounts to existing students and alumni.

While bowl committees do their best to ensure the match-up is compelling, the biggest chance of media pickup for the corporate sponsor ? a dramatic or unusual finish ? is out of their hands.

"A lot of these brands have visible signage so they're rooting for a great game when there's a lot of jumping from channel to channel to see which game is the tightest because there's so much clutter," Beal says. "If it has a tremendous or unusual ending, you will get more coverage in sports news broadcasts, which have three minutes to fill."

"We think we have a good match-up and we obviously want the game to be close to keep people watching," Zeigler says. "We do an excellent job of getting our branding on the field."

But Atkinson says that while the television broadcast is important, there are many other promotional opportunities as well.

"It's not just that ESPN broadcast, we have 115 radio stations, including Armed Services Radio, broadcasting from the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl," Atkins says.

She also says that sponsoring companies have to think about how they can make news around non-football events. Gaylord Hotels sponsors a battle of the bands and also offers discounts to other Nashville attractions and bounce-back tickets to bowl attendees that want to stay in Nashville longer.

The decision on which bowl to sponsor often comes down to budget, Beal says. But he adds that companies trying to build up awareness in a particular region could approach a smaller bowl in that market as a tactical PR push.

A challenge for corporate sponsors of the larger, more historic bowls is that Beal says some media outlets instruct writers to refer to the bowl using its non-sponsored name, if possible. So some publications will refer to the FedEx Orange Bowl as just the Orange Bowl. Thus, the corporate sponsors of the GMAC and Champs Sports bowls reap all the benefits of every media hit. But the other side to that story is that the larger bowls with enough prestige to retain their bowl names usually attract the top teams and receive higher ratings.

"Those bigger bowls have much bigger TV ratings and gain greater media coverage, but if you're targeting a certain region of the country, it's just as important to sponsor a smaller bowl in a key region or pocket," Beal says.

For instance, Atkinson says Gaylord Hotels decided to sponsor the Music City Bowl because the company is based in Nashville. It actually sponsored the bowl after rebranding from Opryland Hospitality Group to Gaylord Hotels.

While some companies are putting on an all-out marketing blitz to correspond with the sponsorship, others are not looking for much beyond name recognition.

A representative from one company sponsoring a bowl, which asked to remain anonymous, said sponsorship was more a b-to-b play and viewed its sponsorship as simply giving value to existing and potential customers.

Amy Friend, VP of corporate communications at Pioneer Electronics, says the company worked on leveraging its sponsorship of the Las Vegas Bowl last year.

"We set up a program for the home entertainment enthusiast press to be our guests at the event and get a behind the scenes look at how an HD broadcast is put together," Friend says, via e-mail. Friends adds the bowl was one of the first to be broadcast in high-definition television, so the staff gave journalists access to the ESPN technical crew in order to witness the production work behind a HD broadcast.

This year, Friend says, "We're just inviting the enthusiasts and press to enjoy the game."

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