College Football | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

College Events Embrace The Apple…

It is probably less true of an individual athlete than ever before, and maybe truer of an event than ever…if you want success you have to find your way to New York at some point. While mega-stars like LeBron James and Sydney Crosby and Payton Manning and thrive in other markets with endorsements and media coverage, events that don’t find a New York area stop are trying to still find that way to directly get an experience with Madison Avenue. The latest case is Formula 1, which continues its push to grow in North America by staging a road race just across the river in West New York, New Jersey in 2014. A successful race around Gotham may not add millions more to the purses, but will give senior brand and Wall Street execs a chance to fully embrace F1 without having to travel far in a world where budgets for such trips are ever tighter. Sports like cricket and rugby are also looking to find a platform to make a New York stop as well, with the hope that fans of the sport, as well as those interested in learning more for a brand or marketing spend, will get a chance to see what the events and the personalities are all about.

The yearning for New York success is also not lost on the college side, and the late fall and winter  will see no less than four draws try and find a place in the media and brand world.  In November Yankee Stadium will host the 150th meeting between Pennsylvania rivals Lehigh and Lafayette in a rare opportunity to showcase that long running battle on the grandest stage possible, while the ACC has joined the Big 10 in an affiliation with the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in December. Also in December a host of elite collegiate wrestling programs will turn to the mats at Madison Square Garden for the second “Grapple in the Apple” event, while January 11 Harvard and Yale will meet in hockey  at Madison Square Garden in the first-ever New York edition of the “Rivalry on Ice.”

In past years staging such events in New York would have been seen as costly and not a draw for the schools involved…the spectacles can best be captured on campus. However the need for facilities like MSG and Yankee Stadium to find more sources of ancillary revenue away from their core tenants…the Knicks, Rangers and Yankees…as well as the realization by the schools themselves that a huge marketing and potential branding opportunity exists by bringing elite events to such iconic venues, can help boost all areas of the Universities involved, from development to alumni relations and even undergraduate recruiting of both student-athlete and traditional students as well. The events themselves have now become the culmination of a multifaceted campaign by the Universities that can use the games themselves as a continued outreach point for anyone in the area they are looking to engage with. Brands that may not be as interested as going on campus, now have an elite event in their backyard where they can test market the combination of college athletics and a high level sporting event, something which, outside of some college basketball, was never easy to do in a city where intercollegiate athletics have long taken a back seat to professional sports.  Now this is not to say that suddenly New York will become a college town for sport, or that every event tried will be successful.

However for the special events, ones with a hook, and for the right schools with a focus on branding in a certain window, New York can be branding boon, one that was probably laughed at not long ago.

Did Some Brands Post Wins During Bowl Month? Sure.

Monday night marked the end of the College Bowl season, one of the longest, and probably last few, extended series of Bowl games as  college football moves toward a national playoff and a trimming down of the games that lead to what is now the BCS Championship, which title sponsor Discover has paid a hefty price to activate against.

But what about all those other bowls and what is their value for title sponsors? Why sponsor a January game in Mobile, Alabama or Birmingham or December in Boise or Pontiac, Michigan? Is there a better way to send those dollars? Brands think so, especially when those bowls, no matter how insignificant they seem to the national media and the casual fan, still capture national media attention, philanthropic exposure and match the needs of the brand that ante’s up for the dollars.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Russell Athletic brand for example used the Virginia Tech and Rutgers matchup in Orlando, to not just court consumers, but to get a chance to speak to decision makers at a host of schools about their commitment to college athletics year-round. It also gave the brand a special tie-in to a Bowl and a city that may be in contention for a BCS Playoff game in years to come, a smart hedge by the brand for now against a future payoff. The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl may get mocked for its name, but for the consortium that grows and markets spuds to a nation of millions it provided a cost-effective and well controlled infomercial for their products to a core audience of consumers who also happen to be passionate football fans. It also showed a loyalty and give-back to those in Boise who make their living in the agricultural business, a good local investment with a national media play on ESPN. Will it make more people buy potatoes v. broccoli? Hard to say, but given the location of the game the fit seems pretty strong. While Chick-Fil-A ran into some issues with the company’s stance on Gay marriage earlier this year, they ran into no problems sponsoring the game between LSU and Clemson in the Georgia Dome. The brand got the chance to direct market to a host of cities where Chick-Fil-a does a huge amount of business, and they took their home city and turned it into a week-long celebration for all things about their product, a great way to thank the consumer and their employees while continuing to connect again with loyal fans of their product…like spuds in Idaho, chicken works in Georgia.

For anyone in the financial world, the turn of the New Year means tax time. So if you are an up and coming brand ,maybe you use the heavy play on New Year’s to exposure your url to a casual consumer trying to find a way through the fiscal cliff. Welcome to Taxslayer.com at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Ads a plenty on TV and on the field, which the brand things gives them an edge over the Turbo tax and H and R Block spends that will follow in the weeks ahead. Might not convert buyers right away, but it got them in the marketplace. For GoDaddy.com and BBVA Compass, the two brands that titled the Bowl games AFTER New Years? GoDaddy’s spend may be curious since it was in Mobile, Alabama with a game featuring Arkansas State and Kent State, but it was in the heart of NASCAR country at a time when fans are starting to look toward Daytona, and it brought the GoDaddy marketing machine, led by Danica Patrick, to the city as a reminder of what’s to come. It also served as a good kick off for the brands usual strong campaign that leads toward their always popular NFL post-season spend. The game was also relatively unencumbered for fans looking for a little more college football, on the weekend leading into the BCS Championship. A little out of the ordinary for the domain company, but a good appetizer for their key spends on the horizon. As far as BBVA Compass, the European bank with its US headquarters in Birmingham made the event as much about hometown and regional support and branding than anything really national, but it fits in their continuing growth of activation that includes Houston Dynamo soccer, the Dallas Mavericks and on a larger play the NBA as well. A hometown bank that wanted to find a way to remind national sports fans of their growing presence but also needed to reinforce their brand messages to the community where they live.

Now not all sponsorships worked out great. From snow and high priced pizza in Detroit for the Little Caesar’s Bowl to no military ties in Washington for the Military Bowl to smaller than expected audiences on crowded nights for some earlier games, the system is not perfect. However for a brand that knows its market and needs to hit very specific criteria, the bowl season was not in any way a loss. What the future will hold with a coming playoff and the shifting of conferences is really unclear, but for 2012 at least, some of the “lesser” bowls may have delivered more for those who put up the dollars and their names. Those that hit their goals certainly chalked up a win for effort and activation in what was a really busy six weeks for the ever-growing business of college football.    

 

Could the UFL Have Sprung To Success?

They quietly started another season this past week with four teams…Sacramento, Virginia, Omaha and Las Vegas...limping along on financial fumes, albeit with some solid local following, good coaches and some potential great stories of their players. The United Football League is still trying, even if few realize or even care.  What happened and could it have worked?

The league started four years ago hoping that they could ride the coattails of a potential NFL lockout and building in some secondary markets to reach success. They brought in name coaches, looked to find ways to engage fans, tried to find brands who were passionate about football but couldn’t crack the NFL roster, and hoped a match would light. maybe the NFL would see some seeds of an idea and use the league to develop talent, maybe a franchise or two would catch fire and force some kind of merger. No dice. There is enough football in the fall, and the idea of throwing good money after bad for a start-up wasn’t appealing at all to the NFL. Arena League, WLAF…been there, done that. Thanks but no thanks.

So here the UFL sits, still trying to do something as a business. As of this weekend, their website is “under design” still, not a good thing for a league looking for an identity in a crowded marketplace. The franchises have found somewhat of a following, at least in Omaha and Sacramento, cities with no professional football to call their own. Las Vegas has the solid Jim Fassel at the helm and the lure of dollars in the gambling capital of the world, but not much more. So why continue?

Maybe one of the reasons is still the allure of the spring, where professional football in a football crazy society still has a void. It is where the UFL should have started, finding a way to be a litmus test for young talent, coaches and innovative ideas away from the NFL window. It was where the XFL had its shot at success, before the WWE turned it into a circus and ran it out of business. It is a time after the Super Bowl where quality competitive football could find a niche. Now there is talk of the USFL returning, but right now it appears to be lots of hype with an advisory council of elite former players and some passionate “founders” but not much else.  Talk of a 2013 season has come and pretty much gone, without dates, stadiums, coaches, players or most importantly…owners with deep pockets…having arisen. For sure there is plenty of TV time to be had amongst the cable networks now out there, and in theory there is enough talent to fill rosters with a smattering of bold face former college and NFL stars to be a draw as well. The NFL will probably watch from a distance and won’t support at first, but could become parties somewhere way down the line if a league in the spring found its way on its own to financial viability and innovation. testing concussion-free equipment, using technology to innovate, taking chances the NFL never could, would all be in the offing.

So could there be a reason why the UFL is still trolling, showing it can have some viable and semi-mature markets to be swept up in a spring move down the line? Maybe. Then again maybe it is just a last-go round before the coffers run dry, which would be a shame. The saying is that hope springs eternal, and maybe that’s where the UFL, or another property could end up…bringing spring football to viability on some outdoor professional level. The fall after all, is just too crowded.

Does Being “Cannon Fodder” Cause More Brand Harm Than Financial Good?

Savannah State, a Football Championship Subdivision school, has been outscored by a combined 139-0 in its first two games this season. It was beaten 84-0 at Oklahoma State last week and 55-0 in a rain shortened game at Florida State Saturday. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member is collecting paychecks totaling $860,000 for the two games, which will help the athletic program meet its total budget of $5.1 million. So the question remains, when the dust settles, not just for Savannah but for FSU, OSU, their fans, their TV partners, the MEAC brand and for brand college football, what was gained and by who?

Now this is not new, it has always happened early in the college football season. It is also not easy for FSU or OSU to always find the right opponents to fill out a very difficult schedule. There is no doubt that college athletics is rising in brand value across the board. There is also no doubt that there are haves and have nots in the business, but for the NCAA to allow a school like Savannah State to just run around and pick up checks…putting kids probably at risk and arguably sacrificing the jobs of the coaching staff to balance the budget of other athletes and coaches, really calls into question what value being “cannon fodder” is for smaller schools. Savannah State coach Steve Davenport said afterward that he hoped these games were “learning experiences” and maybe down the road if the two schools play for the National Championship that Savannah gets some name recognition. Huh?

This was not about a subdivision powerhouse like Appalachian State going into Michigan with a chance at an upset, which is what happened a few years ago. It’s not like FSU or OSU showcased game plans in these games that will give a look inside to their future opponents. It’s not like the fans didn’t shell out high prices to see these mismatches. Maybe the two larger schools got to give some of their non-starters some extended time on the field which will be valuable down the line, but other than that the fans may benefit more from seeing the team scrimmage against themselves.

It is understood that small schools are still challenged financially to keep their intercollegiate athletic programs going, but two of these paydays with little ROI for the sport? That’s excessive. As the NFL looks to re-vamp the value and cost of meaningless preseason games, there has to be a better way to grow college athletics and find value than these mismatches. The two schools, FSU and OSU, are probably now the biggest donors to Savannah State’s programs, so why not just write them a check and move on. Maybe there are brands looking to activate in the space that would have an interest in the MEAC that could benefit all students vs. just going to get a payday in a football mismatch. Its archaic thinking, not innovative branding, and that’s what college athletics should be all about. Finding ways to do things differently, not just to get a check for showing up.

The MEAC as a conference has a great deal to offer brands collectively from their institutions, and no doubt the students at SSU do too. What they have offered the last two weeks was sacrifice with little good other than a check, and that’s not what any college experience should be about. It should be about learning and growth, both on the playing field and in the classroom. That growth and that passion is what is a draw for brands, and that’s what should be emphasized.

Here’s to better stories down the line.

Lee, Lowes and Heisman…Another Three Good Ones.

As we head into the homestretch for baseball, and the kickoff of college football, another three good ideas that popped up as the week came to an end…

Certain-Lee The Best Promo of the MLB Season:  The San Francisco Giants keep finding ways to do it right and first with fan engagement, and now they have found another one. On Tuesday, the Giants will hold “Bruce Lee Tribute Night” at AT&T Park to honor one of city’s most iconic figures. Lee, the martial arts superstar, was born in San Francisco in 1940. With 2012 being the “Year of the Dragon”, the Giants, with a strong Asian-American following in a city that loves pop culture, decided to go the unconventional way to honor “The Dragon” himself.  Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, will be in attendance to perform the National Anthem, with Linda Lee Cadwell, who was married to Bruce up until the time of his passing, to throw out the ceremonial First Pitch.

While all that is great, the best part is that the team went above and beyond to get national attention with a viral video of Lee slashing his way through other bobbleheads, and created a logo and other themed products to tie the night together. Star Wars nights have been good fun for MLB this season, but the Giants have gone one better.

Going Lowes: As we said earlier this week, 2012-13 is becoming more and more the year of college engagement, so it should come as no surprise that one of the best fan-engagement marketers in the home improvement space, Lowes, has created a national marketing platform through IMG College to activate at no less than 80 colleges this fall.

Yes many brands have signed on with local schools or to back television platforms around various and sundry national promotions, but Lowes will use their partnership primarily in the digital and mobile space.  They will link promotions and giveaways in and around game experiences to promote products and then drive consumers loyal to those colleges back to their site or local stores to redeem. With loyalty to college second perhaps only to NASCAR, the affiliation of Lowes and a school will be strong, but the affiliation ties to a passionate game experience can create an even bigger ROI for the brand, and should help boost the coffers and awareness of all the participating schools for year one.

Heisman House Comes Back: For the second season in a row, Nissan and ESPN are joining to present The Heisman House, a fictional residence  where past winners of the famed trophy hang out, talk about their playing days and watch college football the will be incorporated six interstitials. The spots feature Nissan vehicles and 12 Heisman Trophy winners include Robert Griffith III, Mark Ingram, Archie Griffin, Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Eddie George, Marcus Allen, Matt Leinart, Herschel Walker, Tim Brown as well as a guest appearance by Sean Astin, the actor who played Notre Dame’s Rudy Ruettiger.

It is a great viral extension for the Heisman brand, and really should help current schools think bigger hen using the digital space to promote their players this fall in fun and interesting ways. Maybe it’s a raid on a Heisman House knockoff, maybe schools do their own version of “Rudy” dropping by for a visit, maybe it’s a student program tied to an actual house near campus that becomes the home of that school’s Heisman candidate. The beauty of the digital space is its immediacy and its creativity, so bringing back the Heisman house and its elite guests is strong for an iconic sports brand that has undergone a nice facelift the last few years.

And on to the weekend…

Kickin Off The College Season With Some Good Ideas…

Many experts in the industry feel that the real brand value of  college athletics is still to come. From new television deals to the playoff system to schools taking control of their marketing rights and merchandising their assets, the future is bright for brands who want to go back to school to find new ways to engage to a loyal audience in a young demo. So as college football kicks into gear this weekend, here’s a look at a few smart deas that have come across the transom.

Zipping Open The Social Media Envelope: The University of Akron may not be championship caliber, but they will look to give their MAC fans some fun on the digital side when they get things started. The Zips will play host to its inaugural Social Media Night vs. Central Florida at InfoCision Stadium – Summa Field. Five randomly selected fans who buy a ticket through a special Facebook promotion will become eligible for media credentials and will then be asked to engaged social media channels from the press level of InfoCision Stadium. Additionally, invited members of the University student body will participate in the behind-the-scenes media experience, and those who cover the Zips for non-traditional media outlets will also have an opportunity to be involved. The group of correspondents will be provided access to the field during pregame warm ups and the postgame press conference with Coach Bowden. Twitter and Facebook content will be integrated with the traditional stadium gameday experience and fans will be asked to use the hashtag #ZipsGameday when tweeting about the game.

The social media theme will extend to “Hoppy Hour”, a pre-game professional networking event to be held prior to the game outside of the stadium. The Aug. 30 event will also be the first stop on the Mid-American Conference’s Football Social Media Road Tour, with a select number of fan correspondents covering via social media a game involving at least one league team each week throughout the season.  A smart, inexpensive way to test the waters and grant access to those who can becme brand ambassadors for the school.

USC Gives A Handle: Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans are starting the year number one, but that doesn’t men they don’t understand how much they have to do to embrace the media just a bit more. So USC has decided to list players twitter handles on their depth charts given out to media.  While it doesn’t go so far as to put a hash tag on the Rose Bowl sidelines, it is another step toward making social  media just that much more of a traditional media source for those covering the team. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are using twitter, its a nice touch.

Pitt Goes Outdoors: While the idea and the cost of staging hockey and hoops outdoors may have lost its mojo, the University of Pittsburgh found a way to take the beginning of hoops season to another level. On Wednesday, Pitt announced it will move “Midnight Madness” to the streets, bringing a wooden floor, portable bleachers and a video board near the Pitt Union. The event is being held during the football homecoming weekend — Pitt plays Louisville the next day at Heinz Field — and is being marketed as part of the school’s 225-year anniversary celebration. A fireworks show will be held at 9:15 p.m. with the men’s and women’s practices to follow.  Is there risk with weather in October? Sure. But by thinking outside, literally, the Panthers found a way to make a first practice just that much more special, get a little buzz and probably found a sponsorable event where there wasn’t much of one before. Great making of chicken salad by the Big East school.

Pac 12 Continues To Grab Digital Benefits: Last week the Pac 12 unveiled their new network, this week it is all about digital. The Conference has  launched  an iPad app that will let college sports fans follow all their favorite teams wherever they are. The whole thing was made possible because 18 months ago, the conference decided to consolidate all of its media rights, and launch its own sports networks for fans of its teams.

The Pac-12 iPad app will provide users access to all the same content as the website, and will include personalization features to let users decide which universities and which sports are most important to them. That includes an interactive programming guide that will show content tailored to them, as well as highlighting events that are live and those which are trending. By connecting with Facebook and Twitter, fans will be able to see what their friends are saying while watching live matchups. All  850 different Pac-12 events across all sports will be available on the web and on the iPad app.  It is a very progressive move for a conference steeped in Silicon Valley with tech savvy followers who will engage more and more online, with the traditional broadcast outlet still there for the taking.

So with all those pieces in place, and more fun to follow, let’s follow some college football.

Jags, Colleges, High Schools Stake “American Football” Claim Abroad

North American soccer fans are still abuzz over the amount of friendlies that took place during the summer of 2012, showing the world that the interest in high level soccer continues to rise. So the question now becomes, can American football still find its legs abroad? It is a question that has been addressed in fits and starts in the last 20 years, from the World League of American Football to the exhibitions and regular season games staged by NCAA, NFL and some high school teams to various degrees of success across Europe and in some cases in places like Bermuda and Japan. None of which have made for long term success yet, but this week two interesting efforts were pushed forward to least bring some additional buzz and consistency to the plan.

The biggest one was the Jacksonville Jaguars announcing they will forgo a home game every year for the next four years to play in Wembley Stadium in London.  The move by the Jags and their new owner  Shahid Khan makes Jacksonville an interesting litmus test for the long-discussed theory that American sport could increase its footprint into Europe consistently. The Jaguars, who struggle to fill Everbank Field at times and play in one of the smallest markets in North America, now get consistent brand exposure and a signature event every year with international exposure.  They can possibly create brand partnerships that will make a London trip every year a key promotional destination, and work with the NFL to set up some grassroots and digital programming with local clubs interested in American football. Jacksonville being a key military hub is also an added plus, as a good amount of American football support abroad is usually tied to ex-pats, and now the chance to build a consistent tie with fans and families who could be stationed both in Northern Florida and then abroad will also help.  Will Londoners learn to like the Jags? We shall see. However one thing that has been essential for  building sport outside of its native boundaries is consistency of presence. Soccer has done a great job in establishing a club presence in North America…while the US exports have mainly been about the league brand. The Jags putting a consistent stake in the ground could help accelerate, or at least answer, the question of long term franchise viability for the NFL elsewhere.

Then there is the college and high school side.  Next week,   12 American football high school and college teams will depart the United States and Canada, bound for Ireland where they will play a competitive regular season game as part of the biggest overseas event of its kind in the sport’s history. 

The Global Ireland Football Tournament – GIFT 2012 – has been two years in the making and on the eve of the Emerald Isle Classic, sports fans in Dublin and Navan will be treated to a showcase of 12 teams playing six games at three venues in and around the Irish capital on Friday, August 31.

The games, organized by Texas-based Global Football, will kick off at 4pm and 7.30pm local time at three venues usually reserved for Gaelic football, hurling and rugby.  But for this Dublin Friday Night Lights spectacular, Donnybrook Stadium and Parnell Park in Dublin and Páirc Tailteann in Navan, County Meath will all be painted with the gridiron and will welcome touchdowns, tackles, helmets and shoulder pads.

The schools will be some of the more elite high school football programs from across North America, including Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) vs. Jesuit Prep Dallas (Dallas, TX), Kent School (Kent, CT) vs. National School of American Football (UK), Notre Dame HS (Sherman Oak, CA) vs. Hamilton HS (Chandler, AZ), Villanova College (King City, ON) vs. Oak Park High School (Winnipeg, MB)  and Notre Dame Prep (Scottsdale, AZ) vs. Father Judge (Philadelphia, PA) as well as a Division III matchup between John Carroll and St. Norberts.

While there have been numerous visits over the years by colleges ranging from Notre Dame and Fordham to Holy Cross and Boston College over the years, this push will be the most ambitious and widespread to help push American football in Ireland.  While not a stakeholder series like the Jags have started, it is a widespread push to grab some casual fans and build brand for the sport to see where it can go.

Maybe at the end all these efforts will not bring more football American style to the shores of Europe, but will help to increase mobile following or merchandise sales or even TV viewership.  What both efforts show is a more comprehensive push than ever before at a time when the obvious benefits of global marketing and branding are being seen by traditional football.  Imitation after all, remains the sincerest part of flattery, even with pads and helmets.

A Simple Way To Get In The Spirit: Show Your Colors

Yes we are in the middle of the Olympics, the MLB trading deadline is passed and training camps for NFL are going strong. So with all the going on, a simple and fun way to start the fall college sports season kicked off this week…show your colors.

The Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), a division of IMG College, and NCAA Football launched the project last year, and added a key partner in ESPN.com this year with a simple premise…go to schools and get supporters to log in, not just to BCS schools but to any football school that wants to participate…and empower them through digital and social media as well as through grassroots efforts…to get their supporters to show their school colors.

Over 165 colleges and universities decided to partake, which will culminate with the 2012  College Colors Day celebration on August 31, when the school with the most support will get to show their colors. The winning institution will also receive $10,000 toward its general scholarship fund. The public also gets a little incentive to vote, with weekly $50 gift cards from ESPN Shop and one of two grand prizes including a $500 college shopping spree at ESPN Shop dropped into the mix.

The University of Alabama, an early leader, got on board with a little creativity, even tweeting a photo of head coach Nick Saban casting their first vote.

Now the cynical will say it’s just another contest that will reward the big schools over the small ones again, and it is a gimmick that feeds into old school thoughts about college sports…big triumph, little ones get squashed.  However it really is up to the schools and their entrepreneurial spirit to mobilize their fan and move up the rankings, which are charted every day in real time.

Can a small school find a unique way to garner votes…can Harvard get influential alumni to send out a little tweet that will drive a large number of votes? Will some big schools think it is too trivial and not care? It is all about a fun, simple opportunity to make some noise in a relatively quiet time for college athletics, and have a little fun as the fall approaches for some smart brand partners and their idea.  It’s not rocket science, but then again maybe a rocket scientist who is an alumnus of x school will take some pride in making alma mater get some recognition it may not normally get. We probably have gotten way too cynical, and maybe rightfully so, about big time college athletics in many cases. However the games are still great fun, and Colors Day can serve as a great reminder.

Now go out and vote.

Merrill Has A Senior Moment…

It used to be that the Senior Bowl was one of the few showcases that every college football senior would make mandatory. There were few pro days at colleges, individual workouts or mega-systems where teams could do their own analysis prior to the NFL Draft. It was a right of honor to be selected and play in the game, which usually fell at a time and on a major network that would give those participants one more chance to shine before going to the NFL. The best of the best. There were a few others…the East-West Shrine Game on Christmas Day, the Hula Bowl and even the College All-Star game in Chicago that pitted the Super Bowl Champs against some of the top seniors in one last hurrah. Most of those have now gone the way of many “traditional” college events, swept off to the memory bank for an extra cautious and ultra protective group of athletes who won’t risk exposure or injury prior to Draft day.

The Senior Bowl, played in Mobile, Alabama, has survived as a showcase, albeit one less important than what it used to be. No longer on a broadcast network, the game has made its way to the NFL Network this Saturday afternoon. It is still unique in many ways, featuring many senior collegiate football stars representing the North and South, and coached by the entire coaching staffs from two National Football League teams. Senior Bowl practices are also attended by over 800 general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and other front office personnel from the 32 National Football League teams, making Mobile and the Senior Bowl the week-long host to a one-of-a-kind NFL Coaches Convention. Some top stars skip the game, giving rise to others who may need the spotlight just a little more to improve their position. The casual fan does not make it a must see anymore, and may tune in for a few minutes. So what value could such a game have for brands that are not affiliated directly with football?

Well Merrill Lynch sees value. The financial services company, always looking for an edge in a diverse market, signed on as the presenting sponsor of the game, as much as for the wealth management potential than for the TV eyeballs. Merrill will get signage on the field and all the trimmings that go with sponsorship, but they will also get an audience, probably an ongoing one, with the athletes to talk to them about investing and other financial issues which they may not have experienced during their careers as student-athletes. In a time when players dollars can be large but fleeting, there is more cause for concern and protection than ever before, and more of a call for understanding and responsibility of finances than maybe for previous generations of athletes. Yes there are savvy managers who will invest and control a players dollars, but having that understanding of what is going on can lead to more long-term shrewd planning not just for an athlete, but for his or her family as well. Merrill is also in a referral business, one that has loyalty and customer service at the top of the priority list. If they are able to explain the values of wealth management clearly and effectively, their long term business for handling the financial background and investment work for not just these athletes, but for their friends and teammates, increases exponentially. While it may not be “insurance” as we normally think about the insurance business, Merrill’s Senior Bowl sponsorship can really help insure in a very direct way that they obtain and grow their business with athletes. There is also the aspect of all the other NFL and collegiate officials around the game and the practices this week. They too will always be in need of sound financial planning, so the pebble in a pond theory that this sponsorship and its good will can spread virally to those just around the game this week also hold water.

Is this sponsorship a key factor in Merrill’s approach to reach high net worth individuals? Probably not. It was probably a good buy that took some innovative thinking and is a bit of a chance to see if it works. It is probably much more hands on during the week in Mobile than say, hospitality events would be at a golf or tennis event with clients, but it is a great seed planting move by a well known brand in an ultra-competitive field. Maybe its not yet a touchdown for branding and business, but is at least moving the ball down the field. Very smart.

Pac 12 To China? The Value Is In The Brands, Not The Games

Monday there was a huge article in the New York Times with Pac 12 Commissioner Larry Scott making an “unprecedented” trip to China to look at opportunities for the league there. While Scott has done a yeoman’s job raising the level of respect and interest in his run as commish, the thought of “unprecedented” was great buzz for the conference at a time when coverage was a bit of a lull, but having those outside of the U.S. understand and adapt to the college system, even for small projects, is a large risk.

Now Universities have had foreign campuses and programs for years, and college teams have traveled abroad for games to Europe, the Far East and all around the world for just as long. One of the most memorable was when Army and Navy, led by David Robinson, squared off in Japan in the mid-1980′s. So to talk of this program as new and different is a great ploy. The problem is in the culture of sport in the rest of the world vs. the American system. The club system, where young people play sport, has always worked well outside of the United States, making colleges a place for study, not as much for athletics. Even in Canada, the college system for athletics is changing but is nowhere near what goes on in the U.S. To try and change that system would take years and millions and in the end probably would not do much for good will or sport business. In reality, the best efforts being made by schools, especially those with large non-American populations, is to look to assimilate sport on the club level for students to enjoy while they are in the States, and then make sure students enjoy the experience of overall college life, while they study here, not really vice versa.

As a result, club sports like rugby and cricket are on the rise at colleges across the United States, as students take the time to enjoy their own cultural athletic events, much like those students from U.S. schools studying abroad might enjoy a game of catch while away from the country. The experience of U.S. student-athletes playing abroad should be part of their culture of learning what the rest of the world is, not trying to impose American collegiate sport on those in the country. Is there a market for college sports television off the American soil? Maybe, but that market will probably grow faster in a digital space than on broadcast TV, where most fans of sport will probably look to the NFL or NBA as their choice of fill for non-native events. Can that digital exposure help Universities looking to recruit larger student groups to America? Sure thing, although the exposure to academic programs will probably attract more visitors than a one off football game.

Another interesting opportunity for a brand like the Pac 12 is following in the footsteps of its professional counterparts in bringing new brands to market in the U.S. Like many Asian companies, the exposure to a West Coast market as an entree into the U.S. could come at less cost and even more local or regional impact than through the NBA or NFL, especially at schools with a strong population who may already be aware of the brands through their time in their native land. The combo of a large non-American student population combined with an economy of scale to enter makes the most sense, and probably would be the crux of Scott’s visit to China, versus planning for a large scale invasion of the Oregon Ducks into Beijing.

is the trip a worthwhile one for the ever-entreprenurial conference? You bet. Their aggressive push east in the last few years has probably raised more eyes and opened some additional doors on Madison Avenue, so this trip could accomplish much of the same in terms of awareness, if not games for the Pac 12 in another market prime with dollars and interested in sport.