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High-Stakes Name Game

Most newspapers and TV networks limit mention of title sponsors' names

By Scott Becher
FoxSportsBiz.com

December 1, 1999 11:30 a.m. ET

In many ways, the college football bowl season represents the best and the worst of sponsorship marketing.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the action on the field. It has everything to do with corporations shuffling their names in and out of the games themselves.

The Nokia Sugar Bowl and FedEx Orange Bowl are examples of companies converting long-term bowl game relationships into strong brand recognition among college football fans and customers alike.

I'm all for that.

What embarrasses me as a sports marketer is the way the minor bowl games seemingly prostitute themselves for the title sponsor dollars necessary to keep their game profitable.

Take the game in my hometown of Miami. In a few short years, it has gone from the Blockbuster Bowl to the Carquest Bowl to the Micron PC Bowl.

Just a few weeks ago, a division of Boise, Idaho based-Micron signed on as the very first title sponsor of the Humanitarian Bowl. It is now called the "Crucial.com Humanitarian Bowl."

The fact that the game itself is played in Boise gives it some local relevance and support for an otherwise awkward sounding name for a football game.

These computer companies join two other "dot-com" companies, Insight.com and OurHouse.com, as bowl game title sponsors.

"It's a horrible thing that the bowl games are "selling out", but today you just can't stage a game without those dollars," said Marc Kidd, president of the sports division of Host Communications.

Kidd has been in the collegiate marketing game for 20 years. His company has had a hand in selling some of these sponsorships, yet their abundance still makes him a little squeamish.

"Companies looking to buy name recognition should be involved with major bowl games," Kidd said. "Otherwise, the best bowl game marriage is with a sponsor that has a relationship with the community of the game itself. A civic tie is crucial to long-term success."

Equally important is recognizing this kind of sponsorship usually pays out only after years of investment. It takes that long before a sponsor achieves top-of-mind recognition within the title of a bowl game.

The media plays a role here.

Journalists are so put off by the corporate presence in the names of these games, particularly the games with the greatest heritage, that they go out of their way to avoid mentioning the sponsor when covering the event.

In fact, some publications and TV networks have gone as far as to establish specific guidelines for when it is appropriate and not appropriate to mention the title sponsors.

"Two years ago we did a study," said Monte Lorell, USA Today's managing editor for sports. "I asked each assignment desk to give me a list of events and arenas we might cover, with sponsor names attached.

"We found corporate sponsors mentioned in over 900 situations. That's an unwieldy thing to keep track of, especially because they change."

So Lorell decided only to identify the name of a sponsor in the news pages if it is a part of the core name of the event.

"I make it as understandable to the reader as possible to know what the event is," Lorell said. "With bowl games, the core name is the familiar name. The Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, that's how we refer to them.

"In other situations, like with the newer bowls, or events like the Buick Open, there is nothing else to call them."

But Lorell, who describes himself as a realist, understands that "many of these events would not take place without sponsor support."

So in the newspapers agate pages, which are pages largely made up of statistics and listings in small type, Lorell more freely allows for sponsor recognition in the title of events.

"We do this not because we are obligated to, but to give readers a sense of who the sponsor is behind a given event. This way, we communicate the information without the unwieldiness."

The moral here for sponsors is not to take a day-trader mentality to a bowl game investment. It's a long-term proposition, and if you stick around long enough, sooner or later editors like Lorell may recognize you as a part of the event itself.

That is sponsorship at its finest.

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher