As it prepares to kick off its fourth straight year of Saturday college football coverage, Fox Sports is calling on a triumvirate of higher powers to promote its broadcast slate.
Beginning Monday, Fox will roll out its new "Honor Thy Saturday" campaign, a $10 million initiative that includes buys on national cable networks and a number of high-profile digital outlets. At the heart of the promotional effort is a series of 30-second spots from Pereira & O'Dell featuring the Football Gods, a fearsome threesome of former gridiron greats Eric Dickerson, William "The Refrigerator" Perry and Brian Bosworth.
Perched at the peak of a smashmouth Mount Olympus, the three legends render judgment upon hapless fans who fail to observe the college football Sabbath, as it were. The wrath of the Gods is a sight to behold: A suburban dad who erroneously informs his pals at a backyard kids' party that "the game's not on yet" is transformed into a piñata -- whereupon he is immediately set upon by a husky lad wielding a baseball bat. In another spot, a bewildered mortal who accidentally blows off football to help his wife arrange a yard sale is turned into one of those disconcerting cymbal-clicking stuffed monkeys.
A third spot features a football-denying dilettante in a hotel pool who feels the burn (literally) after the deities have had their way with him.
The spots are being positioned as a jocular reminder that the Fox broadcast net and its cable sports channel FS1 carry a 14-week lineup of Saturday Pac-12, Big 12 and Conference USA games -- a fact that may be lost on viewers who've grown accustomed to flipping between ABC, CBS, ESPN, NBC and various regional sports nets and conference-affiliated channels. "The way we look at it, a large majority of college football fans just find themselves cruising around the channels looking for games," said Robert Gottlieb, exec-VP, marketing, Fox Sports Media Group. "They may not be as attuned to the notion that, 'hey, it's Saturday ... I should check to see who's playing on Fox or FS1.'"
While the broadcast flagship has been airing a steady slate of Saturday games since 2012, this is only the third season Fox has looked to market FS1 as a college football destination, Mr. Gottlieb said. "We're still pretty new to the game, so it's all just a matter of getting into the mindset of the college football fan," he said. "It takes time for people to formalize that grazing behavior ... to really lock in their Saturday viewing rituals."
Fox's first foray into the world of college football arrived in 1998, when it acquired the rights to the Cotton Bowl. For a brief window (2006-09), the network also owned the exclusive rights to the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange Bowls, as well as the now-defunct BCS Champiosnhip Game. Fox ultimately was supplanted by ESPN, which now effectively owns the post-season bowl space. (Of the 41 bowl games scheduled for this postseason, ESPN and sibling net ABC will air all but two. CBS is the long-running broadcast partner of the Sun Bowl, and CBS Sports Network in December will carry the inaugural AutoNation Cure Bowl.)
In addition to the full suite of the Fox properties -- a portfolio that includes the broadcast net as well as the cable outlets FS1, FS2, FX, FXX, National Geographic Channel, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and a host of regional sports networks -- the "Honor They Saturday" spots also will air on a clutch of unaffiliated male-skewing nets (Comedy Central, Spike, Discovery Channel and History). There, the spots will rub elbows with the suddenly ubiquitous DraftKings.com; per iSpot.tv data, the fantasy sports site over the last two weeks has been the top spender on all four networks.
Fox also will run pre-roll on a host of digital sites that includes YouTube, Hulu, Bleacher Report, College Humor and Cracked.
The "Honor Thy Saturday" spots are set to roll out just days before Fox gets its season started with the opening game of the Jim Harbaugh Era at Michigan. The former All-American quarterback returned to his alma mater in December; his first challenge as head coach is to lead his charges past Utah in Salt Lake City. The Big Ten-Pac-12 showdown kicks off Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. EDT on FS1.
Wrapping a cross-country jaunt that began on August 22, a specially tricked-out "Harbus" will pull into the Rice-Eccles Stadium lot just in time to join in on Utah's understated version of tailgating. Decked out in a supersized simulacrum of Coach Harbaugh's signature khaki trousers and blue sweatshirt, the vehicle will be hard to miss.
"The response to the Harbus has been incredible. People have been freaking out over it, and it's provided us with some really strong earned media," Mr. Gottlieb said, adding that the fabric-clad bus was another way to lock in the association between Fox Sports and college football.
The Football Gods have some heavy lifting to do if Fox is to emerge as a significant threat to the rest of the field. Last year, the broadcaster's college football coverage averaged 2.53 million viewers and a 1.5 household rating, while FS1 games delivered 658,000 viewers and a 0.4 household rating. By way of comparison, CBS over the same span averaged 5.48 million viewers and a 3.5 household rating, thanks in large part to its high-octane "SEC Game of the Week" package and its coverage of the Dec. 6 SEC Championship Game, which drew 12.8 million viewers and a 7.8 household rating. (On that same evening, Fox delivered its highest ratings on the season, averaging 6.13 million viewers and a 3.5 household with its presentation of the Big Ten Championship Game.)
Naturally, there's a social-media element baked into the new college football campaign. Following Thursday's Harbaugh game, fans will have the opportunity to virtually interact with the Gods of Football via the Twitter handle @CFBGodsonFS1. Mr. Gottlieb said the account will respond to viewer queries and comments in real time, although Fox will accept no liability for the consequences of angering one of the immortals. If the Fridge deems it necessary to replace your insides with candy and shredded paper, that's on you.
Fox will stagger the rollout of the three "Honor They Saturday" spots. The piñata promo will be the first to air.