The fast-food rivals are choosing up sides: It's professional leagues for McDonald's and college kids for Burger King. The No. 2 burger chain is one of the first marketers to structure a national promotion around NCAA football, a property growing in popularity as professional leagues struggle with labor negotiations.
According to franchisees, Burger King's promotion features collector cups depicting legendary NCAA players and coaches like Penn State's Joe Paterno. To build its customer database, the marketer is also creating a 900-number that fans can call to vote for their favorite college players.
Burger King wouldn't comment on the promotion, which will get network TV spots from Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York.
The promotion runs against McDonald's annual NFL tie-in, which will tout the 95 cents Big Mac and could include the return of the "Super Fans," created last fall by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. A McDonald's spokeswoman said the company is debating when to bring back the advertising characters.
Burger King isn't an official NCAA sponsor; Pizza Hut has owned that license since 1985. But Burger King is getting around this through sponsoring the National College Football Hall of Fame.
Burger King last week said it's committing $600,000 over three years as the first corporate sponsor of the new hall. Players and coaches on the promotional cups will be Hall of Famers, said Philadelphia franchisee Steve Lewis.
To date, Burger King has only dabbled in sports marketing. The chain sponsors Nascar driver Joe Nemechek and last spring ran local market tie-ins to Major League Baseball in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
But VP-USA Marketing John Cywinski is keenly focusing on sports marketing as a tool to attract the young males who are fast-food's core customers.
It's a logical strategy McDonald's has played for years with its NFL and NBA sponsorships, but other fast-feeders are just beginning to copy. Taco Bell this month began a multiyear partnership with basketball stars Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, the chain's first sports endorsers.
Mr. Cywinski wasn't available for comment, but franchisees and a promotion industry executive say Burger King is encouraging markets to partner with local college teams for October promotions.
Burger King's endorsement of collegiate football is a boon for the NCAA, which for years has encouraged corporate partners like Pizza Hut to promote all college athletics, not just the Final Four basketball championships that draw record TV audiences.
Pizza Hut has given away footballs on occasion but concentrates NCAA support on basketball, a spokesman for the chain said.
Burger King's interest in college athletics may motivate Pizza Hut to defend its turf as the NCAA's official fast-food sponsor; the chain's contract expires next year.
Jeff Jensen and Alan Salomon contributed to this story.