SPORTS FORUM SIZES UP COLLEGE BALL : MARKETERS RAP FRAGMENTED SETUP, WHILE EYEING DESIRABLE AUDIENCE

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[new york] For college football, it's a case of damned if it does, damned if it doesn't.

The case concerns making college football more marketing friendly. On one side are the likes of ESPN and General Motors Corp., which believe universities need to create a more efficient and reliable structure to market their cash-cow football properties.

On the other side are longtime college football marketers including Gillette Co. and Nike, which have made the best of the current system and fret that change may lead to over-commercialization.

Such were the fears and sentiments voiced at the first annual College Sports Magazine Forum, bringing together top marketing and media executives from DirecTV, ESPN, GM's Oldsmobile, Gillette, Grey Advertising and Nike last month.

Also in attendance were representatives from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, Nokia Sugar Bowl and the University of Tennessee.

While the forum was originally intended to address marketing issues pertaining to collegiate sports in general, panelists mostly focused on college football.

Much criticism, offered toward constructive ends, targeted schools looking to marketers to supplement athletic budgets, especially with women's sports on the rise.

"Gender equity is going to cost a lot, and marketing is being looked at to fund those programs," said Paul Hoolahan, executive director of the Nokia Sugar Bowl.

WHAT MARKETERS WANT

Ideally, marketers want to see a single entity, offering one-stop-shopping to all universities. And they want to see the sport branded and packaged in a more marketable and effective fashion.

"It's a matter of structure. You have seven or nine conferences that each have their own agendas. Only occasionally have they worked together in a way that works for sponsors," said Len DeLuca, senior VP-programming and development at ESPN.

As it is now, marketers have to deal with each university, or go through various entities representing a single conference. Marketers including Burger King Corp. have also gone to Collegiate Licensing, which handles logo licensing for most major schools.

And now there's the so-called "superalliance" of conferences that have created a structure for a long-awaited national championship game, but whose marketing will be controlled by ABC.

`SLOW EVOLUTION'

And then there's College Football USA. Established in September 1995 by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, with the ambition of evolving into a centralized marketing body, College Football USA at this stage merely licenses its own logo. But changes may be coming.

"There has been some movement in the past three months. We're on the verge of making College Football USA work," said Bob Vecchione, associate executive director of the athletic directors association. "It's a difficult task and a slow evolution, but it seems like all the players are at the table, saying we need to do something."

AdCraft Sports Marketing, the agency managing College Football USA, was recently acquired by Host Communications, which handles NCAA marketing for all its championship sports. Mr. Vecchione noted the coupling will lead to a significant change in the way College Football USA is packaged and sold to marketers.

But marketers also say that college football needs to figure out exactly what it can offer. The answer doesn't rest in new, fashionable logos but in properties and programs that will get marketers direct access to the sport's desirable demographic: white-collar and well-educated 18-to-49-year-old men.

`SCHOOLS ARE BRANDS'

"I'd caution you against creating a new logo. Your schools are your brands," said Bob Schaffer, national sales promotion manager for Oldsmobile. "But what I really need to know is if my association is going to get me more consumer consideration for my product. I know it will get me more exposure, but what's my message?"

Said Steve Greenberger, VP-director of print media at Grey in New York: "There's really not enough primary research about the college marketplace. I hear all about how people have passion for this sport, but advertisers need to know more about this passion, how this passion can be directed to buy a product."

"We need to find the appropriate research mechanisms . . . so we can get the information that marketers need," Mr. Vecchione said.

Some marketing executives, including those from Gillette and Nike, say they've had success using college football. Both marketers know the business, however, and have the contacts and can craft effective programs without the guidance of a properties organization.

Ironically, both said changing that which scares off other marketers might actually ruin that which attracts them.

`CLEANEST ENVIRONMENT'

"We've liked college sports because it has the cleanest commercial environment in all of sports. We don't want too many sponsors, but it sounds like the NCAA is going to slice this thinner. That's not good for us," said Steve Miller, Nike's director of global sports marketing.

"We're trying to involve ourselves in sports that don't have 20 or more sponsors," said Jim Lamie, Gillette's director of sports and event marketing, who nonetheless said Gillette "needs to reach young consumers as they start developing brand preferences. We've been very happy with the way things are, but as soon as these institutions work out what they want, we want to be a part of it and build equity in it. We'll be patient."

As in pro ball, college football's mos marketable inventory is its post-season championship games, but all those are bowl games that the NCAA can't control.

But the "super alliance" is asking bowls to bid to be part of its post-season formula. That has bowl organizers fretting over their future, as it appears one of the bidding requirements is that they surrender their sponsorship rights to ABC. That would mean giving up about $5 million which would go toward staging their events.

"It's a possibility that frankly scares the hell out of me," Mr. Hoolahan said.

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