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Sports Marketing 2010

As College Football's TV Landscape Changes, Brands Still Find Marketing Opportunities

ESPN Locks Up BCS for $500M but Has Advertiser Holes to Fill

By Published on . 1

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Changes are coming to college athletics.

Nebraska and Colorado are leaving the Big 12 Conference in 2011 for the Big Ten and Pac-10, respectively. Utah is also going to the Pac-10. Boise State is moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West. And many observers say the expansion movement isn't done yet.

GAME DAY: Viewers can expect to see Home Depot on Saturdays.
GAME DAY: Viewers can expect to see Home Depot on Saturdays.
The NCAA men's basketball tournament is expanding from 64 teams to 68 teams, necessitating an extra day of play called the "First Four" but killing the aesthetic beauty and symmetry of the printed bracket.

Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, the biggest player in college football and basketball coverage, begins a four-year run this season of televising the Bowl Championship Series, a package it won last year with a staggering $500 million, four-year bid to beat out Fox by $100 million.

So, do the brands that advertise around college athletics still fit into the changing landscape?

Depends on who you talk to.

"There are still branding opportunities," said Harvey Schiller, the former president of Turner Sports and the former commissioner (1986-89) of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has produced college football's last four national champions (Alabama, Florida twice, and LSU). "There wasn't this seismic shift in teams jumping conferences that everyone expected. If Notre Dame [an independent in football] had joined the Big Ten, or had Texas moved to the Pac-10, you also would have seen a seismic shift in advertising."

But brands looking to get in front of college loyalists, who think of nothing better than to give up an entire Saturday to watch conference coverage, should keep an eye on CBS and ESPN/ABC, which have practically carved up the NCAA landscape between them. And while the Big Ten Network, which is 49% owned by Fox Sports, is thriving, other conference-backed cable nets are either fledgling at best or simply nonexistent.

There are myriad advertisers involved on the college football scene, most notably Home Depot, which sponsors both the SEC on CBS, and ESPN's two-time Emmy Award-winning "College Football GameDay Built by The Home Depot," a weekly three-hour program that originates live from the site of what is considered to be the best game of the week.

CBS's deal with the SEC gives it the right to televise the conference's No. 1 -- and sometimes No. 2 -- game of the week.

"The SEC on CBS is probably the marquee package amongst all of college football only because the SEC has ascended to the best conference in college football," said Ken McMillan, the longtime sports TV critic for the Middletown (N.Y.) Times-Herald Record. "CBS will hold onto it with a death grip. ESPN/ABC is in good position because they control everything else. NBC has suffered with Notre Dame, but it's still a good buy."

Other notable sponsors include AllState, Burger King's on-air poll tie-in with CBS's college football coverage, and USAA, the military insurance company, which provides sponsorship of the annual Army-Navy game.

Yet some brands are opting out as ESPN calls the shots.

Both FedEx and Citi surprisingly ended their title sponsorships of the Orange and Rose bowls, respectively, with the former being sponsored by FedEx for the past 21 years. As part of ESPN's winning bid for the Bowl Championship Series, the network is asking BCS game sponsors to also take advertising packages during the regular season. Executives with knowledge of the discussions say the packages have a range, with the high end being nearly $20 million. Neither FedEx nor Citi wanted a season-long sponsorship package.

ESPN -- which not only has a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal to televise SEC football aside from the CBS deal, as well as a 12-year, $2 billion deal signed last month that gives the network exclusive rights to Atlantic Coast Conference football and men's basketball games -- declined to comment.

ESPN is actively looking for sponsors to replace FedEx and Citi.

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