Is the College Football Playoff the Next Brand Super Bowl?

Sponsors Plot Marketing Strategies That Might Not Hit Full Gear Until Year Two

By Published on .

ESPN has been pitching brands on the new College Football Playoff for more than a year. But it might take another year before the first-of-its kind sporting event reaches its full marketing potential, which some sports marketing execs say could approach Super Bowl status some day.

"This year was about the sales teams and the lawyers getting the deals done. Next year is about the marketers and the fun," Rob Temple, ESPN's VP-sports management, said in an interview.

ESPN will broadcast the Jan. 1 semi-final games and the Jan. 12 national championship game as part of a 12-year media rights deal announced in 2012 that reportedly cost $7.3 billion. The network has reached deals with 15 official playoff sponsors, including Reese's, which announced its deal only two weeks ago. The other sponsors are: Dr Pepper, AT&T, Allstate, Northwestern Mutual, Goodyear, Capital One, Chick-fil-A, Vizio, Taco Bell, DirectTV, General Motors, Nissan, Ford and Gatorade.

Advertising Age Player

ESPN's deals with the sponsors include multimedia ad buys, such as TV ads during the national championship game and the six bowl games that are affiliated with the College Football Playoff (see graphic). The sponsors also have rights to use College Football Playoff trademarks on packaging and at retail.

But it takes brands time to put integrated programs in place. "Right now the level of promotional spending isn't quite on par with what we would typically see a month before some of these other major events," said Jim Andrews, senior VP-content strategy at sponsorship consultancy IEG. "But that's not necessarily surprising given that it is the first year and some sponsors signed on late. I would expect to see more next year."

Even so, Mr. Temple said brand involvement has already surpassed what marketers invested during the pre-playoff era. "Everything you are seeing this year is bigger than anything we've done before in the BCS [Bowl Championship Series]. And everything you are going to see next year is bigger than this year." He added: "This is a transformative event, not unlike years ago when the Super Bowl was created and when March Madness turned into what it is."

The marketer interest is driven in part by the TV ratings potential for three high-stakes games, rather than a single title game under the old BCS system, which by itself drew big ratings.

Another benefit for brands: The playoff creates a period of more than a week between the semis and championship game during which college football will be a large part of the nation's sports conversation.

"It creates a larger promotional window for advertisers and marketers and sponsors to activate around and for consumers to engage with," said Andrew Judelson, senior VP of national sales for IMG. He added that it is "not too aspirational" to think that the playoff has Super Bowl-like potential. IMG College is the exclusive licensing agent for the playoff via its Collegiate Licensing Co., which has reached deals with 42 licensees -- ranging from Nike to Franklin Mint -- to create College Football Playoff-branded merchandise. That is actually fewer than the 120 BCS licensees, but IMG purposely crafted fewer deals to create more value, Mr. Judelson said.

Of course, the playoff occurs during the holiday season. So sponsors will compete for attention with other seasonal marketing programs. That is a potential complication that sponsors of other big sporting events -- like the Super Bowl and Olympics -- typically do not face.

ESPN is trying to incorporate the holidays into its pitch to fans, which includes a new TV ad that plugs the "six classic bowls," including the two playoff games, that ESPN will air over 36 hours running from New Year's Eve to New Year's Day. The spot, called "Party Spread," is by Wieden & Kennedy, New York. Another new ad, called "Playoff Ride," hypes the new system by showing crushed TV monitors as a symbol of the teams that didn't make it, leaving only the final four: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.

Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN also plans to promote the games using other Disney properties, including promoting the playoff on ABC's telecast of "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest." The goal is to create a "sports holiday on a holiday," while drawing in more casual fans, including women, Mr. Temple said. On the weekend leading to the championship game in Dallas, performances by Lenny Kravitz and Sting will highlight an event at the American Airlines Center that is called "AT&T Playoff Playlist Live!" AT&T is the presenting sponsor of the game.

Dr Pepper, whose deal includes a sponsorship of the national championship trophy, used the playoff to secure a large partnership with Walmart for a retail program called "College Football Playbook." It includes a co-branded TV spot (below), in-store displays, social media campaigns and ticket giveaways. A special section on plugs recipes like "beef briscuit with Dr Pepper marinade."

Leah Bach, who is Dr Pepper's shopper marketing manager for the Walmart account, said the retailer had traditionally viewed the football season monolithically, without making a huge distinction between college and pro. But with the playoff, "they are really getting behind the fact that it is a huge at-home viewing occasion."

Taco Bell is creating a "Live Mas Student Section" at the semifinal and championship games as part of a ticket giveaway for students at the participating schools.

Reese's will sample its newly re-launched Reese's Sticks at the "College Football Playoff Fan Fest" prior to the championship game in Dallas. The brand is also running a new TV ad featuring the playoff logo.

But as with most first-time events, marketers are still assessing the total potential of the playoff.

That includes Allstate, which is entering its ninth year as sponsor of the Sugar Bowl, which hosts one of the semifinal games this year. The insurer has had "great success this year with the 'It's Good Sweepstakes' by leveraging a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game," Lisa Cochrane, the company's senior VP-marketing, said in an email. "So the change has been good from a branding perspective, but until the game is over and we can analyze everything, it's a bit too early to report on all the benefits. "

Most Popular