College Football Championship: A New Super Bowl in the Making?

Commercials in Inaugural Game Fetching $1 Million

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The Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama averaged 28.3 million viewers on New Year's Day, making it the most-watched cable TV program in history. Expectations are even higher for Monday's championship.
The Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama averaged 28.3 million viewers on New Year's Day, making it the most-watched cable TV program in history. Expectations are even higher for Monday's championship. Credit: ESPN

Following a pair of record-breaking semi-final games on New Year's Day -- including the most-watched event in cable history -- the first College Football Playoff National Championship game is expected to be a boon for ESPN and its advertisers.

Despite a flurry of other big-ticket, high-profile TV events in the first quarter, including the Golden Globes, Grammy Awards, Academy Awards, and of course, NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, media buyers are putting the cost of a 30-second spot in the Championship game at $1 million. And no wonder: One media buyer predicts the game could ultimately pull an 18 rating (a ratings point represents 1% of TV households).

Marketers might not get Super Bowl-size ratings, but they will get all the hype and passion at a fraction of the cost, far south of the Super Bowl's $4 million-plus rates and even half a million cheaper than spots in the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament.

Taco Bell ran three spots in the college football semi-finals and will air three commercials during the championship game on Monday. CMO Chris Brandt noted the cost of three spots in the Super Bowl would be astronomical.

"Super Bowl is an event unlike anything else, when people are actually tuning in for the ads just as much as the game," Mr. Brandt said. "But the Super Bowl is only one day and with [college] we can be part of it through the college football season, the semi-finals and two weeks building up to the finals."

As part of its sponsorship, Taco Bell also created a "Live Mas Student Section" for the semifinal and championship games, giving away thousands of tickets to students at the participating schools.

Allstate is getting its money's worth as well.

The insurance company, a long-time sponsor of college football and nine-year title sponsor of the Sugar Bowl, is thrilled with the performance of the playoffs thus far. The Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama averaged 28.3 million viewers and pulled a 15.2 rating, making it the most-watched cable TV program in history, topping the previous record held by the 2011 BCS Championship game, which pulled 27.3 million viewers. The Rose Bowl between Oregon and Florida State was watched by 28.2 million and garnered a 14.8 rating, so it too beat the previous record.

Allstate rolled out a set of eight new "Mayhem" commercials during the Sugar Bowl and will release a new cut during the championship game. Senior VP-Marketing Lisa Cochran said during the Sugar Bowl, Allstate was trending on Twitter and the brand garnered 46 million social media impressions and 18 million visits to its web site.

While ESPN is not officially sold out of the game, there are just a handful of units left, according to media buyers and other people familiar with negotiations.

Demand has been strong, according to Amy Phillips, a spokeswoman for ESPN. And since ESPN holds all of the rights to the games, including all commercial inventory, there's the opportunity to create bigger, deeper media integrations, she added.

For the 15 major sponsors, which include AT&T, Taco Bell and Dr Pepper, this means on-the-ground events and retail partnerships.

Dr Pepper is sponsoring the national championship trophy and also used the playoff to secure a large partnership with Walmart for a retail program called "College Football Playbook." This included co-branded TV spot, in-store displays, social-media campaigns and ticket giveaways. There was also a special section on Walmart's website that plugs recipes that include Dr Pepper as an ingredient.

AT&T is the presenting sponsor of the championship game, which will take place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. As part of the sponsorship, the company rolled out a series of new commercials featuring football legends like Joe Montana and Bo Jackson. It is also hosting a series of events over the weekend in Dallas and the surrounding area, including a concert, fan festival and tailgate, and is promoting its technology with a stadium app and fan-responsive LED live display board.

The high price-tag for a sponsorship, especially for a first-time event, may have given some advertisers pause, according to the media buyer. Aside from the $1 million price tag, sponsorship fees are also believed to have nearly doubled from the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series.

And while the price tag for CFP is less than that of NCAA Final Four, John Vrooman, sports economist at Vanderbilt University, expects it to only increase in the subsequent years, as the semi-finals already attracted 7 million more viewers than NCAA Final Four.

The matchup behind Ohio State and Oregon is expected to draw a broad audience given Ohio State's college football heritage and Oregon's new-kid on the block (for college) reputation and its close association with Nike. While the apparel maker provides uniforms for both schools, Oregon's changing array of seemingly space-age uniforms are a hot topic among football fans. Oregon's uniform selection for the championship game made news earlier this when it was revealed the team would be eschewing its traditional green and yellow colors for white and gray.

Both teams also come with legions of detractors, which can also be a ratings booster. They each generally drew larger audiences than the average college football game throughout the season.

ABC's broadcast of five Ohio State games averaged a 3.5 household rating, 9% higher than the overall season average, and an Ohio State game on ESPN pulled a 2.6 rating, 63% above average.

The three Oregon games ESPN televised this season averaged a 1.7 household rating, 7% higher than the overall season average.

College football also attracts a different audience than the NFL. According to ESPN research, 30% of college football fans don't necessarily watch the NFL. Personal alumni connections to schools also create a more balanced male-female fan base than the NFL, Ms. Phillips said.

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