Value of bowl game sponsorship questioned

On New Year’s Day, highly ranked football teams from Georgia and Purdue will duel at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., but for marketers at the McLean, Va.-based credit card giant the outcome of the game will ultimately be of little importance.

That’s not to say they won’t be keeping score.

Rather than touchdowns, however, Capital One Financial Corp. will be tallying how many viewers tune into the game and how many times the camera pans past the 15-yard-square Capital One Bowl logo at midfield or the smaller company logos at both 20-yard lines and the 12 corporate logos positioned behind the players’ benches. And how many times did the announcers mention the name of the bowl, the Capital One Bowl?

But ultimately the firm will try to figure out whether sponsorship of the game will bring new credit card users and other borrowers to add to the 46.4 million people Capital One already counts as customers.

Bill McDonald, Capital One’s executive vice president for brand marketing, said the game, which last New Year’s Day drew 6.3 million viewers, the fifth-highest total for any bowl game last season, is key to the firm’s efforts to remain one of the nation’s biggest credit card issuers.

“It gives us the look of a leader,” McDonald said, “to go from ‘Capital who?,’ number 13 in name recognition of major credit card companies to one of the top. We really like college football. The demographics of college football are very strong, more of an up consumer market, more highly educated. They’re heavy users of credit cards and auto loans.”

Capital One has run football-related advertising throughout the regular season, with a fan-oriented campaign to pick what it has dubbed the Capital One National Mascot of the Year. The winner will be named in an ad during halftime of the Georgia-Purdue game.

The firm is also advertising heavily during sports-cable TV channels ESPN and ESPN2’s coverage of other bowls and refers to the cable channels’ overall coverage as Capital One Bowl Week.

Capital One is not alone in corporate America in trying to tie itself to the final orgy of college football this month and in the early days of 2004. But some sports marketers say the effort is of dubious value to many of the firms.

Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton laughs while stretching during practice. The Boilermakers worked out Saturday in Orlando, Fla., in preparation for their New Year's Day date with Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

The cost of playing this game ranges from $400,000 for the naming and TV advertising rights for one of the bottom-tier games to as much as $10 million for one of the four Bowl Championship Series games.

Marketers with no clients in this ad war cite what they say is a glut of bowl games — there are 28. That means nearly half of the 117 major football-playing colleges are participating in a bowl this year, never mind that four of them — including Kansas — have only a .500 record. Moreover, many of the matchups generate little interest beyond the fan and alumni base, and most of the games are telecast on ESPN and ESPN2 rather than network television.

So much media and fan attention is focused on the four BCS games, ending with the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl that the marketers say other games are dwarfed by comparison.

“It’s a cluttered environment,” said Ardy Arani, chief executive of Championship Group in Atlanta, a sports promotion and marketing firm. “The cachet of owning a title to a bowl game has dropped in the last 10 years. The sponsorship leverage is limited because you can’t use the likenesses of the players” because the NCAA wants to maintain the amateur standing of the athletes.

Arani said media interest in the bowls, and therefore fan interest, “is limited to a couple weeks a year. The promotional impact is going to primarily be regional and sometimes only local. My assessment is that it’s a challenging environment for a corporation to go in and extract a measurable, reasonable return on a sponsorship investment,” Arani said.

Another sports marketer, Ethan Green, vice president for the North American operations of Redmandarin, a London-based sponsorship consultancy, said, “I’m not a huge fan of bowl game entitlements. The PR value is very difficult to measure. People will not remember the sponsorship of these bowls. There’s too many of them. Most are on cable TV, and there’s a small audience.

“Eyeballs on logos are not going to affect purchase behavior.

One of the problems corporate sponsors face in adding their names to a bowl game is that many fans and most newspapers still refer to them by the generic name, such as the Gator Bowl or Orange Bowl, rather than as the Toyota Gator Bowl or the FedEx Orange Bowl. The television networks, tied heavily to the advertising revenue their bowl coverage puts in their coffers, are the exception and routinely state the full names of the bowls.

Capital One was faced with that problem when it joined the bowl sponsorship derby.

Capital One’s sponsorship in 2001 and 2002 was known as the Capital One Florida Citrus Bowl, and many fans just called it the Citrus Bowl. But a year ago, the state’s citrus department ended its sponsorship, and Capital One took over as sole sponsor, dumping the citrus reference.

The firm declined to disclose its annual naming rights cost, but some people in the sports marketing industry say it may be $5.6 million or more. As a result, anyone who wants to refer to the game, including sports writers covering it, must now refer to the Capital One Bowl.

“We think that is a pretty strategic move,” Capital One’s McDonald said.