Having lived for extended periods in both the South and the Northeast, I always marveled at the dichotomous priority each region placed on college football. The game seems an afterthought in the Northeast. Aside from a few loyal Michigan, BC and Penn State alums, Saturday’s heroes are persona non grata in New York and deities in the South.
As a marketing researcher, part of what intrigues me about my job is that I get to observe, first hand, what makes all walks of people tick. And with that comes an appreciation that the rest of the country is attitudinally a lot different than the circles we interact with in large bi-coastal markets. But as much enjoyment as I’ve gotten spending time in places like Wentzville, Mo., and Montgomery, Ala., (my adopted affinity for the Crimson Tide makes me either very happy or very sad, this morning), it has been over the past year or so that I’ve really begun to understand the passion that so many have for NCAA football. And not to commit the marketing researcher’s cardinal sin of allowing one’s own opinions to be surrogate for that of representative samples, my college pigskin metamorphosis that led me to watch all or parts of 20+ bowl games over the past few weeks, reinforces some fundamental sports marketing truths.
1. Target a broader audience than the obvious
During my time researching, developing and activating ticket marketing and licensing plans for major golf championships, we observed how the playing field for potential audience transcends those with affinity for the sport. We actively targeted “event enthusiasts.” College football is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. While alumni are an obvious target, there’s also the local community that is drawn in by the pageantry, spectacle and opportunity to be part of something that escapes the norm. Within those realities are potentially strong marketing triggers that can shape your communications and your activation. For me, as a geographical outsider, it’s alluring to become part of something important that I am not a natural fit for. Therein comes the exponential opportunity. I did not drive to Maryland to the nearest Beef O’Brady’s restaurant after watching Marshall’s victory in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, but I was intrigued enough to do some searching and now understand who the brand is that sponsored the game. Positive ROI there—“See ya at Beefs.”
2. Play up Nostalgia, Tradition and the Escape to “Better Times”
Our research continues to show that Americans are looking for a wistful escape from the chaos of our 24-7 world. This phenomenon is exacerbated in stressful and challenging times. With the holidays often heightening these desires, the bowl season (and by analogy other well-executed sports marketing activation) can be a wonderful surrogate for days of yore where selective memory tells us that life was simpler, and the prospects of unlimited opportunity abounded. We all went to school, played a sport or had friends who did so. Unless you are Kirk Herbstreit, there is clearly a bowl team that you know little about. And if you can set aside the cynicism and reality that college football is a big-time business, you might lose yourself in the Walter Mitty-like fantasy that allows you to identify with that player, coach, cheerleader or pep band member at Southern Mississippi. By re-opening old windows, sports marketers can deliver “oases of comfort” and that’s a compelling proposition.
3. Family, “Brand Community” and Charity Sell
In lockstep with the above lesson, college football masterfully plays off of the family metaphor in the generations of alums that converge on old alma mater and the surrogate family that a team or group of classmates became during those years. Our research continues to show that both figuratively and literally, time depravity yields opportunity for marketers who can bring families and like-minded cohorts together for a meaningful experience. Add in a dose of community service and benevolence to fellow man, and you have at minimum, a metaphor for the American way. So, whether it’s the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or support for Tuscaloosa, Ala., residents in the aftermath of last year’s tornados, the appeal and purity of these ideals can be both legitimately meaningful as well as a valuable marketing element that make bowl festivities their own community in which brands can assert themselves in ways that may not seem as overtly commercial as other marketing mix elements.