Russell Athletic Gives Bowl-Game Sponsorship the Old College Try
By Barry Janoff, executive editor, NYSportsJournalism.com -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/3/2013 2:21:14 PM
Last June, Russell Athletic signed a deal for title sponsorship through 2015. (Title sponsorship of the game was previously held by, among others, CarQuest, Mazda and Champs Sports.) This year, Russell Athletic used the game to support its current marketing campaign, "Together We R," from lead agency The Richards Group, Dallas, via TV commercials, signage, social media and fan and client activation in the days leading up to the game. The deal also gives Russell Athletic the apparel rights to all Florida Citrus Sports (FCS) events.
The initial Russell Athletic Bowl was a thriller, with Virginia Tech besting Rutgers 13-10 in overtime. Game sponsors included Capital One, Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light), Bright House Sports and Florida Hospital.
Like a good coach, Gary Barfield, executive VP for Kentucky-based Russell Athletic (a division of Berkshire Hathaway), talked challenges, rewards and strategies behind the brand's first college football Bowl title sponsorship.
Why now for a title sponsorship of a college football game for Russell Athletics?
A lot of things in life are about timing. We launched our 'Together We R' marketing campaign in September 2011 with TV, print, social media and other elements that revolved around college and high school football. We wanted to tie the spirit and standards of the game with what we represent at Russell Athletic. We were very happy with the first year of the campaign, getting the message out and getting people to associate football with our brand. But coming into the second year we wanted to add some new elements to the national platform. We have had other opportunities over the years to become associated with a Bowl game. But now, we felt that with the 'Together We R' campaign it seemed like a natural step.
When it came down to the final negotiations in getting lead sponsorship rights and related marketing and activities, what were some of the pros and challenges you discussed?
There certainly was a big upside. One of the important aspects was that it gave us a platform in college sports that virtually goes year-round. People talk about college football and Bowl games all year. So we saw our name and the Russell Athletic Bowl being part of the conversation 365 days of the year. It puts our name into the conversation with athletic directors, media, fans and teams in college football conferences. You are part of the college football world when you have that platform. And the event is so much more than the game itself. There are opportunities throughout the [college football] season to work with and spend time with our key customers. And then the week of the game, that intensifies and really gives us numerous opportunities to be with fans and customers. This also gave us the opportunity, from an apparel company standpoint, to partner with Florida Citrus Sports and work with all of their events, including the Capital One Bowl and the Fresh From Florida Parade.
Was the company looking for a specific Bowl game?
We weren't looking to do just any Bowl game. We wanted one that would be the best fit for our company and one that we felt could best enhance and support what we were expressing through our 'Together We R' campaign, which talks about the 'we' part of sports and not the 'me.' So when the opportunity [arose] to become title sponsor of the [former Champs Sports Bowl] game, we felt it was the right time with the right organization [Florida Citrus Sports] to move ahead. It was all of the pieces coming together at the right time and the right place.
When you signed the four-year deal, were you thinking ahead to the when the BCS format will change and the number of Bowl games will be reduced?
We were. We talked a lot about that [internally]. When the new BCS format begins in 2014, there will be fewer Bowl games. We want Orlando to be in the mix, and we are already involved down there. It's going to go from 35 Bowls to about 22, and it's my opinion that if you are of those, there is a lot more focus on yours. So I've been thinking a lot about that. There are a lot of things in place for us, so it will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. But the partnership we have with Florida Citrus Sports is a good one and I feel that we are in a good place.
Did you speak with other marketers who were involved in College Bowl games to get some pros and cons about what to look for and how to proceed?
Maybe we should have done that! We didn't. Russell Athletic has been involved with sports for more than 100 years. We have deals with a number of college teams. We have been closely aligned with many pro teams in various sports, we have been at the NBA All-Star Game and Super Bowl and we have a deal with the Harlem Globetrotters [that runs through 2013]. We've been working with teams and fans for a long time. So we have taken what we feel is the best of all that and put it into the Russell Athletic Bowl. Obviously, we expected to learn things this first year and grow from there. But we feel very good about how things have gone so far.
Was there an option to do a one-year deal rather than the four-year deal now in place?
We really didn't want a one-year deal. Some of these one-year, one-shot Bowl deals aren't good for the company and are not good for the sport. Our mindset was always to make a long-term commitment, to establish Russell Athletic in the football world as the title sponsor, to establish ourselves in the Orlando community. How do we maximize the partnership to the advantage of everyone? There are 35 Bowl games, 70 teams, and you would think a lot of them would want to be in Orlando in the winter.
Did you do any activation during the Bowl game that would lead to Russell Athletic marketing in 2013?
We had marketing that focused on the Bowl game, and we ran TV commercials during the game. But then we will have [more] plans for 2013. We will be unveiling some new football fabrics for next football season and a lot of other plans. But I think we will, for now, focus on the 'Together We R' campaign that we have going.
How did you balance marketing support for the game between national and local in Orlando and in the communities of the two universities in the game?
We do have a strong national platform, not only through our marketing campaign, but also through ESPN, the website for the game and our social media efforts at Facebook and Twitter. That works year-round. But as the date of the game got closer, we had people involved with grass-roots activation. There were events during the week where we met with people, got our message to people on a personal level.
How do you see Russell Athletic benefitting as far as brand awareness and sales figures?
We are, as I said, tying this in with our 'Together We R' campaign. We want people to find out more about Russell Athletic and who we are. So we [hope] to have a halo affect from the game, where our name and the quality of our products comes to the forefront. We would like to drive an increase in sales in the retail channel.
This Q&A was reprinted with permission from NYSportsjournalism.com.
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