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It's all about the name ... decoding college bowls

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 10:36 p.m.

Maybe you're confused, trying to tell the Belk Bowl from the Bell Armed Forces Bowl from the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman, or the BBVA Compass Bowl from the Beef O'Brady's Bowl and all those other bowls with odd-sounding or only regionally familiar names.

Bruce Skinner is puzzled, too, about which bowls are played at which locations and the nature of some of the products and services being peddled. And this is a world he helped create.

As executive director of a Fiesta Bowl scrapping to become a major player more than two decades ago, Skinner learned up-close the value of corporate sponsorships when he volunteered at the Los Angeles Olympics. The games, even without the boycotting Soviet Union and others, were a rousing business success run by Peter Ueberroth, who was named Time's Man of the Year for his efforts and became commissioner of baseball.

A year later, Skinner led an expedition to find a big, rich company to write a check and turn his bowl game into a bigger, richer event. In 1985, he bagged Sunkist as the game sponsor — the company had been sponsoring Fiesta-related events since 1971 — for $2 million a year, changing the name and stature of the Fiesta Bowl along with the economics of college football.

It wasn't long until bowl sponsors were as common as those in tennis and golf. Looking back, Skinner said, “If anybody is guilty of spurring corporate sponsorships, it was the L.A. Olympics.”

The Sunkist Fiesta Bowl was among 19 bowl games that season. Today there are 35, including the BCS championship. Teams get anywhere from $500,000 to $18 million, but each bowl, big and small, is brought to you by a sponsor paying for product placement in all types of media and having its name colorfully splashed on fields and throughout stadiums, many of which are only partly filled.

Without Sunkist, the Fiesta Bowl would not have been able to stage two national championship games. While some resent the corporate intrusion, bowls need sponsors. Likewise, despite declining attendance and ratings the past two years, sponsors remain eager to put their names out there while providing a fun venue for customers and employees, clients and distributors, VIPs and anyone else who can improve business. They also assist charities and volunteer work in their communities.

The Sponsor Shuffle

BBVA Compass, a large commercial bank headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., has sponsored a bowl game of the same name since 2010 and, given the repeated invitations, seems especially fond of Pitt football. Maybe it's because Birmingham has been known as the “Pittsburgh of the South.” The Panthers play against Ole Miss on Jan. 5.

In addition to the bowl game, BBVA — the parent company of the bank — also sponsors an international soccer league. BBVA Compass sponsors Houston's Major League Soccer team and bills itself as the “official bank” of the NBA, WNBA and the NBA D-League.

BBVA Compass chief marketing officer John Wessman said in an e-mail that his company makes sure to align itself with sports that appeal to its customers. He said the bowl sponsorship facilitates business opportunities and “allows us to support Birmingham in a meaningful way.”

Yet, sponsorships often run their course in a few years. Sponsors pull out for a number of business-related reasons. Sometimes they lack the proper resources, financial or managerial. Holiday Bowl sponsor Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit higher education company, is dealing with investigations into its business practices, a plummeting stock price and several lawsuits filed by shareholders. This is the final year of its sponsorship.

But according to those familiar with the industry, the sponsor shuffle is mainly due to the desire for something different.

“Every one of the sponsors we lost was manifested by a change in the decision-making process,” said John Reid, who served as Holiday Bowl executive director for 21 years. “Either the marketing department went in another direction, or there was a change in personnel.”

Rick Jones, who heads a company that helps match up bowls with sponsors, said the mentality often comes down to, “My predecessor did it so it must have been a bad idea.”

Goodbye and hello

In all, the current 34 bowls (not counting the BCS championship) have had 110 sponsors. The first bowl to acquire a sponsor, the Orlando, Fla., Tangerine Bowl in 1983, has subsequently been known as the Florida Citrus Bowl, CompUSA Florida Citrus Bowl, Bowl, Florida Citrus Bowl again and currently, Capital One Bowl.

The reigning all-time sponsor leader (seven) is the Russell Athletic Bowl. It will soon be joined by the Holiday Bowl, currently courting its seventh sponsor.

Yet, when one sponsor departs another always seems to pop up in its place.

“What we have is a very hot sports property, and if it's done right (sponsorships) are a very effective way to reach consumers who are very passionate about the sport,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “Hopefully, they'll support your brand.”

The constantly changing array of sponsors and the names themselves leave many fans bewildered. The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, played in Houston, is not to be confused with the Meineke Car Care Center Bowl, which was played in Charlotte and is now the Belk Bowl.

Since 2010, the same bowl has been called the Dallas Football Classic, the TicketCity Bowl and currently the Heart of Dallas Bowl. At least the location is fairly clear unlike the Bowl (Mobile, Ala.), Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Detroit) and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Tempe, Ariz.)

But pizza and wings are obvious. How about Belk, or Gildan, sponsor of the New Mexico Bowl?

Mysterious bowl names are but one category of sponsorship. There are the big and well-known (Allstate, Discover, AT&T), the smaller but still familiar (AutoZone, Chick-fil-A) and the plain amusing. Among that group the late, lamented Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl remains the gold standard. But there have been a few worthy challengers like the Roady's Truck Stops Humanitarian Bowl, which is now the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Any mention of Beef O'Brady's, a chain of sports bars, is always good for a chuckle.

On the other hand, you'd have to be pretty heartless to even kid about the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Becoming the norm

Skinner, now a Seattle area-based consultant, said he never imagined it would come to this.

“I guess at the time we were hoping there weren't too many people who would follow suit, because that move put us on a par with the other four games,” he said.

Those were the Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange Bowls, the so-called “major” bowls, none with sponsors' names attached. Each paid out $2 million per team, and Skinner wanted to match that. The Fiesta Bowl, based in Tempe, Ariz., had shaken up the cartel in 1981 by crowding New Year's Day and becoming the fifth major bowl just 10 years after its first game. It was ready to strike again, to double its $1 million per-team payment and really mix it up with the big boys.

Sunkist Growers, a cooperative based in Arizona and California, became the first true, corporate bowl sponsor. In 1983, the Tangerine Bowl landed the Florida Citrus Growers, but that was a nonprofit co-op. Sunkist, then as now, was decidedly for-profit, a corporation in every sense.

Within two years, the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl was hosting Penn State and Miami for the national championship, paying a then-record $2.4 million a team and accomplishing Skinner's mission.

Meanwhile, the Sun Bowl, located in El Paso, Texas, was sharing its name with an insurance company headquartered in Boston, John Hancock. Then for a price, it became the John Hancock Bowl, mainly because the bowl was going broke. The idea of tradition (the Sun Bowl started in 1934) giving way to commercialism rankled more than a few.

To NBC, which carried the Fiesta Bowl, Sunkist was originally a bad word, the name was neither seen nor heard on the telecast. But this decision was strictly business. Network president Arthur Watson feared that companies would spend less on their TV advertising budget and more on sponsorships.

Skinner fixed that by getting Sunkist to pony up another $1 million for TV ads. By the second year and beyond, the Sunkist name was featured prominently. But when the Sun Bowl morphed into the John Hancock Bowl, many were aghast.

“There was a lot of controversy about that,” recalled Mark Boehm, a Sun Bowl executive before moving on to the Fiesta Bowl and later, athletic administration posts at Pitt and Nebraska, where he is now associate athletic director. “It was like, ‘What the heck are you guys doing?' And then it became the norm.”

(Pitt, by the way, beat Texas A&M in the first John Hancock Bowl. Two weeks before the game a bowl official confirmed reports that Panthers coach Mike Gottfried had been fired. “This is the first time we've had a team coming but no coach,” the official said.)

Bowl Eligible?

The next domino to fall was San Diego's Holiday Bowl, which partnered with another local attraction, Sea World. Asked how the news was generally received, Reid said, “not warmly.”

He added, “At one time, all bowl organizations were non-profit, and getting in bed with corporate interests kind of rubbed people the wrong way.”

Bowls technically still are considered “non-profit,” but millions in revenues and exorbitant salaries paid to CEOs have made them corporate entities unto themselves.

The sponsor race was on, in earnest. Bowls began attaching businesses to their titles, or replacing those names entirely.

Bowls also provide incentive and rewards for players, a fun trip for boosters and alumni and a week or more of parades and parties and other events for the host cities.

But from the fan perspective, the sheer number of games, played by less-than-stellar teams, has been questioned. Some believe that “bowl eligible” (a 6-6 record) is another way to say “average.”

Typically with most things, an increase in quantity often means a decrease in quality. Bowls are no different. In 1982, when roughly half the number of present bowls existed, teams playing in the 16 games had a combined .754 winning percentage. This year it's .682.

“Each of these little, minor bowls is getting its day in the sun,” Swangard said. “But my concern is whether a half-empty stadium with two just-happy-to-be-there teams — and it's a mediocre match-up at best — is that the kind of (sponsorship) association I want to have?”

The answer, apparently, is yes.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810

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