For someone who teaches a graduate-level university course in sponsorship, the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl—at just over a month old—is already shaping up as a welcome case study from which to explore a number of relevant sports marketing topics, including:
The value of bowl game title sponsorships. For many fans and media pundits, this is a fun exercise every December that focuses mainly on poking fun at the clunkiest pairings of sponsor and game. (For the record, my favorite remains the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl from days of yore.)
Although Barstool’s agreement is not a typical sponsorship in many ways, its announcement served as a reminder of the unique spot occupied by bowl games in the corporate partnership space.
For the most part, bowl game naming rights are media buys. Research I conducted a few years ago revealed about three-fourths of bowl title sponsorship dollars went to ESPN through its College Football Playoff deal, its separate contracts with the Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls, plus its ownership of 14 smaller bowl games. For non-ESPN-affiliated games, if TV ad buys aren’t the primary reason their title sponsors are involved, certainly visibility is.
So bowl title deals should be judged for what they are—media and visibility buys. And as such, they are pretty good deals, either because they are bundled as part of a season-long college football promotional platform, or because on their own they deliver a decent TV audience for a reasonable price.
What impact—positive or negative—will non-traditional broadcasters have? The most interesting component of Barstool’s partnership with TD4Tucson, the nonprofit that owns and operates the Arizona Bowl, is the taking over of broadcast rights from CBS. Barstool plans to stream the New Year’s Eve afternoon game on its website, app and social channels.
In an interview with Sportico, Barstool CEO Erika Nardini said, “We really believe that what we can do is take the best of traditional broadcast and take the best of traditional sponsorship and do both in a brand new way. We think we’ll bring new fans. We know we will bring a level of energy, and we’ll cover the game in a way that is completely unique, and uniquely Barstool.”
As other nascent sports broadcasters sniff at media rights opportunities, it will be worth checking out the contest featuring teams from the Mountain West and Mid-American Conferences to see what, if any, innovations Barstool introduces and whether overall it is an improved viewing experience compared to a traditional broadcast.
Will athletes’ NIL rights play a part? A topic for discussion around practically any college game this fall, bowl season will certainly up the ante as the possibility exists for the first time that players can personally capitalize on their appearances in the post-season. This will be especially true for the Arizona Bowl, with Barstool having launched Barstool Athletes Inc., which, in true Barstool tradition, it calls “the most powerful student athlete organization in the country.”
The repercussions of a controversial sponsor. TD4Tucson has already lost $38,000 in funding from Pima County after the Board of Supervisors voted to pull its sponsorship because of Barstool’s presence.
This of course is not the first time a cosponsor has voiced opposition or taken action upon the signing of a new partner that it believes could damage its brand by association. While a partner such as Pima County does not have much leverage when its contribution is so much smaller than the title sponsor/broadcaster, there is plenty to unpack in situations where there is a more level playing field.
In those cases, how much influence, if any, over a property’s choice of co-sponsors should a brand partner be entitled to? Properties and sponsors need to have up-front conversations to determine guidelines that don’t unnecessarily limit the rights holder’s ability to secure critical revenue relationship nor allow a new partner to negate the value of a major sponsor’s partnership.
Also worth exploring (and a head’s up to my students that this will likely be an assignment this quarter) is how Barstool and TD4Tucson could turn Pima County’s decision into an advantage. Bowl founder and chairman Ali Farhang has already publicly declared that Barstool’s commitment will allow the organization to donate more money to charity this year than ever before, even with the loss of the county’s money.
The situation creates an opportunity for both sponsor and property (as well as other sponsors of the event) to remind and educate fans and consumers about the critical role that sponsorship revenues play in ensuring games happen, improving the fan experience and spinning off funds for local community charities.