Beyond the Game: The Many Facets of a College Football Bowl Organization
Michael has been a member of the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association staff since May 2001, joining as Director of Marketing and Communications. He was promoted to Vice President of External Affairs in May 2006 and Chief Marketing Officer in May 2014.
In his role, Michael oversees marketing and communications and is the main point of contact for the corporate sponsorship program, leading all aspects of cultivation, activation and fulfillment. He also serves as the primary liaison with ESPN, the Classic’s broadcast partner. He also plays an active role in the leadership of the communications strategy and media operations for the Classic and all in-season college football games held at AT&T Stadium.
Michael joined podcast host Jim Andrews to share an inside look at the multiple aspects of hosting, producing, marketing and promoting post-season bowl games and the challenges that lie ahead. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: The nature of bowl games has shifted over time, certainly with the addition of the College Football Playoff. Understanding that there are plenty of issues up in the air regarding expansion, etc. Is maintaining relevance and the strength of your individual brands an issue for you and what do you think the future holds for events like the Cotton Bowl, the other New Year’s Six games and other bowls?
Michael: Every brand is trying to remain relevant in this day and age. As it relates to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and our brand that has been a part of college football for 80-plus years, we are constantly trying to find ways to improve and enhance the brand.
Certainly at the top of the list is working closely with Goodyear, our title sponsor to make sure that they are putting their best foot forward and that we are helping them to achieve their marketing goals. That extends down to our lowest-tier sponsors.
The environment that college athletics is in right now is a constant challenge. We are trying to get our arms around all of the issues that are taking up the time of every athletic director in the country and every conference commissioner, and which all trickle down to the bowls.
We get together as a staff routinely to talk about the topics impacting college athletics, and college football specifically, and how it impacts the bowl game and our game specifically. Topics such as name, image, likeness and how that will affect us long term; changes in television rights and streaming rights; conference realignment is right at the top currently.
It seems like everyday there is something new that is crossing our path that forces us to look at our brand and find ways to stay relevant.
Jim: So much of the focus is, naturally, on the football game itself, but bowl games are an interesting hybrid of a nationally televised sports event and a community-based organization with a great deal of local impact. Can you speak to that dynamic, especially as it relates to sponsorship?
Michael: Each bowl comes at it from a different perspective. Some are in business to bring tourism to their city. Some are in business to help raise money for other nonprofits and give back within their communities. Many are a hybrid of both of those. The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic first and foremost is in the business of taking care of the two universities that play in our game and generating income for higher education.
If you look at the history of our game, it has generated more than $1 billion for higher education.
But beyond that, ever since the advent of the College Football Playoff, we have been able to take a portion of the revenue generated from our game and put it into the Cotton Bowl Foundation, a separate 501(c)3, from which we distribute grants, primarily to youth-based initiatives in North Texas. This year, we will distribute half a million dollars in grants. Many of the bowl games do much more than that.
Our friends at the Fiesta, Peach and Orange bowls do a phenomenal job of really diving into their communities and giving back in a manner that really makes a difference.
In this day and age, most brands, including Goodyear, look at cause marketing as an important aspect of what they are doing. As we move forward on an annual basis with Goodyear, we spend a lot of time talking about what we are doing in the community and how they can tap into that.
For example, year after year for over two decades we have taken both of our participating teams to children’s hospitals in North Texas—Children’s Health and Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. Goodyear has supported that effort ever since they have been our title sponsor.
Bringing in 120 football players to hospitals during Covid has been a challenge, so Goodyear took it upon itself this year to come up with a virtual hospital visit. They created a scenario—different for both hospitals—where a portion of the student athletes could, in one instance, play video games with patients at the hospital. In the other, they created a studio-show setup where kids could ask questions and interact with the players. All done by Goodyear.
That carried through to gameday, with Goodyear presenting checks to both hospitals.
As we move forward with the Cotton Bowl Foundation and the grants we distribute, we have more and more of our sponsors asking us how they can get involved in that realm. That’s an area of growth for us.
Jim: In speaking with marketing and salespeople from a variety of sports organizations, the conversations are typically centered on the fans—the paying customers. You of course are focused on that group, but you have another important constituency that many others don’t—the two teams and the student athletes playing in your game. Can you discuss how that impacts decision-making and what the organization prioritizes?
Michael: Every major decision we make around our game and our events is geared around how it affects the two universities. There is a great book on customer service called Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard, which has among its premises that you can’t be all things to all people; you should pick a few things and do them to the very best of your ability; and try to get one percent better every year.
As it relates to student athletes, we are in the business of creating memories. We want the teams to walk away from the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic experience saying it was the best bowl experience they have ever had.
The decisions we make around our events, where our money is spent, etc., all tie into that. There are organizations out there that do more for the fan base in terms of creating events around the game—fan fests on beaches, music festivals and the like. Lots of bowl games do amazing things for the fans.
We really put the focus on creating events for the teams. We certainly try to do great things for the fans as well—and we have a great home in AT&T Stadium that creates a great backdrop for them, but everything that we do is geared around creating a better experience for the teams. And not just the players, but the band members, cheerleaders, pom-pom squads. They have been working just as hard as the football players all season, so what can we do to make it a great experience for them? The media that has been covering the teams all year, the athletic department personnel. What can we do to create an experience for them that is unparalleled?
Jim: With the game taking place in an iconic venue such as AT&T Stadium, is it a challenge to create a Cotton Bowl identity and experience within a venue that is associated with Dallas Cowboys games, and how do you go about doing that?
Michael: That is something we strive to achieve every year. When you walk into AT&T Stadium on gameday you know you are at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and it looks very different than what it would look like for a Cowboys game.
It starts certainly with the fact that we play in one of the most digitally sophisticated stadiums in the world. It starts with the ability to flip a switch and have a center-hung scoreboard and ribbon boards and other boards inside and outside the stadium branded with the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Beyond that, we have a very comprehensive signage program where we install static signage around the interior bowl as well.
One of the unique things we are able to accomplish because of AT&T Stadium is we are able to take the team allotments of 12,500 tickets each and split them within the stadium so that we have one team’s fan base enter through one endzone plaza and the other team’s fans enter through the other plaza.
That allows us to create opportunities within those plazas. As part of the pre-game Goodyear Huddle Up Fan Fest, we have team-themed pep rallies in each plaza. You would be hard pressed to find another stadium in the country where you could create those two separate areas.
The challenge is, you want to create an atmosphere for both teams that is comparable. Goodyear, as the leader of the pack among the corporate partners, does a phenomenal job of creating two of everything. Whatever the activations are, they are going to give both fan bases more or less the same experience in both plazas, and that costs money.
Another thing that is unique to us compared to the Cowboys, is we forged a partnership with the Texas Live! entertainment center, which is right next door to AT&T Stadium. When fans walk into Texas Live! around our game, they know they are at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic through signage and events the night before and on gameday.
Jim: Following up on that, your sponsorship sales program is in a unique situation in that there is shared responsibility with ESPN. Can you give us a sense of how that works and how much coordination goes on between you, ESPN and partners such as Goodyear and others?
Michael: The setup of the corporate partner program within the College Football Playoff is certainly unique. To be a member of the College Football Playoff, the New Years Six bowl games each had to take our title sponsorship rights and our television rights and package them so that the College Football Playoff could sell them through to ESPN.
As part of that, ESPN, in a semi-final year controls 15 sponsorship categories and in a non-semifinal year, it controls 12 categories. So a company such as Goodyear comes in and partners with the College Football Playoff through what is, for all practical purposes, a very large media buy that encompasses the entire college football season.
Separate from that, Goodyear signs a title sponsorship agreement with us that dives down into the local activations and marketing rights in North Texas and what they can do around our game and the events leading up to it.
The amount of time we all spend communicating is immense. I certainly work closely with my counterpart at ESPN who sold through the Goodyear deal. We routinely have conversations with the folks at the College Football Playoff as well.
And it’s not just title sponsors. Taco Bell has done a deal with all of the New Years’ Six bowl games and the College Football Playoff. They have the rights to the marks of all six games and of the CFP. Through that, they have their Live Mas student section at each game. There is a lot of coordination between us, the other games, ESPN, the agency for Taco Bell and the CFP.
There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and to be able to work through all that goes into activating a sponsorship around the College Football Playoff is a challenge at times, but also extremely rewarding when done right.
Jim: How big is your team that has to manage all of these many moving pieces?
Michael: It takes an army. Our staff is small throughout the year, but we have a group of people I don’t even want to call volunteers. I’ll call them “operations specialists.” These are some of the best and brightest that come from around the country year after year to our game to help us put on these events, to make sure the activation of our sponsor assets is done properly.
We also partner with great vendors, TicketManager being one of them, to help us make sure we’re putting on the best event we can. It’s really important that we have this group that really makes our game run efficiently and smoothly and helps us make great memories that last a lifetime.