Navigating Change: What’s in Store for College Football’s Bowl Games
Jeff has been with the Allstate Sugar Bowl for close to 29 years, serving as assistant and associate executive director and COO prior to being named CEO on July 1, 2019.
While the annual college football game is the crown jewel of the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s efforts, Jeff and the bowl’s volunteer membership are involved with competitions at both the prep and intercollegiate level, including basketball, lacrosse, sailing, soccer, volleyball and track and field.
In 2014, the Bowl landed title sponsorship to all Louisiana High School Athletic Association state championship events and, in 2012, the Bowl added the prestigious Crescent City Classic to its portfolio.
In addition to coordinating the successful bid by the city of New Orleans to host the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship, Jeff served as co-executive director of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four and the 2013 NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four. He also played a pivotal role in landing the rights for New Orleans to again host the Women’s Final Four in 2020.
In addition to its wide array of sporting events, the Allstate Sugar Bowl sponsors the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame; The Manning Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding quarterback; the local chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, which awards over $60,000 in scholarships annually; and the Eddie Robinson National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, presented by the Football Writers Association of America.
In a Q&A with podcast host Jim Andrews Jeff addressed the many aspects of running a bowl organization in a time of changing market dynamics and the evolving college football landscape. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Can you give us a typical “day-in-the-work-life” of a bowl game CEO during the off-season for college football, as well as what it looks like as the game approaches in the fall and early winter?
Jeff: Sure, we just sit around with our feet up on our desks 364 days a year and then get ready on January 1! When I meet people who ask if what I do is a full-time job, I resist the temptation to challenge them that it may be more full time than their jobs! For example, I just got out of a meeting regarding a project we’ve been involved with for over a decade with Nike and the Drew Brees Foundation that began as a $10 million rebuild of a playground in the city of New Orleans that has involved building a new gymnasium, football stadium and track complex and where we are now funding programming for young people at that facility, including competitions and afterschool programs.
That’s part of our community giveback. The Sugar Bowl Committee is a volunteer organization comprised of roughly 125 members who are all successful business leaders, attorneys, doctors, etc. in their own right. We work as a staff for them. They comprise 35 different working committees, running the gamut from entertainment to ticket sales to stadium operations and the like.
Throughout the year we do 35 different sporting events—everything from sailing regattas to AAU basketball, volleyball, a USTA tennis tournament, swimming—you name it and we have some level of involvement. The purpose of all of that activity is to build on the reason the Sugar Bowl was founded in the 1930s: to provide tourism via amateur athletics.
All of that manages to keep us pretty busy throughout the year. We are one of the smaller bowl staffs among the major bowl games; we have 11 full-time employees, so we are lean and mean, but we are able to get things done primarily due to our active and engaged volunteer base.
Jim: New Orleans, I would think, is an important part of the Sugar Bowl brand. Is it important for the Sugar Bowl to have a distinct brand identity among the other bowls, and if so, how would you describe that identity?
Jeff: Without a doubt, brand is important to us. First and foremost, excellence is what we hope our brand stands for, but it’s also a marriage of athletics—college football in particular—and culture. We feel we provide a service to the schools, coaches and student athletes who participate in our annual game, introducing them to a culture that is unlike any in America—one that’s fun, exciting and unique. Certainly, we try to capitalize on all of that and try to show them all the best that New Orleans has to offer.
Having Allstate as a partner fits right in with us. They are known for excellence and class. We like to think that emanates from our brand and the individuals involved with it, so it’s been a good marriage for a long time.
Jim: In fact, the Sugar Bowl has enjoyed a 16-year partnership with Allstate, a longtime college football sponsor known for great activation and its long-term support of the sport. What does Allstate look to achieve through your event and how do you keep a partnership fresh after so many years?
Jeff: First of all, I have to say how thrilled we are to have such a long-term partnership. In this business, to have a partner for 16 years is not normal.
Allstate’s mission has changed and evolved with us over the years. They first became involved right after Hurricane Katrina, where there were lots of insurance claims involved and it made sense to tie themselves to an organization that had good standing in the community. As time has gone by, they are interested in what I mentioned earlier about our brand—marrying college football and culture, and music in particular.
Allstate has had a Fan Fest almost every year for the last decade right in the heart of the French Quarter. It’s a free event where they have brought in music acts from Usher to Imagine Dragons. Also on the culture side, there has been a tie-in with Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve TV show, where we had a three- or four-year run prior to Covid.
The game itself allows them to showcase and honor their Good Works Team, which recognizes the efforts made by college football players and student support staff in their communities. So the partnership makes sense on a number of different levels and we are grateful for it and hope it continues. We have four more years under the current contract with them and we are looking forward to four great years and beyond.
Jim: Access to fan data and insights is a top priority for so many sponsors today. With professional sports and universities able to collect and share data on their season ticket holders, is it a challenge for bowl games to compete for sponsor dollars without that consistent customer base?
Jeff: Our fans change year to year outside of our local season ticket base, but the majority who are in attendance on gameday are out-of-towners whose data you throw out to some degree because next year you will have fans from two other schools buying those tickets.
So yes, it’s been difficult and we are all trying to get our arms around that. Most recently, the organization that serves as the trade association for all the bowls—Bowl Season—is exploring whether all 40-plus bowl games collectively can get together and mine our data as a way to add value to sponsors.
It’s not something we have cracked the code on just yet, but we hear about the importance of data every day as we talk to sponsors and we are busy trying to work as a group to serve everybody’s interest.
Jim: How do the many issues facing college football—playoff expansion, conference realignment, NIL rights, live game TV and streaming options—impact your planning for the future of the Allstate Sugar Bowl?
Jeff: We are interested observers. We aren’t involved a lot in the decision-making, but we have certainly been sharing our opinions on these matters as they affect us, but yes this is one of the most dynamic times of change in the history of college football.
Admittedly, we are a tradition-laden organization, and we have been preaching to our committee for the last several months that we need to welcome the change and be ready to adapt, change and overcome as opposed to trying to resist it or hang on to something that worked in the past but is not going to work in the future.
The Sugar Bowl and the bowl system in general all need to be flexible in our thinking and our actions and realize the student-athletes now are, rightfully so, being cut in on a piece of the pie. We have to figure out how we can contribute to that and incentivize them, if need be, to make sure that our product stays strong.
We’re not hiding from anything. There have been opt-outs in advance of bowl games by players getting ready for the draft or entering the transfer portal. We’ve got to give them a reason to want to come and play; we can’t just open up the doors and expect them to walk in as has been done for years and years. It requires a new type of thinking but having sat in the room with fellow executive directors at other bowl games everyone realizes as much and are ready to step forward, meet the challenge and create opportunity as a result of it.
Jim: Speaking of new opportunities, the rules have been relaxed recently in terms of the types of companies and industries that can become involved in bowl game sponsorship. Do you see any changes coming about for the Sugar Bowl as a result?
Jeff: Perhaps. We welcome the decentralization of the NCAA’s hold over sponsorship categories. We are set up to govern ourselves. At the Sugar Bowl, we are not going to take on any sponsors that are not of good taste, but society’s views have changed.
For example, we are in a building right now that has become the Caesars Superdome. Caesars Entertainment has a big footprint in the New Orleans area. We’ve been talking to them for the past few months, which in the past would have been taboo. It’s something we are taking a look at and see if we can reach an agreement on something that makes sense for them as well as us.
So again, we’ve got to be open to new thinking and quite frankly we have to create new revenue. It’s going to cost more going forward to keep student-athletes interested and excited about playing at our venues and keep the product strong. It’s almost a survivalist mentality that we have to have at this point in time and anyone who thinks otherwise is just kidding themselves.
Jim: What do you think the landscape for the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games will look like in five years?
Jeff: I think there’s going to be some significant change. I have personally spoken with enough people to believe that at some point the conferences will align and create an expanded playoff that will protect their own brands and create additional revenue streams. It’s a given that there is demand, so I think they will find a way.
I think we will have an opportunity to be involved in that going forward. We are excited about the 12-team playoff that has been mentioned for the better part of the past year. That option would give us the opportunity to have a playoff game every year, which would mean our game “matters” on an annual basis. That increases the likelihood that players are going to want to play.
We haven’t had major problems with opt-outs, but we have had a couple of instances where that has been the case. At the level we’re at, we are often getting teams that just missed out on the playoff, so there is a level of disappointment among the team and the fan base and that shows itself at the gate on gameday. It makes it tougher to sell tickets, makes us focus more on the local community—which is counter to our tourism mission—in order to survive and generate the needed revenue.
Overall, it’s going to look a lot different. On the university side, everyone is going to have to adapt to the new reality that the student-athletes are carrying some sway right now and they are going to be accommodated in some form or fashion. It’s going to be incumbent on us who have all enjoyed they system for so long to take part in that and assist the student athletes the best we can and keep the whole enterprise moving forward.