August 3rd, 2007

Tradition Trumps Dollars for Gator Bowl

By Garry Smits
Florida Times-Union

Almost one-third of the 32 college football bowl games are named for corporate sponsors, their original title and local flavor lost to dollar signs and unwieldy monikers such as the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Might the Gator Bowl, which is searching for a new sponsor, be the next game to follow suit?

No, says Gator Bowl Association president Rick Catlett, because there’s too much history linking the First Coast’s New Year’s Day bowl with the title to think about allowing it to disappear for a few more dollars.

“It would be very difficult to take that to our board of trustees,” Catlett said about the prospect of selling the complete naming rights of the game. “We believe we have to maintain our heritage between this game and the city.”

The Gator Bowl will be played Jan. 1, 2008, for the 63rd time, making it the sixth-oldest college bowl game. The game lost its title sponsor after an 11-year relationship with Toyota ended with the 2007 game between West Virginia and Georgia Tech.

Catlett has been negotiating with potential title sponsors since the day after that game was played and said he has had “interaction” with 15 corporations. He has declined to name them, other than to say one of the most promising prospects is a company based in Japan with a U.S. division.

Catlett also said the slow pace of the process isn’t because he’s holding firm to his desire to keep the Gator in the Gator Bowl. He said only one prospective company has asked for an arrangement in which the name “Gator” would be dropped.

“It’s not the hold-up,” he said.

Catlett and other bowl directors said dropping the original name of a bowl causes recognition problems outside of that game’s area and can create resentment among football fans and supporters of the game within that area.

“I can tell you that when I was president of the College Bowl Association, and games such as the Citrus Bowl [now the Capital One Bowl] dropped their names, there was confusion when I visited other parts of the country,” he said. “I was blown away when the Citrus Bowl dropped their name.”

Steve Hogan, executive director of the Capital One Bowl, admitted there were some bumps in the transition when complete naming rights were sold to Capital One in 2003. But he said it was an economic reality that Florida Citrus Sports had to face when additional sponsorship money wasn’t forthcoming from the Florida Citrus Department.

And the plan of FCS to brand its second game, the Champs Sports Bowl, with the Citrus Bowl’s original name of the Tangerine Bowl, also fell to that reality. The second version of the Tangerine Bowl (created in 2001 after the nomadic game in South Florida formerly sponsored by Blockbuster, Carquest and Micronpc moved to Orlando) lasted only two years before the naming rights were sold to Champs Sports.

“We made a financial decision and for awhile, it hurt us a little,” Hogan said.

But FCS decided to emphasize its location as a brand. Gearing its marketing efforts toward two games in the vacation mecca of Orlando eventually resulted in the flagship game maintaining its New Year’s Day spot, with a network television contract with ABC and a strong league affiliation that matches the second choice of the Southeastern Conference with the second choice of the Big Ten.

“In the end, going with Capital One and Champs Sports as the exclusive names of the bowls has not hurt us,” Hogan said. “Orlando as a destination is what kept us strong.”

However, the director of the first bowl game to drop its historical name for a corporate partner said it might never happen again.

Bernie Olivas, executive director of El Paso’s Sun Bowl, said the experiment as the John Hancock Bowl from 1989 to 1993 is something “I don’t think we’ll ever do again.”

“There was a big outcry from people locally about that decision,” Olivas said. “We’re the second-oldest bowl game [established in 1935] and people in El Paso are very proud of the Sun Bowl. Fortunately, we’ve been able to find title sponsors who were sensitive to those feelings and didn’t demand we drop the word ‘Sun’ from our name.”

The title sponsors for the Sun Bowl in recent years have been Brut and Vitalis, products made by Helen of Troy, an El Paso-based company.

“Obviously, it helped having a local firm involved with us,” Olivas said. “They understood how people in El Paso felt about the game.”

However, a local connection with a title sponsor can work the other way. Peach Bowl officials dropped that name for Chick-fil-A last year because game president Gary Stokan said the Chick-fil-A brand in Atlanta was just as strong as the Peach Bowl brand.

In fact, both the game and the fast-food chain are celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year - and the 11-year anniversary of their current partnership.

“I don’t know if we would have done it under any other circumstance,” Stokan said. “Chick-fil-A is headquartered in Atlanta and has been a part of this city as long as our bowl game. They’re not our title sponsor ... they’re our business partner. We didn’t have to worry about our name recognition getting lost.”

Most of the bowl games with exclusive title sponsor names are of recent vintage. Of 10 such games on the current bowl schedule, seven were created since 1989 and five since 1999.

The Capital One and Chick-fil-A bowls are the only games older than 20 years operating under such arrangements.

Catlett said that isn’t an accident. Even though every bowl except the Rose has a title sponsor, tradition will trump a complete corporate sell-out in most cases - including the Gator.

“For some of the younger bowls, it’s an easy decision,” Catlett said. “They haven’t been around long enough to be in the public consciousness. But for us, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, I think you’re talking about 50, 60 and 70 years of history that those games would be very reluctant to change.”

Catlett said only a chance to become a part of the Bowl Championship Series might change that.

“Having the opportunity to get into the BCS is the only way we would consider dropping the word ‘Gator,’ “ he said.

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