Sponsor packages under every tree

The lineup of this holiday season's college football bowl games yields vital information about the commercial state of sports in these United States. Of the 25 such contests listed in the trusty sports section of my USA Today, 20 carried the names of title sponsors.

A few telephone calls (we in the news business call this reporting) produced the further information that four of the bowls that lacked corporate brands would have them if they could. "We've had title sponsors before, and we'd like to have one again," Scott Ramsey, executive director of Nashville's 3-year-old Music City Bowl, which goes off on Friday, said representatively. "Know of any companies that might be interested?" Bowl game organizers subsequently lined up a sponsor, Gaylord Entertainment Co., for the 2002 game.

That left the pristine category to a single entry, the Rose Bowl. "The name of our game always has stood alone, and we prefer to keep it that way," said a spokesman for the managing Tournament of Roses, the organization that in 1902 launched the New Year's Day football ritual that now spreads from mid-December into the first week of January.

But it's not as quite simple as that, because the Rose Bowl has what it calls a "presenting sponsor" in AT&T. The telecommunications concern doesn't get its name on the letterhead, but it is mentioned in the event's publicity and in game-day stadium signage, among other things. So you might say that the Rose Bowl is a little pregnant, if such an image can be applied to a game that calls itself "the Granddaddy of Them All."

In truth, AT&T probably is smart to keep its Rose Bowl profile lowish, because many would gag if the Pasadena, Calif., institution tried to graft another name onto its familiar label. The flap earlier this year in Denver over putting a rights buyer's stamp on the city's new football stadium, instead of, or even along with, the locally cherished name of Mile High, amply illustrated the power of tradition in such matters. Sponsors that choose to buck it do so at the risk of being in the center of a hissing match.

It's better by far to seek out new venues for sports advertising, and fertile minds have been busy developing these. In this context, one thinks most quickly of the underside of the cap bill of the off-center golfer Jesper Parnevik. Whoever thought of that ought to get an Addy.

The Fox network broke new ground during its telecasts of the late baseball World Series with the promos for its other programs it flashed electronically behind home plate. Irritating, yes, but also inventive. How'd it do that, anyway? The boxer Bernard Hopkins showed similar but more elemental flair by selling his back as a billboard for an online gambling casino during his middleweight-championship unification bout with Felix Trinidad. Space on fighters' robes and trunks had been sold previously, but bare skin never.

According to stories in these pages in recent weeks, other avenues are opening. One had the Chicago Bears and New York Jets saying they'd like to give their stadiums over to on-site sponsors should they host a National Football League playoff game. In another piece, jockeys at California horse-racing tracks announced they'd like to rent space on their silks, pants, boots and saddle cloths to companies in search of attention. If that goes over, the horses' bodies won't be far behind, although firms that post their logos on the animals' hindquarters would risk derisive comment.

My own suggestion would be the undercarriage of NASCAR vehicles, about the only surface of auto or driver on that circuit that's not currently plastered. Sure, ads there wouldn't be visible during normal running, but think of the exposure they'd get in roll-over crashes!

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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