SBJ/20091207/SBJ In-Depth

Bowls roll out the ‘gift suite’ for athletes

At least a dozen bowl committees will set up “gift suites” over the next four weeks, giving visiting players, coaches and VIPs the opportunity to choose their game memorabilia from a variety of items, rather than just present them with a box of goodies when they check into the team hotel.

The shopping spree is the latest trend in bowl-game benefits, a practice that not so long ago meant players and coaches got sneakers and a ring.

“Players used to get off the bus and say, ‘Where’s my gear?’” said Jon Cooperstein of Davene Inc., a Memphis-based promotions company that brokered gift deals for 14 of this year’s 34 bowl games.

Although players still receive rings and apparel during their playing days, those gifts are now more likely to come from the school itself. Giving the gift of technology became popular within the past decade, said Cooperstein, who worked with at least 10 bowl committees this year to feature Sony products in their gift packages. But the challenge over the past couple of years, say the bowl representatives and vendors alike, has been coming up with items that the players don’t already have.

Two years ago, Florida Citrus Sports, organizer of the Orlando-based Champs Sports Bowl and Capital One Bowl, teamed up with Best Buy to give participants in those games an in-store shopping spree during which they could spend up to $400.

FedEx Orange Bowl officials last year took that concept and reserved a suite at each of the team hotels, the Westin Diplomat and Fontainebleau, and stocked them exclusively with Sony Electronics products. On the night that each of the teams arrived in town, the players went to the suite, checked off from a list in the folio the items that they wanted (up to $300 in total value), and the gifts were delivered to the addresses of their choice.

This year, several bowl committees are setting up the events on the campus of each participating school prior to the game. The Allstate Sugar Bowl, for example, will set up an on-campus room with Sony electronics, Trek mountain bikes, Lane recliners, Weber grills, Garmin GPS systems and Apple iPods. Others are following in the steps of the FedEx Orange Bowl and hosting the suites at team hotels.

Organizers of the AdvoCare 100 Independence Bowl are adding a unique experiential twist to their package. Upon landing in Louisiana, teams will be taken to Barksdale Air Force Base, 10 miles east of Shreveport. After selecting their gifts, which will be set up in an old hangar, both schools will be treated to a welcome party complete with an ice cream bar sponsored by Baskin-Robbins.

The gift packages are dominated by a few select high-end companies, although many are complemented with items from local companies. This is Oakley’s 19th year as a bowl gift provider. The granddaddy of vendors is providing products to players in six bowls, and VIPs at three, including the Rose Bowl presented by Citi and the Citi BCS National Championship Game.

Sony and Fossil will each provide products for about a dozen games, which represents an increase for both compared with last year.

Ogio, a high-end backpack manufacturer, is part of the gift packages at a dozen bowl games, including all four of the BCS games and the championship game, up from only six games last winter. The Bluffdale, Utah-based company is well-known in the action sports world as both a custom manufacturer and sponsor, and has become one of the top-selling backpack brands in college bookstores.

Ogio manufactured 5,000 bags for their various bowl partners. The company is using the bowl season to ramp up its January launch of a checkpoint-friendly laptop pack, which will allow travelers to go through airport security without opening their laptops.

Just as its bowl business has doubled since last year, college bookstore sales now make up 10 percent of the company’s business, said Nick Wright, vice president of Ogio’s global promotional products division. “Everything we do for the bowls is customized — the embroidery, zipper poles, inside lining. The bowls are a natural fit for us,” Wright said.

As in previous years, the Cotton Bowl was the only bowl not to provide details of the gifts it would provide participating athletes.

The NCAA allows each bowl to award up to $500 worth of gifts to 125 participants per school. Schools can, and typically do, purchase additional packages that they can distribute to participants beyond that 125 limit. In addition, each school can give its players gifts worth up to $350 from its own budget.

Add in the packages that the bowl committees and schools order for distribution to their sponsors, media partners and alumni, and the total bowl season gift package niche is worth more than $12 million in direct spending.

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