SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/This Week's Issue

Gift suite makes campus visit for bowl season



UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI

Recliners were a hit with the campus gift
suite at Cincinnati for last year's Allstate
Sugar Bowl.

Virginia Tech punter Brian Saunders has a stat line that reads far deeper than his one season of on-field action provides.

Seven rings, seven watches, Oakley Thump MP3 sunglasses, an iPod nano, a GPS system, a Sony PlayStation Portable and noise-canceling headphones — not to mention a bounty of apparel.

Such is the haul for a fifth-year player who after this past weekend’s ACC championship game has been with the Hokies for seven postseason games: three conference title games and four bowl games.

The goodies have come courtesy of various bowl committees, the ACC and Virginia Tech as a reward for participating in the postseason games. It’s a seasonal gift-giving practice that gets its greatest visibility this month, with the start of bowl season.

Saunders, through his years, has seen a change not only in the type of gifts given, but also the fashion in which the gifts are distributed. Jerseys and shoes have given way to iPods and Xboxes. Handouts have been replaced by gift suites, where players have a chance to view items available to them and place individual orders on the spot.

“The suite was a really nice surprise,” Saunders said, referencing the Hokies’ Orange Bowl trip two years ago. “Guys definitely like picking out their own things.”

At least 14 of this year’s 35 bowl games will offer suites to players. New, though, is that some of the suites are coming to the players before the players arrive at the game site.

The NCAA allows each bowl to award up to $500 worth of gifts to 125 participants per school. Schools can, and almost always do, purchase additional packages that they can distribute to participants beyond that 125 limit. In addition, participants can receive awards worth up to $350 from the school and up to $350 from the conference for postseason play, covering both conference title games and any bowl game.

Teams historically have received these gifts shortly after arriving in the game’s host city. In recent years, some bowls have sent the packages straight to the school. Saunders credited the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl committee for sending duffel bags, from Russell, to campus a week before the game, saying that most of the players used them as luggage bags for the bowl trip.

Two years ago, Orange Bowl officials added a twist, reserving a suite at each participating team’s hotel and stocking it exclusively with Sony Electronics products. When the players arrived, they were taken to the suite and given a list on which they could mark off the items they wanted, up to $300 in total value. The gifts were then delivered to the players’ addresses of choice.

Word of the suite spread, and other bowls followed with similar offerings. What’s changing now is that at least a dozen bowl committees over the next few weeks plan to set up similar rooms directly on the campus of each competing school as part of their pre-bowl preparation work.

“We know they’re out here to play a game, so by doing all of these in advance, it removes a big distraction during game week,” said Gina Chappin, director of media for the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio. “It doesn’t add any costs because we were already going to the campus anyway, and it removes a big source of stress off the shoulders of the football ops guys.”

In fact, the process is expected to save money. Once the players make their selections, the requested items are freight-shipped directly to campus rather than items being sent to players’ individual addresses.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl experimented with the on-campus concept last year and received positive feedback.

“It’s nice to get the stuff when you get in town for the game,” said John Widecan, assistant director of athletics for football operations at the University of Cincinnati, which played the University of Florida in last season’s Sugar Bowl. “But honestly, some kids lose it, or leave it. When we got home from a bowl game one year, a few guys opened their bags, and their new DVD players were in pieces.”

The earlier ordering also increases the chance that the gifts arrive in time for the holidays.

The gift-suite concept is the brainchild of Jon Cooperstein. A veteran of the incentives gifts industry, Cooperstein was hired by Carrolton, Texas-based Performance Award Center (PAC) in April to launch its sports division. He took his sports Rolodex with him, and the 30-year-old company instantly became the dominant player in the niche. PAC has a 60,000-square-foot warehouse where it handles every stage of the process, from ordering to shipping.

Cooperstein said having a suite on two campuses, compared with a single, on-site hotel presence, allows for more local media coverage for the bowl. It also can provide a school with some nontangible benefits.

“Let’s say you are a coach,” he said. “You can walk high school recruits through the suite and say, ‘Check this out. Next year, when you’re on our team, this will be you walking through here.’”

To make the on-campus plan happen, Cooperstein and his staff have assembled eight complete gift suites that they must pack and unpack quickly over the next few weeks. A minimum of eight PAC employees will be traveling to campus and game sites during the bowl season.

Cooperstein said last year’s distributed bowl packages included more than 10,000 watches and electronics items, the most ever. He said that record will certainly be broken this year. Clayton Walvoord, who handles Sony’s premium incentive sales in the Southeast, said he expects to ship 8,000 units of electronics to bowl committees this year, up from about 5,000 last year.

The increases are the result of schools ordering more packages for VIPs this year than previously.

Ironically, the most popular item last year, according to Cooperstein, and echoed loudly by Chappin and Widecan, was not a piece of technology. It was a recliner, from Lane Home Furnishings. Participants ordered nearly 500 chairs last year, about 10 times what the company had expected.

Among other vendors, Oakley, in its 20th year as a provider, is providing products to players in six bowls this season and to VIPs at three games, including the Rose Bowl. Timely Watch Co. continues to be a favorite among committee executives, appearing in eight gift packages this season.

“This thing has caught on so quickly because it’s one-stop, no-touch shopping for the schools,” Cooperstein said of the suites. “No one has to worry about players or coaches or coaches’ wives not liking the product when you have 40 things to choose from.”

As for Saunders, who is on his way to the final bowl game of his career, he knows his treasure chest is about to get a little bigger.

“I’m going to cherish these for life,” he said of the gifts. “I’ve really enjoyed being part of each game, and the emblems on the items will remind me of that.”

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