SBJ/March 7-13, 2011/Opinion

Anatomy of a bowl game: How a partnership flourished



The Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman (formerly the EagleBank Bowl) successfully completed its third year of operations with almost 40,000 fans attending on Dec. 29 at historic RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., and considerable momentum for future event building, including a week of Military Bowl festivities that is becoming firmly rooted in the regional sports arena.

Military bowl
Sponsorship by Northrop Grumman of the 2010 Military Bowl benefited the USO, military families.
The goal remains to establish a foundation that minimizes the potentially dramatic effect of variables outside the organizers’ control. Many of these variables aligned favorably for the 2010 Military Bowl, with the involvement of Northrop Grumman as title sponsor; the USO as the charitable beneficiary; the team selections (Maryland and East Carolina) in early December; the Maryland head coaching drama that transpired the week of the game and was chronicled in the media; and the weather. The game-day temperature of over 40 degrees supplemented strong pre-event ticket sales with a steady stream of game-day walk-ups.

There are myriad legal and commercial considerations associated with the creation, operation and growth of an NCAA college football bowl game, including NCAA compliance; partnering with the local government through its convention and sports authority; unique sponsorship and broadcast arrangements; NCAA conference agreements covering multiple years; the intrinsic organizational and execution aspects attendant to a multimillion-dollar annual sports promotion; and nonprofit/tax-exempt status considerations.

The first two years of the EagleBank Bowl generated crowds of 29,000 in 2008 (Wake Forest defeated Navy) and 24,000 in 2009 (UCLA defeated Temple). The cumulative mid-six-figure two-year net loss associated with these games, and some extraordinary challenges associated with the bowl formation, were offset substantially by the 2010 Military Bowl. An initial draft independent report prepared by the Greater Washington Sports Alliance, a public-private nonprofit entity, quantifies the 2010 bowl game’s economic impact for Washington, D.C., in excess of $11.3 million, an increase of 61 percent from the 2009 bowl game, and taxes generated from the event exceeded $1 million, more than double the amount from the year before.

Hosting a Washington, D.C.-based bowl game was the vision of Marie Rudolph and Sean Metcalf, two local businesspeople. As with most sporting events, the sponsors and corresponding dollars are necessary to implement the vision. Enter the D.C. government and EagleBank, a regional community bank. Both organizations were supportive of generating economic development for the community. This event has particular relevance for the Washington Convention and Sports Authority, as hotel occupancy is customarily at reduced levels during the Christmas to New Year’s Day time frame. The survey data included within the economic impact report reflects that 66 percent of the fans attending the 2010 game traveled from outside the metropolitan area, meaningfully increasing hotel occupancy and revenue for attendant tourism activities.

In the summer of 2010, we approached Northrop Grumman to serve as title sponsor for the bowl game. Northrop was a secondary sponsor for our 2008 bowl game and had a positive experience. Not only did EagleBank agree to the request that we solicit a national-level sponsor for the bowl game, it was a meaningful presenting sponsor and the bowl game’s official bank.

We were already in advanced discussions with the USO, an organization that Northrop has a long-standing relationship with based on their overlapping support of our troops and the military community. Shortly after becoming its chief executive officer, Wes Bush announced that Northrop was moving its corporate headquarters to the Washington, D.C., region.

Our view was that Northrop would receive significant exposure that accompanies a major corporate relocation while becoming further integrated within the area communities. While the relocation aspects were relevant, Northrop insisted that this bowl be about our troops and the efforts of the USO, including Northrop receiving only a supporting position in the branding of the game.

The passionate and contagious support from Northrop employee volunteers and benefactors purchasing tickets for our active, retired and wounded troops was vital to the success of the 2010 event. Contributions by Northrop employees and the general public through, the official site of the bowl game, exceeded $34,000, enabling additional members of the military and their families to enjoy the event. This underscored the importance of selecting a benefiting partner with interests that are aligned with the title sponsor.

Consistent with any major sports promotion is to expect the unexpected. We experienced our own moments of organized chaos in essentially undertaking the marketing and promotion of the 2010 game in three months. (Our kickoff press conference announcing the renamed bowl game, title sponsor and charitable beneficiary was held on Sept. 26; the game was on Dec. 29). In fact, fan experience feedback is already being implemented as we simultaneously complete the bowl recap and commence planning for the 2011 event, featuring the U.S. Naval Academy against an ACC team.

The favorable response from Northrop, the USO and all participants remains a high priority. The USO continued its branding initiatives through a distinctive public-awareness vehicle (including prominent signage on the field), and Northrop was able to continue its support of the military community and provide an extraordinary atmosphere for its employees and their families to enjoy. Hospitality is a noteworthy aspect of any sponsored sports event, and the unique attributes of hosting a sponsor’s clients outdoors in winter as opposed to a hotel ballroom, and tailgating in mustard-stained outerwear as opposed to sipping cocktails in formal attire, was well-received.

The goal is for the Military Bowl and the week of festivities to be the event, with other variables less significant in creating a favorable financial outcome and distinctive entertainment atmosphere. Today, however, the team selection is the most important variable, both from a school travel perspective and the regional alumni and fan base.

Nevertheless, throughout these initial stages, we believe the Washington, D.C., community is starting to embrace a bowl game, and we are fortunate to be adding to economic development within our communities while providing, in a small way, our appreciation for the men and women who risk their lives to provide security for our families. �0;0;8;

Jeffrey S. Fried ( is chairman of the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman.

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