SBJ/Aug. 19-25, 2013/In Depth

The making of ‘GameDay’

How ESPN show became coveted marketing platform

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By late afternoon of a college football Saturday, Lee Fitting and the “College GameDay” crew have retired to the ESPN bus that’s their second home during the season.

Fitting, the senior coordinating producer for arguably ESPN’s most popular “studio” show — among both fans and advertisers — leads a discussion on where the nomadic “College GameDay” should travel the following week.

“Not many people know this, but we don’t decide where we’re going from week to week until late Saturday night or early Sunday morning,” Fitting said. “The list changes week to week.”

Home Depot spends more than $20 million a year to be presenting sponsor of “GameDay.”
Photo by: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN
The road-show aspect of “College GameDay” is just one element that has made the program so successful and turned the “College GameDay” crew into pop culture stars.

It’s also one of a small handful of ESPN programs that have spawned offspring. A college basketball version of “GameDay” debuted in 2005 and an SEC-branded “GameDay” will launch with the SEC Network next season.

Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is how it’s attracted and retained some of the sports network’s most prized advertisers. In fact, ESPN executives say it’s not uncommon for advertisers to point to Home Depot, the presenting sponsor of the show for the last 10 years, and want to model that relationship.

“ESPN has made ‘GameDay’ its college sports sponsorship and what’s great is it’s paid for with 100 percent ‘working’ media dollars. There’s no hidden or questionable rights fees,” said Jeff Garrant at GroupM ESP, who has worked with several NCAA partners. “With ‘GameDay,’ Home Depot has a seasonlong presence that is a — if not THE — premiere national presence around college football.”

From the time that ESPN first pitched Home Depot and signed them in 2003, “College GameDay” has evolved from an ad buy into a full-fledged marketing platform, and one of the few truly national sponsorships available in the fragmented college space.

“There really aren’t many national buys that capture the passion of college football,” said Sharon Byers, senior vice
Kellogg’s Cheez-It brand activates around “GameDay” with the popular “Real FanCam.”
Photo by: Kellogg's
president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships at Coca-Cola, a new “GameDay” sponsor this season.
“We have a really significant play with many individual colleges, but it’s hard to amplify that. ‘GameDay’ represents a national play that, real-time, connects the brand with college football fans.”

The four primary sponsors — Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Cheez-It and AT&T — spend close to $50 million combined on ESPN’s college football platform, starting with “GameDay” and extending throughout the season, according to industry sources, who outlined the costs for sponsors to be involved in the show. That includes “GameDay” integration, ad units throughout the season and spots across digital, print and radio.

But “GameDay” clearly is the driver of these heavy college football investments.

Home Depot spends more than $20 million a year to be presenting sponsor. Coca-Cola will pay in the neighborhood of $15 million to be integrated into the show with a new feature called “Section Zero” for its Coke Zero brand.
Kellogg’s Cheez-It brand, sponsor of the popular “Real Fancam,” spends $8 million to $10 million a year. AT&T has a significant integration in the seven figures annually as well.

“‘College GameDay’ really has become the iconic poster child for a media investment,” said Rob Temple, ESPN’s vice president of sports management, who went on the first sales call to Home Depot in the spring of 2003. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had a client mention Home Depot and say, ‘I want that.’ Once we set the vision for Home Depot, it became the standard.”

Road map to the best game

From a list as long as five or six games each week, Fitting and the “GameDay” crew — Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard — talk about the merits of each potential road trip. While Fitting runs point on the meeting, Fowler, the primary host, and Herbstreit, the show’s most visible personality, typically have the most input.

Some weeks, the choice is obvious. Other times, like Week 3 last season, the debate goes on well into the night and into the next morning.

Week 3 offered a handful of options but none that really stood out. Florida played at Tennessee in an old-school rivalry between two SEC traditional powers that haven’t been as strong recently.

Notre Dame and Michigan State represented a decent matchup, but this was well before anyone knew that the Irish might go undefeated.

By the time Fitting left the “GameDay” set and flew home to his Connecticut home that Saturday night at 10, the emails were still flying back and forth with Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer, and John Wildhack, executive vice president, production.

“John has the ultimate say,” Fitting said. “But rarely is there ever any pushback.”

The staff finally decided on the Gators and Vols, primarily because “GameDay” had not been to Knoxville in several years, the atmosphere on campus with Florida in town would be riotous, and, well, “The SEC is hot,” Fitting said. “Viewers seemingly can’t get enough of the SEC.”

When asked about site selection for “GameDay,” Fitting says it’s really that simple. They’re looking for the best game and the best story. Sometimes a single game checks both boxes. Other times, “GameDay” will look for alternatives if there isn’t an obvious big game.

While one would think that ESPN has a pretty good idea of where the crew will go each week, Fitting said no final determinations are made until end-of-the-day Saturday — and occasionally Sunday morning.

“The game itself has the most to do with it,” Fitting said. “But things can change so much in one Saturday. If we
Signage on the "GameDay" desk gives Home Depot constant branding on the set.
Photo by: Allen Kee / ESPN
tried to do a schedule too far out in front, we’d look silly.”

In the past, “GameDay” has gone to the Division III showdown between Williams and Amherst, or the rivalry between historically black universities, Southern vs. Grambling.

ESPN does not discriminate over which broadcaster has the game at that site. On several occasions, “GameDay” has traveled to a game that’s being televised by CBS or Fox.

“There’s no real formula and there’s no concern over the network broadcasting the game,” Fitting said.

And no one, Fitting emphasizes, other than those who work on “GameDay,” have a voice in the decision. Even the highest-level sponsors don’t know where the show is going until a public announcement is made on Sundays.

“Honestly, it really makes no difference to us,” said Brad Goist, vice president and general manager of Kellogg’s Snacks, and the manager of Cheez-It’s “GameDay” sponsorship. “We just want them to go to where the best show will be. We’re a national brand and we’re pretty big everywhere. The fact that they’re selecting the best game of the week makes it more authentic and more genuine. That’s good.”

The making of a marketing platform

The relationship between ESPN and Home Depot didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts.

John Costello, the current president of global marketing at Dunkin’ Donuts, was Home Depot’s executive vice president of marketing in 2003. At that time, Costello reached out to ESPN’s Ed Erhardt, president of global marketing and sales, for ideas on how to integrate Home Depot into the network’s college football coverage.

“GameDay” back then was traveling, but it didn’t have the panache it currently has, and Discover Card, the presenting sponsor, elected not to renew.

“This was our chance to reimagine the show,” Temple said. “The core mission was to serve the fans and we were doing that, but we explored every way we could make the show better.”

That’s when ESPN executives added so many of the elements that give “GameDay” its personality — the bus; the on-site Jumbotron; the enhanced set with bunting around the perimeter. Other elements, like the hovering fan camera and celebrity pickers, came on board as the show evolved.

“So many little things, like the bus, were obvious,” Temple said. “Until then, we had been renting classrooms on campus to give the talent a place to cool off and relax. The bus was convenient and comfortable and it ended up becoming a media asset.

“When you put all of that together, what we took to Home Depot wasn’t so much a media asset as a media and marketing platform.”

In the spring of 2003, ESPN executives Sean Hanrahan, Temple and Erhardt visited Costello in Home Depot’s Atlanta offices.

Just as ESPN’s team moved to the front of the conference room, one of them kicked the plug out of the socket “and the whole room went dark,” Temple said, laughing. “We still talk about it to this day. We had to plug everything back in and reboot. From that humble beginning …”

That was the first time ESPN introduced the concept of “GameDay built by Home Depot.” “It’s common now,”
Temple said. “We try to come up with all kinds of clever brand connectors, like ‘Tailgate Week fired up by Kingsford.’ … But this was the first time we’d done that, and other things like the signage on the desk,” which gives Home Depot constant branding on the set.

The home improvement retailer’s original three-year deal has been extended three times, putting Home Depot in its fourth three-year deal, with one year remaining.

Temple said he gives Home Depot and its agency, Octagon, credit for adding extra elements, from the orange hard hats to the branded rally towels for the thousands of fans on-site who give the show its energy.

The company also has effectively withstood a rash of turnover at key positions that oversee “GameDay.” Since Costello, Home Depot has gone through at least four top marketers, the latest being Mark Gambill, the vice president of marketing who left this summer to go to Vocus Inc. Details on Home Depot’s sponsorship and activation have long been held close to the vest, and the company did not respond to requests for this story.

Despite the personnel changes, Home Depot has used its ubiquitous branding across the “GameDay” set and personal services agreements with all four members of the crew to weave a “GameDay” theme through its creative during the season. Home Depot also has ramped up its hospitality over the years, inviting manufacturers and vendors to “GameDay” sites.

The other sponsors have paid attention. Cheez-It, which sponsors the fancam, also is doing more on-site this year with product sampling of its new Zingz flavor, marking the first time since Cheez-It came on board in 2009 that it is featuring a specific product in its “GameDay” marketing.

The Kellogg’s brand is working with ESPN’s in-house agency, CreativeWorks, on more interactive, on-site activation. Like Home Depot, Cheez-It is bringing more corporate hospitality to its program this year for employees and retail partners.

Coca-Cola is the newcomer. It decided to market Coke Zero because the show provides a direct avenue to reach the young male audience that the brand desires, according to Rafael Acevedo, a group director at Coca-Cola who works on the “GameDay” program.

It will activate its Coke Zero brand this year with Section Zero, a part of the “GameDay” footprint that will be reserved for 50 fans. They will be selected through on-campus promotions and social media through the week leading up to Saturday’s show. A slew of agencies will work with Coca-Cola this year: Droga5, Melt, CSE and Fast Horse, the company said.

“When you put it all together, ‘GameDay’ is probably the model of how to leverage an asset,” said Rick Jones, whose FishBait Marketing has worked on several college-oriented marketing programs, such as the Capital One Cup. “‘GameDay’ has become a property within itself. It’s a property every school covets. They all want to host ‘GameDay.’”

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