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Volume 20 No. 42


When Upper Deck set out to create a limited-edition set of Alabama football trading cards last year, Crimson Tide legends like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were certain picks.

Bill Battle, who played split end for Bear Bryant in the early 1960s and was part of the Tide’s 1961 national championship team, was less obvious — until his influence off the field was considered.

“We had to include Bill,” said Brandon Miller, Upper Deck’s brand manager. “He’s the reason a set like this could even exist.”

Battle, who was named Alabama’s athletic director March 22, founded Collegiate Licensing Co. in 1981 and forged what is now a $4 billion collegiate licensing industry. Upper Deck acquires the school marks it uses on its trading cards from CLC, which is now an IMG College business that serves as the licensing agent for more than 200 universities, conferences and bowl games.

IMG acquired CLC in 2007.

Upper Deck began making special team sets two years ago, and Alabama football is one of just four that have been released, along with North Carolina basketball, Texas football and Oklahoma football. Notre Dame football and Kansas basketball sets are due out later this year.

“When the Alabama set came out, we sent some blown-up cards of Bill to CLC, just so they could embarrass him a little bit,” Miller said with a laugh. “But it was seriously a big deal for us to include Bill because of everything he’s done with CLC and meant to licensing.”

And now that he’s the AD at Alabama, Battle’s card might be worth a penny or two more.

Charlotte intends to join the ranks of Atlanta, Dallas and Houston as cities that host annual kickoff games on college football’s opening weekend.

Organizers in Charlotte say they are deep into negotiations with several schools, offering a high-profile matchup with multimillion-dollar guarantees and a bowl-like atmosphere in an NFL stadium.

Will Webb, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, said the schools that have been approached represent nearly all five of the major conferences in college football, with the talks targeting an inaugural game in 2014 or 2015.

Auburn-Clemson was one of two games that made up the Chick-fil-A Kickoff last year.
“We’ve had discussions with schools as far out as 2020 or 2021 and on down the line,” said Webb, whose foundation also promotes the Belk Bowl and the ACC football championship game. “We’re talking to some teams from this region — the Carolinas, Virginia — but also big-name schools that are not local, including schools from the Midwest. We’re exploring everything.”

Webb said he’s engaged Charlotte-based department store Belk, title sponsor of the city’s bowl game, as a potential title sponsor for the kickoff game. The bowl game features schools from the ACC and Big East.

Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, home to the NFL Panthers, has been the site of season-opening games before. South Carolina most recently played East Carolina in a season opener, in 2011. ECU played an opener there in 2008, as well, against Virginia Tech.

While those one-offs have enjoyed varying levels of success and typically focused on teams from the region, an annual kickoff game would attempt to draw more national brands.

“That kind of a game works here because of Charlotte,” Webb said. “It’s easy to get in and out with the airport here, and having an NFL stadium is a critical piece, too. We’re putting together the kind of budget that would lure big-name teams.”

Other games of this type pay guarantees of $3 million to $4 million a team, enough to make it worthwhile for one or both schools to give up a home game for the exposure of a high-profile opener. Sponsorships and ticket sales account for the majority of revenue. TV rights are controlled by the conferences of the competing teams, so the game would not receive any rights fees.

Webb said that if Charlotte can become the home for an annual game, it likely would include some additional entertainment elements, such as concerts and fan fests.

“These games really are like mini-bowls,” he said.

Atlanta started the national kickoff craze in 2008 and has played one or two games on the season-opening weekend in the Georgia Dome each year since. Organizers of the Chick-fil-A Bowl run the games, and Chick-fil-A sponsors them, in addition to the bowl.

The Dallas Cowboys operate the Cowboys Classic game each year in Arlington at Cowboys Stadium. Beginning this season, ESPN Regional Television will work with the Houston Texans and Lone Star Sports and Entertainment to put on the Texas Kickoff Classic at Reliant Stadium.

The college season typically opens a week before the NFL season, so stadiums are usually available.

“We’re close, but nothing is locked down,” Webb said. “It’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing. We’re hoping that if we lock down enough big-name teams, sponsors will be an easy sell.”

Jim Hanchett, a former Oregon State athlete, went back to his alma mater last year in search of interns for his fledgling digital marketing agency. What he came away with was a working partnership between the school and the firm he co-founded, Think Social, to create promotions for the Oregon State athletics Facebook page.

Those promotions became new sponsor inventory and incremental revenue for Learfield Sports, the Beavers’ multimedia rights partner. Now, Learfield is sharing those social media insights from Think Social with the rest of its 50 school clients.

“A lot of schools have a ton of Facebook friends, but how do you keep them engaged? That’s the challenge,” said Joe Ferreira, Learfield’s chief content officer. “What we’re working on now are quick-hitting, one- or two-week promotions that keep the fans interested and drive revenue. … Sometimes athletic departments look at social media as a little bit of an obligation, like the app world. They know they have to have one, but what do you want it to be? Athletic directors are starving for some good, strategic guidance on this.”

That’s where Think Social comes in. Many of the ideas for these promotions

originate from Think Social’s creative team, but sponsors have the ability to add their own twists.

“This all came from a conversation over the school’s social strategy,” Hanchett said. “We’re trying to set the table so fans are constantly engaged on a weekly basis.”

At Oregon State, the promotions have ranged from pumpkin-carving contests to video submissions to polls and sweepstakes. Each promotion has a way of integrating a presenting sponsor. Wells Fargo sponsors a contest for fans to select their favorite Oregon State baseball team: the 2006 NCAA championship squad or the 2007 edition that repeated. Norpac, an Oregon-based processor of fruits and vegetables, sponsored the pumpkin-carving contest during Halloween last football season.

Sponsorships run from $5,000 to $10,000 per campaign, and each campaign typically runs a week or two.

Think Social, a Denver-based company with about 20 employees, provides the software and the analysis with each promotion.

“We don’t have the software to do all of the analytics,” Ferreira said. “That’s where we need help. Ultimately, our goal is to connect fans with brands through media, and central to that is growing our digital business.”

Together, Learfield and Think Social will continue to jointly create sponsorship-driven social media assets for Learfield schools like the ones Oregon State has been running for the past year. During that time, the Beavers’ Facebook page has grown from having 70,000 total “likes” to nearly 150,000. Campaigns require the consumer to “like” the page before participating in the promotion.

Learfield’s 50 school clients include top collegiate brands Alabama, North Carolina, Penn State, Stanford and Wisconsin. Clients Nevada and Colorado have already tapped into Think Social for Facebook promotions of their own.

“The thing we like about it is that the sponsor element isn’t in your face,” said Nikki Pruett, Oregon State’s assistant athletic director for marketing and promotions. “We want sponsors on board, we want them to be engaged, but we don’t want them to overpower the Facebook page. We want to keep it about athletics and the student athletes.”

Pruett also said that data collection has emerged as a benefit to the enhanced social media effort. “We’ve grown our email list by 10,000 names from the Facebook promotions,” Pruett said of people who will be targeted primarily for ticket sales. “That’s huge. I can’t set up a table at any event and get 10,000 names like that.”

The idea of sharing best practices with other schools has led Learfield to create the Preferred Solutions Provider program. Whenever Learfield’s corporate office comes across a company, such as Think Social, that offers benefits or business ideas that apply to all of its properties, that company will be added to Learfield’s PSP program.

“What we’ll do is limit the number of companies in each category to just a few,” Ferreira said. “We will canvass all of the players out there and boil down a category to a small subset of companies that are most impressive.”