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Volume 21 No. 2

Events and Attractions

Editor’s note: This story was revised from the print edition.

The College Football Playoff is under pressure on two fronts to adjust future schedules for its semifinals and championship games, sources say, but the CFP is standing firm on its original dates.

On one of those fronts, top ESPN executives are lobbying CFP officials to move next season’s semifinals off of New Year’s Eve where it would compete with highly rated star-filled countdown shows on several networks.

Next season’s semifinals at the Capital One Orange Bowl and the Goodyear Cotton Bowl are scheduled for Dec. 31 but ESPN is pushing the CFP to move those games to Jan. 2, 2016, a Saturday with relatively little competition on TV. The NFL’s regular

SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand and Assistant Managing Editor Tom Stinson talk about the pressure on the CFP from ESPN and the NFL to adjust its future schedule, and what it could mean.

season concludes that Sunday, Jan. 3, and the league hasn’t had a Saturday game during the final week of its regular season since 2007.

Sources say that senior network executives as high up as ESPN President John Skipper are pushing for the change as a way to get better television ratings, but the CFP is unwilling to make such a move because it is committed to the original plan to hold tripleheader bowl games, including the semifinals, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

“We’ve started a new tradition and we don’t want to back away from it now,” said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director.

Meanwhile, the CFP is facing pressure on another front. The NFL is considering expanding its playoffs and moving one of the new games to Monday night when it would compete directly with the CFP championship.

Sources say NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initiated a series of high-level meetings with some of the CFP’s most influential commissioners, including the SEC’s Mike Slive. Goodell approached the commissioners to discuss the potential impact an NFL playoff expansion would have on the CFP championship game.

The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick make up the management council that oversees the College Football Playoff.

If the NFL ends up expanding the number of teams that make its postseason, the league would need two more TV windows to account for the new games. In separate meetings, Goodell told the college commissioners that any playoff expansion likely would put a wild-card game on Monday night, sources said.

The CFP’s 12-year contract with ESPN calls for the title game to be played on a Monday night, typically the second Monday in January. The last three BCS championship games also were played on those Monday nights in January, dating to 2011. Similarly, college basketball’s men’s championship game is played on a Monday night in April.

Hancock said his office has voiced its opposition to putting an NFL playoff game against the CFP championship on Monday night.

“We picked Monday night because it was open and it was the best night for our game. We announced that in June 2012,” Hancock said. “We established that our game was going to be on Monday night for 12 years.”

A Monday night wild-card playoff game would run up against the CFP championship game for at least another two years. Later this year, the CFP will finalize championship sites beyond 2017, and Hancock said they are committed to holding the championship games on Monday nights, as outlined in its contract with ESPN.

Just last week, Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II told The Associated Press that it does not appear likely the playoffs would expand next season. But league officials have been wanting to add at least two teams to the playoffs for several years, and sources say a plan still could be worked out.

In the middle of the dispute is broadcaster ESPN, which owns rights to both the CFP and the NFL’s regular-season “Monday Night Football” series.

ESPN’s CFP contract mandates that the games are carried on ESPN — not ESPN2 or ESPNU, sources say. Plus, cable sources say that some of ESPN’s affiliate deals contain language that would prohibit the network from putting either the CFP championship or an NFL playoff game on ABC.

The NFL almost certainly would not allow one of its playoff games to move to ESPN2.

Still, the NFL could sell a Monday night playoff game to another network. A media industry source suggested that the NFL could look into packaging the new wild-card playoff games with its “Thursday Night Football” package beginning with the 2016 season. CBS last week signed a deal to keep that package for 2015.

“If it comes down to this, the fans would be the losers if they had to choose,” Hancock said. “That would be a shame.”

Whether the NFL expands its postseason and puts a playoff game opposite the CFP championship remains to be seen, but the CFP is holding its ground against the idea of moving its semifinals to Jan. 2 next season.

The move to Jan. 2 is attractive to ESPN because that Saturday is relatively free of big events, limiting the amount of competition the college games would face. Sources said ESPN is lobbying for the CFP to make the move only for the coming season.

“The timing works out for us next year,” said one source with direct knowledge of the talks.

The CFP semifinals on New Year’s Day already proved their ability to attract viewers. The semifinals — played at the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual — each drew more than 28 million viewers. At the time, they were the two most-viewed programs in cable TV history.

The CFP championship game on Jan. 12 averaged 33.4 million viewers, becoming the first show in cable TV history to top 30 million viewers. Privately, ESPN insiders say they are prepared for double-digit drops in viewership if the semifinals remain on New Year’s Eve.

Hospitality packages for the College Football Playoff’s inaugural championship game didn’t quite sell out, but sales were brisk enough that the CFP is already booking business for the 2016 game.

The CFP took a somewhat unique approach to selling hospitality packages for its first game at AT&T Stadium earlier this month, hiring four companies to be official sales agencies. The Colonnade Group works strictly in the college space, while the other three — Dallas Fan Fares, QuintEvents and PrimeSport — sell for most major sporting events, including the Super Bowl.

They said the CFP’s hospitality pricing ran 45 percent to 50 percent of comparable prices for Super Bowl hospitality. CFP game packages started at $1,899 per person and went as high as $5,999 per person with a hotel included.


CFP hospitality pricing for the championship game

Game-day packages — $1,899 to $4,499 per person
With hotel — $2,999 to $5,999 per person
Suites — $3,000 to $4,250 per person

CFP vendors

Colonnade Group, Birmingham, Ala.
Dallas Fan Fares
QuintEvents, Charlotte
PrimeSport, Atlanta

Many of the 347 suites inside AT&T Stadium and 3,000 tickets were available as part of the CFP’s inventory. All four sales agencies sold from the same inventory.

“Like almost everything else about the College Football Playoff, we had never administered this type of hospitality program before,” said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director. “After evaluating the potential market and scratching our heads for a while, we decided to estimate 3,000 tickets, to make sure we were holding enough. We’re pleased with the sales, and our guess turned out to be pretty close. We know that this program will grow every year.”

Brian Learst, chief executive at Charlotte-based Quint-Events, said the hospitality packages were highly customizable for fans, which helped spur corporate sales for the first-time event.


SBJ Podcast Archive:
Michael Smith and John Ourand assess the first College Football Playoff National Championship Game and what can be expected next year.

“We built a core package that started with tickets and pregame hospitality,” Learst said. “Then you could add hotel, parties, ground transportation, air. I’d say it was probably more customizable than most events we’ve worked with.”

Of the 3,000 tickets available through hospitality, they were purposely spread over most of AT&T Stadium, in order to meet needs at several different price points. But the vendors said they were able to package as many as 50 to 60 tickets together to accommodate larger groups. Vendors said there was a balance between corporate buyers and fans coming from out of town.

“We’re already very connected to the college community because most of the work we do is in the college space, so our corporate clients understand the value of a national-level event like this,” said Robbie Robertson, Colonnade’s president and CEO. “That made us very targeted and focused on who we were selling to. At the game, we had a lot of our buyers talking about coming back next year and wanting more seats.”

The most expensive packages at $5,999 per person included a club seat between the 20-yard lines, pregame hospitality inside the stadium in a field-level room, full menu and bar, appearances by former college football greats like Tony Dorsett, preferred parking, gift bag, merchandise voucher and hotel. Those ticket holders were allowed to enter the stadium up to three hours before kickoff.

Fans with higher-end hospitality packages got to go down on the AT&T Stadium field after Ohio State won the title game.
One of the bonuses for the higher-end packages was access to the field after the game.

“A lot of the players for Ohio State stayed around on the field after the game,” said Kaye Burkhardt, president and owner of Dallas Fan Fares. “That actually gave some of the fans with field access the chance to get autographs. It made for a great atmosphere and a nice little perk.”

Tickets for the lower-priced packages were in the upper levels or the end zones. Their pregame hospitality was outside of the stadium.

The AT&T Stadium suite packages — suites range from 15 to 59 people — started at $3,000 per person and went up to $4,250 for the suite ticket, food and beverage and parking.

“I only see it growing from here,” Robertson said. “To me, the playoff has a lot of the same elements as a Super Bowl. People want to be part of the event. One of the things that define a big event like this is whether people will buy without regard for the teams that make it. That’s a good barometer and we experienced a good bit of that.”

Each of the four vendors signed one-year agreements with the CFP and once the Super Bowl is over, they’ll begin renewal talks. In the meantime, though, they’re already taking calls from fans who went to the inaugural game and want to buy packages for the 2016 event.

Hancock said the CFP office will evaluate the hospitality sales, the ticket allotment and the four vendors in the coming weeks, but he was mostly happy with how it went. Next year’s championship game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium, which has 88 luxury lofts, field boxes and a capacity of 63,400 that’s expandable to 72,200 seats.

Just as the Super Bowl decides the championship of the NFL, so too does it separate winners and losers in the hospitality industry.

Valuable corporate relationships of long standing can be enhanced or ruined by a bad party, hotel trouble or a transportation snafu. So when Engine Shop was creating a new Super Bowl party for clients Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, it assessed the opportunity like a consumer products marketer, looking for the right opportunity.

“We saw a gap in the event landscape for a Saturday night event that wasn’t two or three thousand people,” said Engine Shop CEO Brian Gordon, who has worked the last 15 Super Bowls and had a hand in creating ESPN’s massive Friday night bash. “Everyone wants athletes and musicians, but a lot of them don’t want to deal with the mess of a really big party.”

So using the insider connections of Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, Engine Shop helped craft what it hopes will be a new Saturday fixture in the Super Bowl party competition that can be as tightly contested as the game. By Super Bowl Saturday night standards, it will be “intimate,” a 500-person affair within a decked-out hangar at the Scottsdale Airport.

“We’re looking to build the ultimate ‘industry event’ and give the feeling of walking into a big living room,” said Gordon, who also helped with DirecTV’s first Beach Bowl Bash in 2007. “At Super Bowl, hospitality becomes marketing. When you see brands doing things outside of what the market wants, which is mostly hospitality, they can get hurt.”

All of which prompts the question, Exactly what makes a great Super bowl hospitality event?

In New York last year, ESPN threw its 10th big Friday night bash.
For ESPN, now in year 11 of its mammoth party, it has always been about strong ties to its products and to the local community. With an ESPN The Magazine cover featuring Super Bowl Halftime diva Katy Perry and Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, and a set at WestWorld of Scottsdale that will take 10 days to build, ESPN is confident it will again achieve a “wow factor” for the expected 2,500 guests. They’ll be entertained in what’s designed to resemble a midcentury modern home with life-sized rock formations. It also will include 700 linear feet of projection mapping of sunsets and sunrises in a desert setting.

Sponsors including Ciroc, Coors Light, Dunkin’ Donuts, Mercedes-Benz, Jockey, Nike Golf and Fiji Water help defray the costs.

Carrie Brzezinski, vice president of marketing solutions at ESPN, said the event is as much about buzz as anything else.

“We want people to feel a local connection. You want great headliner music, but more than anything, we create some great selfie moments when the space or the person you are standing next to makes you post something,” she said.

“You want to wow them with music before the Super Bowl payoff on Sunday,” said Kit Geis, executive vice president at Genesco Sports Enterprises, which is producing a private Pitbull concert Friday for consumer electronics manufacturer Harman and handling other Super Bowl hospitality for the likes of MillerCoors, Pepsi and Campbell Soup.

If ESPN owns Friday night as far as the massive parties go, then DirecTV has been the Saturday night headliner. But this year, it has switched its strategy with a four-day music fest in Glendale on a site it is building on a farm across from University of Phoenix Stadium. While it’s being run more like a music festival than a Super Bowl hospitality play, the company said the series of concerts, which cost $99 daily and will include the Zac Brown Band, Calvin Harris, Imagine Dragons and Snoop Dogg, will be profitable.

Saturday night will be the usual private party.

Jon Gieselman, DirecTV’s senior vice president of marketing, said it’s not a pricey venture relative to buying a Super Bowl ad.

“Beyond just the cost of the spot, it winds up being a $10 million commitment,” he said. “To give our sponsors what they were asking for, we created three days of [ticketed] concerts, which allows them to bring their guests in early and entertain their guests.”

Fifty-person “hospitality chalets” on the site of the concerts were priced at $250,000. Overall, tickets were not sold out as of press time, but Gieselman said they are planning on repeating the formula next year.

Sponsors include Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi.

Different clients have different imperatives for their Super Bowl soirees.

“A great Super Bowl party for us is going smaller, more intimate, and bringing unique experiences to our customers,” said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone’s vice president of consumer marketing.

That being the case, on Saturday night, Bridgestone is entertaining around 150 top customers and renting out the Copper Blues club within the NFL House hospitality complex. Sunday morning’s brunch will feature a pregame chalk talk by ESPN’s Ron Jaworski and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Rolling Stone returns with a party this year on Saturday night at The Venue Scottsdale, where Steven Tyler and Charli XCX will headline. The event is sold out, and late last week secondary tickets were selling for more than $1,300.

“With the advent of social media, these events around Super Bowl are more global than ever,” said David Spencer, partner/director at Talent Resources Sports, which is producing the event. “Influencers who have their own social media following will come, and it’s a great way to get in front of them.”

The Giving Back Fund’s annual Big Game, Big Give benefit is always opulent. This year, it is even more so, since it will be held in Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams’ 18,000-square-foot home in Paradise Valley.

Giving Back Fund founder and President Marc Pollick is confident this year’s event, which will include the Budweiser Clydesdales, Optimus Prime and a private fireworks display, will be the first Super Bowl charity event not directly affiliated with the NFL to raise more than $1 million. The previous high was $650,000.

Perhaps the best-known Super Bowl charity function, Taste of the NFL, is in its 24th year and features a “strolling food and wine event that mixes players and celebrity chefs at dozens of food stations.”

The “chefs as superstars” angle is more pronounced than ever. Thursday’s “Culinary Kickoff” is a $2,000-a-seat dinner prepared by chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina for 150 people at Bourbon Steak at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which was nearly sold out at press time. Chrissy Delisle’s Delisle Group is producing the event.

Even with all the different forms of Super Bowl hospitality, every planner seems to be charting a course to a similar spot: a transcendent nexus of celebrity, music and sports.

“The Super Bowl is where athletes meet celebrities more than anywhere else, and we put you or your brands there,” Spencer said.

Echoed ESPN’s Brzezinski, “We feel like ESPN can own sports and entertainment on one of the biggest weekends of the year for both.”

It seems to be a search for that perfect mix.

“I don’t know who geeks out more at our events,” Delisle said. “The chefs over the athletes, the athletes over the chefs, or the people eating over seeing them together.”

Added Engine Shop’s Gordon, “There’s an intersection between famous athletes, celebrities and musicians that feels like a natural place to play. They all want to hang out with each other and everyone wants to be around them, so we all just try to provide a place where they can all hang together.”

Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.