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Volume 22 No. 23
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Bristol perfect platform for sponsor

The conference room being decked out to look like the eventual Battle at Bristol, including the table (below looking like the field, helped get sponsor Pilot Flying J on board.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Bristol Motor Speedway was up against quite a bit when it pitched the title sponsorship of its Battle at Bristol 13 months ago.

The racetrack had never hosted a college football game, much less one that would be a first-of-its-kind event projected to set an attendance record. The company on the other side of the table — Pilot Flying J — had never signed a major sponsorship deal.

The speedway was selling a vision, as much as anything, and Pilot, a Tennessee-based chain of truck stops founded by former Tennessee football player and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, was buying into that vision.

So when the speedway and the company initially met in Knoxville during the first week of August 2015, the conference room where they met was wrapped in images of what the speedway would look like.

As executives entered the conference room, the imagery on the door looked like they were entering the “Last Great Colosseum,” as Bristol is known. The main table at the center of the room was dressed like a football field with the game logo at midfield. The walls were wrapped in images of a packed stadium. Where the imagination lacked, the renderings filled in the blanks.

Charlotte-based Bespoke Sports & Entertainment was the agency that brought the two sides into the room and came up with the idea to dress the meeting spot like a jam-packed stadium. Bespoke was formed in 2014 by former GMR Marketing executives Mike Boykin and Greg Busch, both of whom have extensive marketing backgrounds in both NASCAR and college athletics.

“We knew we needed to paint this picture and show what it would look like because it was an event that had never taken place before,” said Bristol President Jerry Caldwell. “It was a great idea. The guys from Bespoke wrapped the room so you felt like you were in the middle of the racetrack. It really set the tone for how we wanted the event to look and feel.”

About three weeks later, Pilot Flying J, which was already planning a rebranding overhaul, agreed to sponsor the game and hired Bespoke to be one of its strategic agencies. “It’s time to tell the Pilot Flying J story,” company vice president Whitney Johnson said when the sponsorship was announced last year.

While Johnson, Haslam’s granddaughter, led the talks and planning for the sponsor, the decision-making went all the way up to the board of directors.

“This was not your typical sponsorship,” Busch said. “Making them visualize the potential for the game was very important. They needed to feel like they were walking into the venue and see how the brand would be represented.”

By the time Tennessee kicked off to Virginia Tech on the evening of Sept. 10, the Battle at Bristol was real. More than 156,000 fans flooded the speedway and ABC broadcast the game to the nation.

Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol
By the numbers

156,990: Game attendance
1,700:
Pilot employees bused to the game
17:
Chartered buses from Knoxville to Bristol
800:
Handmade pizzas cooked over 14 hours
12,800:
Slices served for free at the game

Pilot Flying J agencies
3 Sons Media, Nashville (created first 30-second spot)
Bespoke Sports & Entertainment, Charlotte (strategy)
Erwin Penland, Greenville, S.C. (print, creative)
Zeno Group, Chicago (PR)

It turned out to be the perfect platform for Pilot Flying J to launch its first national advertising campaign aligned with a rebranding initiative that took into account renovated bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, a new mobile app and handmade pizza, which was served for free outside the stadium.

ESPN’s Rob Temple likened Pilot’s initial national marketing endeavor to Chick-fil-A’s title sponsorship of the Peach Bowl 19 years ago, which helped vault the regional chicken sandwich joint into a national brand.

“Pilot took the title and they didn’t just wait around for the game,” said Temple, senior vice president for ESPN sports marketing. “They really wanted to know how to do business with us.”

The structure of Pilot’s deals resembled the race title sponsorships that Bristol typically sells. The sponsor negotiates one set of terms with the track for the title, and a separate contract with ESPN for media. The game sponsorship sold for the low seven figures, not including Pilot’s media spend with ESPN.

TV-visible signage was all around the field, just like track signage gives sponsors visibility during a race. In one case, the signage was too close to the field. A game referee made sideline officials push back the field-level signage another five feet prior to kickoff.

In true NASCAR fashion, Bristol placed the game logo featuring Pilot Flying J just about anywhere it would fit, from concession stands to merchandise trailers to even the trams that carried fans to the stadium.

At the end of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” analyst Lee Corso picked the Volunteers to win by putting on a white race helmet with the orange T. Right on the forehead of the helmet was the Pilot Flying J logo.

“This was really the first case of the NASCAR ecosystem coming together with the college football ecosystem and we all learned from it,” Temple said. “You had pregame concerts, ‘GameDay’ was in town … it was complicated. But between us and the folks at the speedway and Bespoke, there was a lot of experience and a lot of communication. We all worked closely to get it right.”

The bonus for the sponsor was integration into ESPN’s new college football brand spot, which featured college mascots on a road trip pulling into a Pilot Flying J. Temple threw out the idea of incorporating Pilot into the spot during a planning meeting in July, just a few weeks before ESPN was scheduled to shoot it.

“They immediately saw the connection and we put a deal together in a few weeks,” Temple said. “It’s created a presence for the full college football season and pushed us toward more of a longer-term relationship. Being a private company, I think, made them more nimble.”

Pilot Flying J, which bought traditional advertising on ESPN leading up to the game, will soon decide if its ad buy will be extended for the rest of the season. Regardless, the brand’s first national sponsorship will be one the company will remember. Pilot made sure of that by busing 1,700 employees from the Knoxville office to Bristol for the game.

“It was an impressive brand display,” Boykin said.