Winning opportunity? Some sponsors are finding a way to get involved in college football's passionate and often wacky rivalries
When longtime NCAA Division III rivals Bridgewater State and Massachusetts Maritime Academy meet on a football field this weekend in Cape Cod, the winners will hoist the coveted Scoop trophy, a replica of the wooden tool used to harvest cranberries in the early 1900s.
Four hours to the west in New York State, a pair of treasured Dutchman’s shoes will go to the winner of the Rensselaer Polytechnic-Union game, just as they have for nearly 70 years.
Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin play for a wooden trophy that’s 8 feet tall, 400 pounds and goes by the name Chief Caddo. Purdue and Indiana have the Old Oaken Bucket, while fighting between North Carolina and Duke almost erupted over the Victory Bell after the Tar Heels’ narrow win last month.
The trophies range from big to small, bizarre to conventional, and the stories behind them help explain why rivalry is so deeply stitched into college football, a sport celebrating its 150th season. In these games, wins come with a prize that the winning team prominently displays until the next meeting — a traveling trophy.
The Scoop is one of 229 active traveling trophies in the FBS, FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA and junior college ranks, based on research by Sports Business Journal.
For those trophy games, there’s nothing like stomping your rival and lifting that trophy toward the sky, no matter how strange it might look. After all, what would a matchup between Minnesota foes St. Olaf and Concordia be without the winning team posing for photos with The Troll, a folksy trophy that looks like a Viking voodoo doll and was made with actual Norwegian forest debris?
The trophies also represent one of the most marketable but least tapped aspects of college football. Only 33 of the rivalry trophy games are sponsored. Corporate involvement ranges from local State Farm insurance agents to global brands like AT&T and Proctor & Gamble.
“When there is a trophy that changes hands, when the outcome of the game becomes fairly clear, you can see all of the athletes sort of figuring out how they’re going to go get it. It’s so important to them that it’s very natural that it would be important to others,” said Andrew Wheeler, Learfield IMG College executive vice president of multimedia rights. “And that’s what becomes the value of the sponsorship: aligning your brand with something that is important to a lot of people.”
Many trophies, like the Cranberry Bowl’s Scoop, are culturally significant in their corner of the country. The first commercial cranberry cultivation in the United States happened in southeastern Massachusetts, and a stretch of the road from Bridgewater State to Mass Maritime is called the Cranberry Highway.
For about 13 years, Ocean Spray Cranberry Cooperative backed the Bridgewater State-Mass Maritime rivalry, providing a new scoop trophy in 2006 and hosting an annual press conference and banquet two days before the game. Ocean Spray, which is based near Bridgewater, gave T-shirts and new products to players and coaches, and activated during the game. The sponsorship’s value was roughly $5,000, according to Bridgewater State Athletic Director Marybeth Lamb, but Ocean Spray ended its involvement this year.
A&A Metro Transportation, a Bridgewater-based transportation company that serves both schools’ sports teams, stepped in to replace Ocean Spray. Tom Arrighi, the company’s president and CEO, said he wasn’t completely sure of what his company’s support of the game entailed. But those details weren’t deal-breakers anyway.
“They’re great kids and I just think it shows our support to them,” Arrighi said. “It’s our first year, so we’re trying it and seeing how it works out.”
Just two NCAA Division III trophy games are sponsored and the Cranberry Bowl is the only one that receives actual revenue and not just in-kind value. Sponsors aside, the Cranberry Bowl is itself a boost to the two schools’ brands, according to Lamb.
“There are over a hundred colleges and universities in Massachusetts,” said Lamb, whose school is 30 miles south of Boston. “Trying to find that niche to promote our programs in this heavily populated group of schools and universities, it’s difficult. Having a sponsor for the Cranberry Bowl helps us elevate this local rivalry game to a new level.”
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Sitting on opposite sides of the Kanawha River, West Virginia State and the University of Charleston play annually in the Kanawha Classic football trophy game. The local Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott sponsors the game in a three-year partnership worth $5,000 total annually, split between the two schools.
WVSU uses the money on book scholarships for its student-athletes. An additional $2,500 may not seem like much of an impact, “but for us it is,” said AD Nate Burton. “If a student-athlete doesn’t have a book for a class, then that’s the impact.”
Only nine of the 45 NCAA Division II traveling trophy games are sponsored. Resources are scarcer in the lower echelons of college sports, but that hasn’t stopped Burton or his UC counterparts from pursuing additional revenue. After the Kanawha Classic’s previous sponsor pulled out, Burton joined forces with UC athletics’ senior director of development, Shari Reed, who also happened to be her school’s women’s tennis coach at the time, to pitch a sponsorship to the owners of the local Fairfield Inn & Suites.
“We just thought that together we would be better than separate,” said Reed.
The game brings strong visibility to the hotel. This year’s Nov. 2 Kanawha Classic was televised locally in West Virginia and streamed nationally by NCAA.com. And content that WVSU and Charleston pushed on social media about the game featured Fairfield Inn’s name and logo, too.
The hotel’s parent company, called Monarch, owns three hotels in the Charleston area, including one in the middle of the nine miles that separate the two schools. Parents of athletes from both colleges stay at the hotels, including one West Virginia State volleyball parent who told Burton they stayed in the same Monarch property 40 nights last year. Monarch made a full year of its Kanawha Classic sponsorship investment back from one committed parent.
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Considerable revenue can be made from rivalry sponsorships at the FBS and FCS levels. But only 22 of the 112 trophy games in the NCAA’s top two football subdivisions are sponsored, and eight of those are part of all-sports, yearlong series between rival schools, like Oregon and Oregon State’s Civil War Series.
“It really goes back to how relevant that rivalry is in the marketplace and how close those schools are, geographically,” said Mike Palisi, executive vice president at Van Wagner and chief of the agency’s college business. “We’ve been very successful in selling them because there’s a great history and rivalry. The trophy becomes really a nice platform for a company to do something pretty meaningful across campus as part of, obviously, a larger investment.”
Oregon and Oregon State have contested the Civil War football rivalry 122 times, starting in 1894. The winning team claims the Platypus Trophy, so chosen because of the animal’s combined duck and beaver-like qualities.
The Civil War Series may have pioneered large-scale college rivalry sponsorship when representatives from Oregon and Oregon State struck a deal with Northwest Dodge Dealers in 1999 to sponsor all athletic contests between the two schools. Barry Spiegelberg, who was then with Beaver Sports Properties, remembers the deal annually split about $300,000 between the schools.
The sponsorship, which gave the Dodge dealers exposure throughout the academic year, was a hit with all parties. Spiegelberg remembers some national backlash, including a mention in Sports Illustrated’s weekly feature, Sign of the Apocalypse. Northwest Dodge Dealers renewed the deal three times until the economy dipped and they ended their involvement in 2008.
Oregon and Oregon State formed a new sponsorship program that featured five categories of exclusivity – automotive, casino/resort, financial, health care and grocery. A rivalry logo was created that the schools and five partners use in promotional material throughout the year. The 2019 sponsors – PacificSource Health Plans, Toyota, Safeway/Albertson’s, Spirit Mountain Casino and First Interstate Bank – all have strong presences in Oregon. The schools declined to share financial details of the current sponsorships.
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When it comes to college football rivalry games there are two areas where the Bayou Classic is elite: marching bands and corporate sponsorship.
The Grambling State-Southern football game culminates a week of festivities in New Orleans every year around Thanksgiving. New Orleans Convention Company Inc. (NOCCI) runs the Bayou Classic for the two historically black universities, who own the 46-year old event.
NOCCI took over the struggling Classic in 2011 and immediately made changes. NOCCI President and CEO Dottie Belletto said there was confusion over whether longtime title sponsor State Farm owned the game because its name was featured so prominently on the logo. The insurance company eventually ended its association with the game, and the Classic no longer includes title sponsorship in its offerings.
“It’s never good to give away your brand and your name,” said Belletto.
Categorizing the TrophiesThe 225 college football traveling trophies could be categorized in a number of ways:
Animals are a mainstay of college mascots, so it’s no surprise they also appear as traveling trophies. At least seven trophies feature animals, including the Bronze Turkey, Big Dog Trophy, LumberCat Trophy, Ol’ Bronze Hawk, Platypus Trophy, Ram-Falcon Trophy and The Goat.
Weaponry is a common theme and at least 14 of the trophies could do serious bodily harm, including the Bridger Rifle, Brice-Cowell Musket, Fremont Cannon, Jeweled Shillelagh, Old Musket, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Shillelagh Trophy, Miner’s Axe, Purdue Cannon, Stanford Axe, The Axe, The Battle Axe, The Sledge and the Victory Cannon. Handle with care.
At least eight involve industrial equipment, including the Coal Pail, Cranberry Scoop, Old Oil Can, The Bit, Silver Spade, Hub Cap, The Hammer and The Mining Cart.
Eight trophies incorporate roads: The Battle of I-75 Trophy, Highway 55 Sign, I-79 Barrel, I-90 Trophy, Sixth Street Rivalry, Transit Trophy, War on I-4 Trophy and War on I-94 Trophy.
At least nine trophies seem like items you would find in a 1920s hardware store, including the Little Brass Bell, Old Brass Spittoon, Old Oaken Bucket, Old Rocking Chair, Old Tin Cup, Old Wagon Wheel, Smudge Pot, The Paint Bucket and The Brass Lantern.
At least 14 involve food and drink, including the Chowder Bowl, Golden Egg, Apple Trophy, Golden Egg Trophy, Iron Skillet, Milk Can, Red Beans and Rice Trophy, Peach Basket and The Mug.
At least nine trophies make the uninitiated wonder, “WTF?” These include the Anchor-Bone Trophy, Cortaca Jug, Floyd of Rosedale, Illibuck, Silver Shako, ScotZilla, The Border Claw, The Traveling Training Kit, and, of course, The Troll. — B.M. / M.S.
The NOCCI team inherited a rivalry with a national footprint and a national TV deal with NBC Sports, but zero local sponsors. After eight years of focused effort, the Bayou Classic now has 10 sponsors from the New Orleans community, giving organizers a foundation upon which to build out its sponsorship program. Proctor & Gamble, Old Spice and Crest are some of the national brands that now sit atop the game’s four-tiered sponsorship pyramid.
“We’re a player at the national level now with sponsorship,” said Belletto, whose agency sells the sponsorships.
NOCCI worked with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s management company to use all of the building’s available signage and assets during the week of the Classic and has been successful selling in-dome assets, Belletto said.
Classic organizers also took advantage of Champions Square, a 45,000-square-foot outdoor gathering area adjacent to the stadium where 25 of the Classic’s sponsors, including the Marine Corps and BET, will activate on game day. NOCCI got the game’s kickoff time nudged from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., allowing more fan traffic to pass through the area.
NOCCI inherited a Bayou Classic game attended by just over 30,000 fans in 2011. Last year, more than 67,000 showed up. And the Classic’s 2018 Battle of the Bands – Grambling’s marching band was featured in a Beyonce music video, while Southern’s band is nicknamed “The Human Jukebox” – sold out its 32,000 available tickets.
Belletto said the Classic receives more than $500,000 worth of in-kind contributions from its corporate partners. One of her early goals was for each school to collect more than a million dollars from the game. She said they’re getting close.
Not every set of rival schools will have access to the Superdome or be able to replicate the breadth of the Bayou Classic’s sponsorship program, nor do they need to. Examples of successful rivalry sponsorships exist at every level of college football.
“There are certainly terrific rivalries out there that mean a whole lot to a lot of people,” said Learfield IMG College’s Wheeler. Reacting to the number of sponsored trophy games, he said, “It’s low, and I think it’s a great opportunity.”