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Bowling Them Over: BCS Has ESPN Seeing Green

Sales, ratings through the roof as bowl season kicks off

Michael Williams of Alabama and LSU's Eric Reid in their first showdown this year. | Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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Despite the name and the venue, the game formerly known as the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl is anything but small potatoes.

Rechristened the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl earlier this summer, this mid-December college football game is only the second of the 33 bowls ESPN/ABC Sports will air over the course of the next three weeks. And while no one expects the Ohio-Utah State showdown to deliver Bowl Championship Series-size ratings, the Potato Bowl is big business for Boise.

On Aug. 3, the Idaho Potato Commission signed a six-year, $2.5 million deal for the naming rights to the Humanitarian Bowl, a cold-weather contest that pits a team from the Western Athletic Conference against a Mid-American Conference squad. In addition to the brand exposure that comes with the sponsorship—signage throughout Boise’s blue-turfed Bronco Stadium, multiple mentions by ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Mike Bellotti, etc.—the IPC receives nine 30-second in-game spots.

ESPN’s so-called “baby bowls” are package deals; rather than sell time in individual allotments, the network places clients across its entire postseason college football schedule. So while the spudtacular may have limited appeal outside the WAC and MAC footprints, national advertisers such as Geico, Walmart, McDonald’s, Capital One, American Airlines, and Lexus are well represented here.

Because the title sponsors are allotted between eight and 10 spots in their showcase games, inventory in the early bowl games is artificially tightened. Spots went particularly fast in this year’s upfront, as ESPN aggressively positioned college football as an alternative to an endangered National Football League season.

The strategy paid off. By August, Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of customer marketing and sales, had sold out almost all available spots in the baby bowls and the five BCS games (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, and the National Championship Game).

While there are scores of floridly titled small-conference games to wade through before the BCS bowls—Tuesday night’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl pairs Florida International and Marshall—all that inventory adds up rather nicely for ESPN. According to agency estimates, ESPN last year raked in more than $325 million in total bowl game ad sales revenue.

Naturally, the real money starts rolling in after New Year’s Day. Last year’s Rose Bowl contest delivered 20.6 million viewers, while Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the Jan. 10 BCS title game delivered a cable-record 27.3 million viewers. According to Kantar Media estimates, a :30 in the national championship broadcast can run as much as $1.15 million a pop; a spot in one of the lead-in bowls costs around $670,000. 

A rematch of the November’s grudge match between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, the Jan. 9 BCS title game could prove to be another ratings blockbuster. After weeks of hype, the Tigers’ 9-6 victory on Nov. 5 drew 20 million viewers, making it the most-watched regular season college football game on CBS in 22 years.

ESPN got an added boost from its season-long partnerships with the 15 official BCS sponsors, a roster that includes newcomers Dell and Unilever. Along with the title sponsors—the Rose Bowl is presented by Vizio, Tostitos backs the Fiesta Bowl, Discover sponsors the Orange Bowl, and Allstate does double duty as the title sponsor of the Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game—the BCS boosters took major positions throughout the regular season. Three long-term backers (Ford, GM, Nissan) represent the resurgent automotive category, while another three clients (AT&T, DirecTV, Vizio) are in the telecommunications business. Financial services, beer, and QSR brands also invested in multiyear positions.

Another sector that’s thrown its weight behind college football is the movie business. “We’re at the stage now where we’re in the studio part of the story,” Erhardt said. “The major studios—Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox—are buying last-minute scatter in our games. When the studio has a good film in release and it has momentum, they’ll throw some ‘chase money’ out there.”

Major releases that have popped up in ESPN’s first three bowl broadcasts include Paramount’s Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol and The Adventures of Tintin; 20th Century Fox’s We Bought a Zoo; and Warner’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Erhardt adds that the big ratings have attracted buys from a wealth of smaller studios like Weinstein Co., boutique studios looking to get fannies in the seats before the Academy Award nominations are parceled out in January.

“If you have a movie to open and you know that 50 percent of the viewing in the top entertainment programs comes from the DVR, you don’t know when you’re getting your message out there,” he said. “If you buy on a Thursday and people don’t actually watch the show until the following Tuesday, you’ve missed your opening. That’s not a problem we have in sports.”

ESPN owns the rights for the BCS through 2014. Along with the ad dollars that accrue to this sort of live-viewing ratings juggernaut, the event programming allows the network to justify its carriage fee.

In exchange for its broadcast feed and high-def simulcast, Bristol charges cable and satellite operators an average of $4.69 a month per subscriber, according to SNL Kagan data. Multiply that by 99 million subscribers, over 12 months, and ESPN’s annual affiliate revenue haul works out to be $5.57 billion. To throw that into greater relief, note that ESPN’s subscriber revenue is roughly 36 percent of CBS Corp.’s market cap ($15.6 billion, as of Dec. 6).

Along with the pair of games set to air on ABC (the Autozone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 and the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2), only two other 2011-12 bowl games will be carried on a broadcast network. CBS bows the Hyundai Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve, while Fox presents the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 6.