As the Rose Bowl presenting sponsor deal ends, here’s a look at why brands spend millions on bowl sponsorships

By Bill Shea of The Athletic–The Rose Bowl may soon be in search of a new presenting sponsor.

Milwaukee-based insurer and financial services company Northwestern Mutual has spent a reported $25 million annually since 2015 to put its name on the bowl game in a deal that ends with this season’s Jan. 1 matchup between Oregon and Wisconsin.

A decision on whether Northwestern Mutual returns as presenting sponsor will be made after that, according to Dan Lobring, vice president of marketing for Chicago-based integrated sports marketing agency Revolution, which is Northwestern Mutual’s sports marketing agency of record that handled its Rose Bowl work.

It’s a regular occurrence that bowl naming rights change every few years, and for decades the result of corporate thirst to be associated with college football’s postseason games has resulted in both headline-grabbing dollars and some goofy names.

In the case of the Rose Bowl, like other games and sponsors, it will come down to whether Northwestern Mutual still feels that it’s getting the return-on-investment metrics it desires from its relationship with the bowl and with ESPN, which handles marketing sales such as naming rights for the Tournament of Roses committee that owns the Rose Bowl game.

Why do these companies – little local outfits to enormous Wall Street behemoths – opt to spend a collective $100 million for the naming rights to bowl games? Experts say the reasons vary: To create or boost brand awareness that leads to increased sales. To create new customers, especially young ones. As a lab to activate new products and services. As a reward for key clients and valued employees. As a place for B-to-B network amid swanky corporate hospitality for a week. To feed the corporate ego. For any and all of those reasons.

Northwestern Mutual chairman and CEO John Schlifske in 2014 outlined the company’s justification for spending millions on the Rose Bowl and college football in general: “This sponsorship is a natural fit for our company, because many of our clients and prospects follow college sports and many of Northwestern Mutual’s top financial representatives are former NCAA student-athletes,” he said in a statement…

…So how much cash value are brands getting for their naming rights spending?

Making a bowl into a brand commercial can generate awareness at a cheaper rate than just buying traditional airtime, according to Joyce Julius & Associates in Ann Arbor, Mich., which specializes in measuring the financial value of sponsorships across all forms of media, including bowl games.

“In terms of in-broadcast television exposure for a title sponsor of a mid-level (bowl) game, generally they average anywhere from $9 million to $12 million (in media value), with the majority of the exposure and value coming from form the national television highlights,” Joyce Julius president and director of client relations Laura Webb said via email.

Joyce Julius calculates exposure value for a brand by indexing its number of mentions during the telecast against the ad rates charged for the game. Also factoring into the value is an accounting of print articles and digital news stories, along with on-site sponsorship elements and promotions.

Corporate names on college bowl games began in the mid-1980s amid the gilded age of Reagan Era swinging capitalism, when the Fiesta Bowl convinced Sunkist to pay $2 million for the naming rights, followed by Mazda putting its name on the Gator Bowl.

Pete Derzis, ESPN’s senior vice president of college sports programming and events, has nearly 30 years of insight on why companies choose to spend on bowl games.

“The one thing that has stood out since we launched the business is that everybody has a different reason and justification and different way to measure the success of their sponsorship and entitlement,” he said. “They desire access to that college football fanbase that tends to be well-educated, well-moneyed and in the right demographic for their particular brand.

“You’ve got some very strong legacy companies that have seen the value. Major players dedicate significant portions of their advertising buys to college football.

“Some want access into specific markets they’re about to enter. There’s no quicker way than to be the entitlement sponsor to activate with a community. The bowls are very layered in terms of community activity. There’s usually a committee of executives and civic leaders, and a charitable component. When a company comes in, they get right into the machinery of bowl promotion in that market.”…