By Barry Janoff
December 25, 2012: Russell Athletic traces its roots back to 1902. The college football game being played on Dec. 28 in Orlando's Citrus Bowl dates back to 1990.
But this is Year One for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Russell Athletic Bowl is played under the auspices of Florida Citrus Sports, a non-profit group that also oversees the Capital One Bowl, the Florida Classic and the Fresh From Florida Parade (formerly known as the Orlando Citrus Parade). The Russell Athletic Bowl was founded in 1990 and played at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami through 2000, where it was variously known as the Blockbuster Bowl, the CarQuest Bowl, and the MicronPC Bowl.
The game then moved to Orlando, with Mazda as title sponsor in 2002-03. In 2004, Champs Sports acquired naming rights and kept them through the 2011 game, in which Florida State defeated Notre Dame, 18-14.
In June of this year, Russell Athletic signed a deal for title sponsorship through 2015. Russell Athletic will use the game to support its current marketing campaign, "Together We R," from lead agency The Richards Group, Dallas, via TV commercials, signage, social media and fan and client activation in the days leading to the game. The deal also gives Russell Athletic apparel rights to all FCS events.
The initial Russell Athletic Bowl will dmatch the Rutgers Scarlet Knights from the Big East against the ACC's Virginia Tech Hokies. Sponsors also include Capital One, Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light), Bright House Sports and Florida Hospital.
The game, which will air on ESPN, will have extra emotional meaning. Virginia Tech plans to wear special helmets commemorating the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. The purple helmets will bear a ribbon with the number 58: the total of 26 for the kids and adults who were killed at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14 plus those who died on April 16, 2007, when a gunman killed 32 and wounded another 17 on the Virginia Tech campus.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Gary Barfield, evp for Bowling Green, Kent.-based Russell Athletic (a division of Berkshire Hathaway), about the challenges, rewards and strategies behind the brand's first college football Bowl title sponsorship.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The company has been around since the early 1900s and has had many sports alliances, so why did Russell Athletic decide now to become title sponsor of a college football game?
Gary Barfield: A lot of things in life are about timing. We launched our 'Together We R' marketing campaign in September 2011 with TV, print, social media and other elements that revolved around college and high school football. We wanted to tie the spirit and standards of the game with what we represent at Russell Athletic. We were very happy with the first year of the campaign, getting the message out and getting people to associate football with our brand. But coming into the second year we wanted to add some new elements to the national platform. We have had other opportunities over the years to become associated with a Bowl game. But now, we felt that with the 'Together We R' campaign it seemed like a natural step.
NYSJ: Was the company looking for a specific Bowl game?
GB: We weren't looking to do just any Bowl game. We wanted one that would be the best fit for our company and one that we felt could best enhance and support what we were expressing through our 'Together We R' campaign, which talks about the 'we' part of sports and not the 'me. So when the opportunity to become title sponsor of the [former Champs Sports Bowl] game, we felt it was the right time with the right organization [Florida Citrus Sports] to move ahead. It was all of the pieces coming together at the right time and the right place.
NYSJ: When it came down to the final negotiations in getting lead sponsorship rights and related marketing and activities, what were some of the pros and some of the challenges you discussed?
GB: There certainly was a big upside. One of the important aspects was that it gave us a platform in college sports that virtually goes year-round. People talk about college football and Bowl games all year. So we saw our name and the Russell Athletic Bowl being part of the conversation 365 days of the year. It puts our name into the conversation with athletic directors, media, fans, teams in college football conferences. You are part of the college football world when you have that platform. And the event is so much more than the game itself. There are opportunities throughout the [college football] season to work with and spend time with our key customers. And then the week of the game, that intensifies and really gives us numerous opportunities to be with fans and customers. This also gave us the opportunity, from an apparel company standpoint, to partner with Florida Citrus Sports and work with all of their events, including the Capital One Bowl and the Fresh From Florida Parade.
"One of the important aspects was that it gave us a platform in college sports that goes year-round. People talk about college football and Bowl games all year."
NYSJ: When you signed the four-year deal, were you thinking ahead to the when the BCS format will change and the number of Bowl games will be reduced?
GB: We were. We talked a lot about that [internally]. When the new BCS format begins in 2014, there will be fewer Bowl games. We want Orlando to be in the mix, and we are already involved down there. It's going to go from 35 Bowls to about 22, and it's my opinion that if you are of those, there is a lot more focus on yours. So I've been thinking a lot about that. There are a lot of things in place for us, so it will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. But with the partnership we have with Florida Citrus Sports is a good one and I feel that we are in a good place.
NYSJ: Did you speak with other marketers who were involved in college bowl games to get some pros and cons about what to look for and how to proceed?
GB: [Laughs.] Maybe we should have done that! We didn't. Russell Athletic has been involved with sports for more than 100 years. We have deals with a number of college teams. We have been closely aligned with many pro teams in various sports, we have been at the NBA All-Star Game and Super Bowl and we have a deal with the Harlem Globetrotters [that runs through 2013]. Working with teams and fans for a long time. So we have taken what we feel is the best of all that and put it into the Russell Athletic Bowl. Obviously, we expect to learn things this first year and grow from there. But we feel very good about how things have gone so far and we are very excited waiting for the game to be played.
NYSJ: Was there an option to do a one-year deal rather than the four-year deal now in place?
GB: We really didn't want a one-year deal. Some of these one-year, one-shot Bowl deals aren't good for the company and are not good for the sport. Our mindset was always to make a long-term commitment. To establish Russell Athletic in the football worlds as the title sponsor, to establish ourselves in the Orlando community. How do we maximize the partnership to the advantage of everyone. There are 35 Bowl games, 70 teams, and you would think a lot of them would want to be in Orlando in the winger.
NYSJ: Will you be unveiling any activation during the Bowl game that would lead to Russell Athletic marketing in 2013?
GB: We have marketing that focuses on the Bowl game, and we will be running TV commercials during the game. But then we will have plans for 2013. We will be unveiling some new football fabrics after Jan. 1 for next football season and a lot of other plans. But I think we will for now focus on the 'Together We R' campaign that we have going.
NYSJ: How do you balance marketing support for the game between national and locally in Orlando and in the communities of the two universities in the game?
GB: We do have a strong national platform, not only through our marketing campaign, but also through ESPN, the Web site for the game, our social media efforts at Facebook, Twitter. That works year-round. But as the date of the game got closer, we had people involved with grass-roots activation. There are events during the week where we can meet with people, get our message to people on a personal level. So we have tried to keep a good balance between national and regional.
NYSJ: How do you see Russell Athletic benefitting as far as brand awareness and sales figures?
GB: We are, as I said, tying this in with our 'Together We R' campaign. We want people to find out more about Russell Athletic and who we are. So we would like to have a halo affect from the game, where our name and the quality of our products comes to the forefront. We would like to drive an increase in sales in the retail channel.
NYSJ: And there is no 'me' in Russell Athletic but there is an 'us.'
GB: [Laughs.] Good point.
NYSJ: How has the alliance with ESPN been so far? Any dirt you want to share?
GB: It's been really good. They are great to work with. If I had any dirt I probably wouldn't share it. [Laughs.]