College Football’s New Playoff System: Fan’s Celebrate and Sponsors Buy In

Image of a football play with dollar signs shown along receiver routes. The image is meant to depict the opportunities for marketers to capitalize on the excitement and increased number of games that are a part of the new College Football Playoff system

An interesting article on NBC News’ website discusses the marketing and advertising benefits for Division 1 college football of moving from the BCS system to a new playoff system. For those not familiar with how a champion is declared in college football, in the past the BCS system was employed which used a combination of polls and complex formulas to determine the rankings of different football teams. The top two ranked teams based on the BCS system would play in a championship game with the winner being declared the champion.

Fans of college football maligned the BCS system’s approach to ranking teams, as it was not always clear who the top two ranked teams really should be. Many critics of the BCS system felt that there needed to be a better way to differentiate who was the best amongst the top ranked teams. It wasn’t uncommon for people to question whether the second and third ranked teams in the system perhaps should have been swapped.

For most marketers being able to improve the performance of a product is generally a good move, so long as the benefits outweigh the costs. Being able to improve the value proposition of the college football championship experience for viewers seemed to serve as ample motivation to reconfigure the old BCS system. There are other very immediately recognizable benefits resulting from changing the system as well, benefits that provide some opportunities for thought on what to consider when changing a product, service or an experience both in and out of the world of sports.

The College Football Playoff system allows the top four ranked teams to compete in two rounds of elimination games to determine who the champion should be. This means that the top four teams (and not just the top two teams) have the opportunity to vie for the top spot in college football by testing their worth against each other. In effect, the means of determining the champion went from being composed of one game to three games and went from a single point in time with the single game to an extended window of time between games in which excitement could build. For fans, marketers, and other stakeholders this has provided a number of benefits.

Fans are able to watch a series of playoff matches that are more closely aligned with how other sports determine who the top team is. Marketers now have three highly watched games along with the numerous opportunities that these games provide to promote their brands. For ESPN, the broadcaster that won the rights to televise these games, the benefits include those that come with being able to associate their brand with the event along with the revenue opportunities stemming from sales of advertising blocks and partnership opportunities to the aforementioned marketers. For stakeholders in the world of college football all of this will also mean added dollars for the organizations, athletic conferences, and teams involved.

According to NBC News, ESPN has committed 7.3 billion dollars over 12 years (which is equal to about 610 million dollars a year) to hold the rights to broadcast the College Football Playoffs. According to Vanderbilt University Sports Economist John Vrooman, the annual rate of this 12-year commitment is more than triple what ESPN has paid annually for the BCS games in the past few years. Sponsors such as Dr. Pepper have agreed this year to pay 35 million dollars to be a “Championship Partner” suggesting that multiple groups see the increased value potential of the new playoff system.

For ESPN, its brand partners, and advertisers, things seem to be working out in a big way so far. The first two playoff games broadcast on Thursday January 1st each brought in over 28 million viewers making them the two highest-rated broadcasts in the history of cable TV. It may also be worth noting that one of the two games shown on Thursday saw the lower seeded team win. To be more specific the number four seed, Ohio State won against the number one seed, University of Alabama. From the perspective of some fans this might provide initial reaffirmations that there is something to a playoff system.

From a marketing management perspective here are some questions to consider:

  • Name a brand that you would recommend advertise during one of the College Football Playoff games. What factors should be considered for that brand in making this decision?
  • Thinking back to an older post of ours on ambush marketing during the World Cup what would be a good example of an approach that particular brand could take to leverage the excitement of the College Football Playoffs through ambush marketing? What might be some of the risks?
  • Assume that you’re a marketing manager for a beer brand that has partnered with ESPN for the College Football Playoffs. As a “Championship Partner” with ESPN what are some of the expected benefits of the arrangement and what metrics would you use to help determine the value of the partnership?