On Sunday evening, the Kentucky and Georgia Tech basketball teams will meet in Atlanta for the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving– presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
Up until last week the event was known just as Holiday Hoopsgiving. Pit Boss Grills and Academy finalized their sponsorship deals just a few weeks before the first game. The rest of the event’s $500,000 corporate portfolio, which includes Kay Jewelers, Continental tires and Uncle Nearest bourbon, joined up afterwards.
That’s a win, according to Christopher Williams, whose VII Group puts on the event. Though he estimated the event would fetch around $1.2 million in sponsorship without the pandemic, he persuaded six different companies to commit to Holiday Hoopsgiving just weeks before tip-off.
“We picked up all of our sponsors in the last week and a half,” Williams said Wednesday. “But if you can raise $500,000 in the middle of a pandemic, that speaks for itself. That lets me know what this is worth in the future.”
Williams’s event isn’t alone. All across the country, college basketball properties are adding sponsors right as their games look most precarious. BioSteel cut a deal with the Hall of Fame’s tip-off events, Camping World became title sponsor to the relocated Maui Invitational, and Manscaped bought into a first-year tournament held in South Dakota.
Why, as college basketball teeters on the brink, are more companies investing? Marketing experts say a handful of things are happening simultaneously. Events are looking for ways to offset lost ticket revenue, so they’re selling more marketing opportunities. And many of those opportunities come at lower price points, because the value of being on-site has dropped without fans. In addition, some bigger advertisers are tightening their budgets, leaving less competition for smaller brands.
“Are there opportunistic buyers out there? Absolutely,” said Andrew Judelson, executive vice president of national sales at Learfield IMG College. “There are opportunistic buyers who are seeing things that they can step into right now that they might not have had the budget or wherewithal to do so before.”
Family-owned Pit Boss is one of those companies. Sales have accelerated during the pandemic, and Pit Boss is expanding its advertising to reflect that growth. Earlier this year the company ran its first national TV spot as part of ESPN’s cornhole coverage, and its partnership with Holiday Hoopsgiving, a low six-figure deal, is its first foray into college sports.
“As we grow, we’re starting to do bigger and broader things.,” said Carlos Padilla, head of partnerships at Pit Boss. “This fit all of those goals—the price-point, the time of year, the culture of the event, the type of sport, and a new audience. That all fit perfectly for us.”
These events generally make money through three main avenues: ticket sales, sponsorships and media rights. Not only has the pandemic eliminated ticket revenue, it’s also shrunk the value of those sponsorships. Teams, league and event organizers have responded by creating new inventory—tarps across empty seats, new title sponsorships, virtual tailgating programs, etc.
Those hurdles are compounded by the fact that games are being canceled left and right. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame planned its tip-off series, which included the Bubbleville tournaments at Mohegan Sun, with 40 different teams playing a total of 45 games. Three-quarters of those match-ups ended up being changed because of COVID. (No. 2 Baylor, for example, never made the trip, while twelfth-ranked Villanova played twice as many games as originally planned.)
To account for that uncertainty, brands and rights holders are spending more time discussing contingencies. Padilla said the Pit Boss/Hoopsgiving deal, which covers just 2020, includes carefully-worded language should the pandemic prevent games from happening.
“It’s always been there, but it’s been on page 20 or 30 of a contract,” said Matthew Chelap, vice president of marketing at Octagon. “Now it’s on page 1 or 2, and we’re talking through those scenarios from the jump.”
New sponsors aren’t just rushing to college basketball. There are typically 42 college football bowls under the Bowl Season umbrella (it will be fewer this year), and six of them signed new title or presenting sponsors during the pandemic, according to Bowl Season Executive Director Nick Carparelli.
“From a national sponsorship perspective, there are certainly some big investors that are pulling back a little bit, so that open inventory has to go to somebody, and in some cases it can be had at a discount for some new players,” Carparelli said. “But I also think it speaks to the popularity and strength of college sports.”
That’s a takeaway for Judelson, too.
“Gator fans are still Gator fans even if they’re not in the building,” he said. “Aggie fans are still Aggie fans even if they can’t be the 12th Man in the stadium. Brands still want to reach those people, and we’ll need to keep finding ways through alternative inventory to engage that audience.”