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Rivalry games wrapped in corporate logos

For years, the college bowl season was filled with sponsor names. But these days, rivalry games are getting into the act. SportsBiz Spotlight by David Sweet.

Before the 100th Apple Cup kicks off Saturday at Husky Stadium, thousands of University of Washington tailgaters – draped in purple and gold – will recall the days when Steve Emtman was the game's immovable force. Washington State fans will be busy reminiscing about the victorious 1997 Apple Cup, which lifted the Cougars into the Rose Bowl for the first time since the Great Depression.

Among both sets of fans, there may also be talk that, for the first time in the century-old battle, it’s not just a contest between two intrastate schools. A new player has entered the rivalry this year: Boeing.

The aerospace giant signed a four-year pact to be the presenting sponsor of the Apple Cup, and the game’s logo denotes that it is "proudly sponsored by Boeing." According to reports, Boeing paid the universities more than $1 million over the life of the contract to be associated with the historic contest.

Is the Burger King Harvard-Yale game and the TGI Friday's Army-Navy game in the near future? Though those examples are unlikely, Joshua Mills, director of the master’s of business program at Baruch College/CUNY in New York, believes these types of presenting sponsorships will become more popular.

"They present many, many opportunities, and at the same time, they’re probably not too expensive for the sponsors," Mills noted. "Demand for access to collegiate athletics seems to be high, so colleges and conferences will be looking for such opportunities.”

There is no doubt corporations are latching onto other ways to attach their names to the college football experience and its rabid fans. In Louisville, spectators enter Papa John's Cardinals Stadium to see their favorite athletes (who remain unpaid regardless of the amount of corporate involvement) play. At the University of Minnesota's new football stadium, named after TCF Bank and poised to open in 2009, Dairy Queen just inked a pact to sponsor the stadium club room for millions of dollars.

Many stadiums across the land lift nets for field goals and point-after-touchdown attempts that are bedecked with the Allstate logo. And of course, every bowl game – including the granddaddy of them all in Pasadena – is no longer simply named after a flower, fruit or other item that lacks the scent of money.  

Still, though stadiums, rooms, nets and bowls are graced with corporate names, it can be a little chilling to students and alums alike when the biggest game of the year doubles as a billboard for a company promotion. Firms must be wary the move doesn't backfire; it's almost like placing a Fortune 500 name on a cathedral, and fans may see it as an assault on tradition that may hinder a rivalry's unique flavor.

Though Boeing’s move has drawn little controversy in the Northwest, a similar attempt to put a corporate stamp on a collegiate rivalry a few years back was rebuked. Fans and alumni chafed when SBC Communications agreed to sponsor the Ohio State-Michigan games in 2004 and 2005 for more than $1 million. When the news became public, the Michigan president vetoed the arrangement, which had been prompted by the schools' athletic directors.

For these sponsorships to work, the pairing must be a seamless match. Though Boeing is a well-known name in Washington State, the company also moved its headquarters to Chicago from Seattle a few years ago. Some may wonder why it's not sponsoring a Northwestern-Illinois game instead.

Whatever the case, the Apple Cup has a different flavor, at least for the next four years. Even Friday's Apple Cup Anniversary Rally at the Qwest Field Event Center in Seattle will be presented by Boeing. Today, when it comes to college football rivalries, no one is more pumped up than corporate America, which may be entering a whole new sponsorship ballgame.

Last, but not least …
Sports business fans are likely to enjoy a book due out in the coming weeks.

Written by Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst, “The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” not only examines the impact of James on the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers, but offers a fascinating glimpse over the battle among adidas, Nike and Reebok to sign the 18-year-old to a shoe deal.

When companies are betting tens of millions of dollars on athletic potential, they can be as solicitous as a love-struck teenager.