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As Chick-fil-A Bowl Has Grown, So Has Restaurant Chain

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 29, 2008

College football matchup provides big exposure for fast food company

By Joe Guy Collier

Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s chief marketing officer, was sitting in the stands almost 15 years ago as a fan watching what was then called the Peach Bowl.

The game featured Kentucky and Clemson, schools from strong football conferences, and was held at a recently built Georgia Dome. But thousands of seats were empty and the game didn’t have a title corporate sponsor.

“I turned to my wife, and I said, ‘I’m just amazed this does not have a sponsor. This has got to be a good fit for somebody,’” Robinson recalled.

As it turns out, the bowl game quickly became a good fit for Chick-fil-A. The Atlanta-based fast food chain became the title sponsor of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the end of the 1997 football season. The “Peach” was dropped from the name in 2006.

Heading into this New Year’s Eve contest between LSU and Georgia Tech, the bowl game and its sponsor have enjoyed a strong run together. The game is expected Wednesday night to reach its 12th straight sellout. It has become one of the most-watched and attended games outside of the top-tier Bowl Championship Series games.

Chick-fil-A, meanwhile, has grown from 763 restaurants at the end of 1997 to more than 1,400 restaurants at the end of 2008.

The sponsorship was Chick-fil-A’s first national advertising effort and became the foundation for a marketing campaign built around college sports.

“We were evolving from a regional brand,” Robinson said. “One of the issues was: How do we help support the restaurants and operators to build the brand regionally and eventually nationally but with very limited funds?”

Chick-fil-A is not alone in gravitating toward college bowl games. IEG, a Chicago sports marketing research and consulting firm, estimates title sponsorship of college bowl games for the 2008-2009 bowl season will be $56.2 million, up 6 percent from last bowl season.

Chick-fil-A does not disclose how much it spends on its bowl game, but the combined payout for the two teams this year is $6.01 million, the third-highest payout of a non-Bowl Championship Series game. The BCS is a set of five games considered the highest rung of bowl matchups.

Bowls are attractive because they help companies associate their product with a passionate base of college alumni and students, said William Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. Even before the game is played, the title sponsor is mentioned in numerous media reports, he said.

And on the day of the game, the bowls have a captive audience, a major advantage in the age of digital media, Chipps said. Along with commercials, the company name is typically plastered across the field, he said.

“That’s one of the beauties of a bowl game sponsorship,” Chipps said. “Theoretically, it’s TiVo proof.”

Chick-fil-A will have its name clearly stamped across the New Year’s Eve game. It will use the broadcast to promote a special offer on its breakfast chicken biscuit.

Between FanFest and the game, Chick-fil-A also plans to serve about 35,000 chicken sandwiches on game day. The Chick-fil-A cow mascots won’t be hard to find, either.

Market research has shown a strong recall for the Chick-fil-A name and advertisements among attendees and viewers, Robinson said.

“People clearly remember the Chick-fil-A Bowl experience as being a Chick-fil-A experience,” he said. “We know that.”

Broader college focus

For Chick-fil-A and the Atlanta bowl organization, though, the relationship has grown beyond a single event. The Chick-fil-A Bowl hosts a golf tournament featuring college coaches and celebrities.

In 2008, the bowl and company started the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff, an early season game at the Georgia Dome. Alabama and Virginia Tech will play in next season’s game.

Chick-fil-A also signed on this past season as a sponsor of ESPN’s “College GameDay,” a pregame broadcast that each week visits the site of a high-profile matchup.

Chick-fil-A’s relationship with the bowl is special, said Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the organization that runs the bowl.

Before signing Chick-fil-A as title sponsor, the bowl struggled at times. It drew less than 30,000 for a 1985 matchup between Army and Illinois. The move from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to the Georgia Dome in 1992 provided a boost.

Chick-fil-A’s support, though, has been key, Stokan said. Its sponsorship has helped raise the payout, which has helped the bowl attract more highly ranked teams.

The company, however, doesn’t just write a check and hope the game does well, Stokan said. Bowl officials and Chick-fil-A executives meet regularly to talk about ways to improve the bowl and expand its reach, he said.

Chick-fil-A also heavily promotes the game. Cups, tray liners and bags at Chick-fil-As across the United States remind patrons of the bowl.

“Frankly, we couldn’t pay to produce that kind of marketing reach,” Stokan said.

After consistently ranking as one of the strongest non-BCS draws, the bowl and company even entertain thoughts of moving the Chick-fil-A Bowl onto the most elite turf.

“If there’s an opportunity down the road to become part of the BCS, we would certainly like to look at that strategically and see if that made sense for us,” Stokan said.

Chick-fil-A’s Robinson said the bowl organization has the final say on how hard to push to become part of the top-tier BCS system, but he also sees room for growth.

“I think we love where we are, but I don’t know that it’s the end of the journey,” Robinson said.