The College Football Playoff not only created a new way of crowning a national champion, but it also rebranded a weekend of event programming and sponsorship activations leading up to the game. ESPN, which signed a 12-year deal for the television broadcasting rights and arranged all sponsorships, sought to create an atmosphere in this year’s host city of Dallas somewhere between college basketball’s Final Four and the N.F.L.’s Super Bowl.
“It really was our flagpole event for the year,” says Matt Gizzi, the network’s senior director of sports management—sponsorship activation. “We’re just scratching the surface of what this will become.”
The championship game drew 33.4 million viewers—a 31 percent increase over the previous year—and a slate of 15 blue-chip sponsors such as General Motors, Gatorade, and Northwestern Mutual with major activations during the championship weekend. ESPN’s own activations for championship weekend focused on producing live versions of staple shows such as College GameDay. It was the network’s largest ever on-site presence, with some 50 announcers there.
“You’re building this sporting event from scratch,” says Michael Kelly, chief operating officer of the College Football Playoff. “We had the perfect partner in ESPN.”
New events included Playoff Fan Central, a fan fest with 500,000 square feet of sponsored displays, games, and a full-length football field; Playoff Playlist Live, a music festival with headliners Lenny Kravitz and Sting; and the Championship Tailgate, which drew more than 45,000 fans and featured Zac Brown Band. The Night of Champions, a private event for V.I.P.s such as top sponsors, league commissioners, athletic directors, and coaches, had the feel of ESPN the Party, the network’s Super Bowl blowout.
“It’s the who’s who of that weekend,” says Lauren Robinson, associate director of sports management sponsorship activation. “We hope to grow this in more ways and maybe eventually get to that Super Bowl-caliber event.”
Now in its 23rd year, the network’s award show, the ESPYs, also continues to grow. ESPN produces five separate events around it, from the fan-facing ESPYs Experience to a private party the night before, a post-party, and the ESPYs Escape lounge for athletes and executives.
Another of the network’s marquee events—the 20-year-old X Games—has started to evolve from a pure sports competition to what Gizzi calls a showcase of the lifestyle around the sports with more of a Coachella-like, festival feel. “It’s really a ‘wow’ experience and the thing you want to do for the summer,” Gizzi says, noting that 140,000 people came through the four-day event last year in Austin.
The events have all contributed to ESPN’s ratings success. It scored the highest cable ratings of any network in 2014 and swept key demographic categories, according to Nielsen. Forbes estimated the network’s brand value at $14.8 billion and ranked it 35 on its 2014 list of World’s Most Valuable Brands.
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