PHOENIX — The 7-year-old Arizona Bowl has wrestled with how to stand out on television when there are dozens of postseason college football games flooding the airwaves in late December and early January.
So in an unexpected twist, game officials won’t even try.
The Arizona Bowl recently announced a partnership with Barstool Sports for its Dec. 31 game in Tucson, Arizona. The multiyear deal with the digital sports platform — notable for its occasional off-color humor and brash founder Dave Portnoy — not only includes naming rights but also broadcasting rights, which means the game won’t be on ESPN or CBS.
Instead, it’ll be streamed on Barstool’s multiple platforms like its website, app and social media. The game pits members of the Mountain West Conference and Mid-American Conference.
“This is something I think the college football world is ready for,” Arizona Bowl executive director Kym Adair said.
It’s an intriguing pairing but also comes with some risk. The security of playing on ESPN or CBS over the holidays ensures that eyeballs will find the game. Even though TV ratings across most sports have been on a steady decline, last year’s Arizona Bowl drew about 1.77 million viewers on CBS.
It’s likely that the Barstool deal means the Arizona Bowl will have considerably fewer viewers.
What they lose in sheer numbers, they hope to make up for in interaction and engagement.
“We’re not inhibited by a traditional way of doing things at Barstool Sports, so we can re-imagine the experience in a way that makes it more interactive and entertaining for fans,” Barstool CEO Erika Nardini said in an email. “The chance to bring our audience, our humor, our love of the game is something we’re very fired up about and we promise to deliver sports fans a reason to watch.”
The Arizona Bowl isn’t the only college sporting event exploring online-only options: Notre Dame’s football season opener on Sept. 11 against Toledo will stream exclusively on Peacock, which is NBC’s streaming service.
Adair said there are several reasons she’s excited about the Barstool partnership.
For starters, it allows the Arizona Bowl to keep its desired slot on New Year’s Eve. Though broadcast rights are important, ticket sales and community engagement matter, too. Adair said she wants college football fans in Arizona to know the game will always be played on Dec. 31, allowing families to plan vacations and family gatherings and build a tradition.
Adair also said Barstool does remarkably well with the coveted 18- to 35-year-old demographic, which is notoriously tough to reach.
“Advertisers can’t find them but Barstool has them,” Adair said. “There’s incredible energy surrounding the bowl right now and fans can’t wait to see Barstool’s take on a bowl game.”
Nick Carparelli is the executive director at Bowl Season, a nonprofit which promotes the tradition of college football’s postseason system. He’s worked in the NFL and for the Big East Conference, Under Armour and Notre Dame at various times in his career, giving him a broad understanding of trends in college football.
He said he’s intrigued by the Arizona Bowl’s partnership with Barstool. He added that it should also be attractive to NCAA student-athletes, who consume sports and media much differently than previous generations.
“There are some newer bowls that are trying to grow, develop a strong presence in their community, and they’re in position to be a little more creative in how they market and brand themselves,” Carparelli said. “The Arizona Bowl fits in that category. I thought it was very creative to partner with Barstool Sports.
“It certainly engages a different type of audience then the traditional college football audience, which is good for the game in general.”
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