The Selling of ASU Football

No matter what happens on the field, ASU athletics hits pay dirt every game--with a nonstop stream of advertisements

The score at halftime, by the way, is Arizona State 28, Washington 21.

There was a time not too long ago when ASU presented a far purer football experience. In the 1970s, during Frank Kush's heyday as Sun Devil coach, there were no audio and video ads broadcast between plays.

Aside from play-by-play, about the only information the PA announcer provided the fans packed into the stadium were football scores from around the nation.

There were no 30-second audio/video commercials by Cox Communications, which sandwiches six college game scores between promotional messages.

There was no big video screen in the southwest corner of the stadium.
The 1988 installation of the screen was a watershed moment. ASU became one of the first universities in the country with a video screen.

During the 1988 home opener against Illinois, ASU ran two 30-second television-style commercials for Levi's Dockers sportswear. The fans hated it.

"People went absolutely crazy," says Tom Collins, ASU associate director for corporate and community relations. "Phone calls came in. We pulled the ad."

But that was before Jerry Colangelo unleashed his marketing prowess on America West Arena. There are few moments of dead air during a Phoenix Suns home game.

ASU is lifting a page from Colangelo's marketing play book.
"We are trying to ratchet it up," Collins explains. "In some respects, we are trying to compete with the Phoenix Suns."

The man responsible for boosting ASU's marketing strategy is athletic director Kevin White, who has brought a sophisticated business approach to running the athletic department since assuming the post in March 1996.

Faced with a $2.9 million budget deficit, White capitalized on ASU's trip to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1996 season by placing a $50 surcharge on every Rose Bowl ticket sold to ASU fans, raising nearly $250,000 in one game.

White's also instituted a premium-seating plan under which season-ticket holders "donate" a minimum "gift." The gift minimums range from a low of $50 up to $2,500 for a 50-yard-line loge seat. Season tickets are an additional $140 for six games. The premiums have raised about $3.85 million this year in addition to more than $6 million in ticket sales.

While implementing new revenue streams, White also has expanded the athletic department staff, creating at least 10 new administrative positions. White's annual salary is $253,000, and the department's administrative budget is about $10 million a year, nearly half of the entire department budget, which hovers near $22 million.

Budgets for various sports--not including coaches' salaries--range from a high of $1.2 million for the football team to a low of $40,400 for the men's and women's golf teams, which are consistently among the best in the nation.

White's aggressive business approach has skirted the boundary of state procurement laws in the case of his so-far-unsuccessful effort to obtain a lucrative all-sports contract with Nike that would pump millions of dollars into the athletic department ("ASU Plays Footsie With Nike," March 12). That effort sustained a blow when Nike signed a five-year, $7 million deal with the Sun Devils' archrival, the University of Arizona.

Under White's direction, the university is also selling naming rights to practically every athletic facility on campus, including locker rooms. The University Activity Center, where the Sun Devils play home basketball games, is about to be dubbed the Wells Fargo Arena in exchange for a one-time, $5 million contribution from the banking giant.

White's adoption of a professional sports mentality on a public university campus is causing a stir in some circles. Frank Kush, ASU's winningest football coach and the last man to coach the Sun Devils to an undefeated season, is turned off by White's eagerness to sell the names of athletic facilities.

"That to me is degrading," Kush says of the Wells Fargo deal. "It should be named for somebody involved in the program, like Ned Wulk." (The retired Wulk is ASU's winningest basketball coach. In 1996, the football surface in Sun Devil Stadium was named "Frank Kush Field.")

White deferred questions about ASU marketing efforts to his assistants.
"Under Kevin White's leadership, we've tried to expand and increase our corporate sponsorship side and market promotions," Collins explains.

Attracting corporate sponsors has been relatively easy the past two years, especially after the 1996 team won the Pac-10 title with an 11-0 record and nearly brought home a national championship before losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State.

"Sponsors and corporate partners want to be affiliated with teams that are winning," Collins says.

Sponsors are eager to shell out the dough: Arizona Dodge Dealers have signed a contract that will pay the athletic department $1.519 million over five years; Arizona Public Service, $400,000 over four years; Cellular One, $100,000 a year; Cox Communications, $110,000 over two years; DiGiorno Pizza, $85,000 over three years; Hancock Communities, $285,000 over three years; Monti's, $50,000 over two years; P.F. Chang's, $7,500 for one year; Sports Authority, $112,500 over three years; Circle K, $420,000 over three years. The list goes on.

The university is negotiating its potentially largest advertising contract with Budweiser distributor Hensley & Co. A draft contract calls for Hensley to pay $2.5 million over seven years.

Collins says the marketing effort isn't intended to detract from action on the field.

"We try to use good judgment," Collins says. "We are trying not to lose the focus that it's a college football game."

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