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

Yet ASU's ad machine supersedes even the most electrifying moments of football.

As the third quarter draws to a close, ASU trails Washington 35-28. The Sun Devils face a critical third down and 10 from the Washington 24 to start the fourth quarter.

The quarter break presents a perfect time to let the crowd build enthusiasm for the final quarter. Instead, Munn intones: "Sun Devil Fans. . . . Are you hungry? It's now time for tonight's DiGiorno's Pizza delivery of the game. Sparky is making his way around to the student and reserved sections looking for the loudest Sun Devil fan around. If he thinks you've got the stuff, then you get a pizza. So make some noise."

Instead of screaming for the Sun Devils, whose season is on the line, fans crane to watch Sparky, who quickly awards the pizza to a group of fans.

"Now direct your attention to the video and matrix board for the latest college football scores from Cox Communications," Munn instructs. "The latest college football scores are provided as a public service by Cox Communications."

If the crowd is flat, ASU quarterback Ryan Kealy isn't; he completes a pass for a first down.

But something was missing--the focused anticipation of the upcoming play accompanied by the pageantry of live music, the mystical force of chanting, and the powerful sense of unity engendered by cheering for a common goal.

Instead, 72,000 paying fans are treated as if they are sitting in front of a television set, alone.

The Sun Devil drive stalls and ASU settles for a 42-yard field goal to cut the Washington lead to 35-31 with 12:21 to play.

ASU's voracious appetite for corporate sponsorships is by no means unusual in college sports--although the Sun Devils sell more aggressively than most schools.

"For big-time college sports, football games have become commercial and entertainment spectacles, and the flow of the game is sort of irrelevant," says University of Nevada-Las Vegas sports sociologist Jim Frey. "Every time-out or stop in the action is viewed as a commercial marketing opportunity."

ASU's script accounts for nearly every time-out in a game. The first seven stoppages in the first half--whether team or TV time-outs--are devoted to advertisers. The same strategy holds true in the second half.

Munn must air about 15 additional promotions called "floaters" each quarter. While Munn decides when to read the promotions, squeezing in the ads is not easy--there are only about 35 to 40 plays per quarter. Consequently, Munn must broadcast advertisements between plays.

"If a pass is incomplete on first or second down, I do floaters then because there is so little to announce," says Munn.

Touchdowns and field goals provide more advertising windows; there's a break in the action as the teams prepare for kickoff.

TV time-outs are prime promotional moments. It is important, Munn says, to keep fans entertained during television breaks, which can stretch on for two minutes.

"The thing you try to avoid doing is make it seem as if there is down time," he explains.

But rather than relying on the band, cheerleaders and spontaneous fan participation, ASU turns to advertisers to fill the void.

Corporate sponsors are eager to plug the gaps because they want their message to be presented in a pleasurable atmosphere such as a football game, says Jay Coakley, sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"Advertisers want every person in the stadium to associate their pleasure with their logo and product and the way of life that emphasizes consumption," says Coakley. "That is why corporate sponsorships in sports are so easy to get."

Simple linkage, however, isn't always enough to ensure that an advertiser's message is getting through, says William Sutton, associate professor of sports studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

"You build up an immunity unless it is something clever," Sutton says. "There are so many signs and so many mentions, it just sort of blurs together."

That's why Munn's script is peppered with one "Lucky Devil Giveaway" after another throughout the game--a fan gets a prize for sitting in a selected seat or behaving in an outrageous manner.

ASU marketing director Carol Blazevich is particularly proud of the "Champion Fan-atic" promotion in which a wildly cheering student dressed in Champion sports gear receives a prize. The Champion promotion, Blazevich says, is a shining example of how to draw crowd attention to a sponsor's product through signage, audio, video messages and fan participation.

"We want you to utilize every sense you have, from your eyes to your ears to the way you communicate through your mouth," she says.

Advertising promotions also provide opportunities to expand the entertainment presented to fans during a game, even if it has nothing to do with the event.

Pat Feeney, who teaches sports sociology at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, says universities are eager to draw more activities, including marketing gimmicks, into athletic contests to attract spectators who may not be hard-core fans.

"You try to get more things that they can be entertained by, whether it is the halftime show, the mascot or the video board," Feeney says.

But there's a downside to marketing-as-entertainment, Feeney says. The flow of the game can't help but be impacted.

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