The Selling of ASU Football
Public-address announcer Jeff Munn skitters down the stairs to his press-box seat high above Sun Devil Stadium.
His heart still pounds after his frenzied drive from downtown Phoenix, where 30 minutes earlier he finished announcing the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game that had gone 12 innings.
Munn slips out of his black suit jacket and pours a cup of coffee from a thermos. His right hand shakes as he sips the brew. A quick call to his wife to report his new location is followed by a munch on a sandwich.
"So much for dinner," says Munn, who has announced Arizona State University football games for 12 years.
Munn thumbs through a 120-plus-page script that he will read over the stadium's loudspeakers during the next five hours. His listeners: more than 72,000 fans who are already arriving to watch ASU's first football game of the season, against Pac-10 Conference rival University of Washington.
The September 5 game has been circled by Sun Devil fans since the final gun of last year's 9-3 season. ASU is ranked 8th in the preseason poll; Washington is ranked 18th. The winner of the game will join No. 6-rated UCLA as a favorite to win the Pac-10 title. The winner will also keep hope alive for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship game.
The loser could be relegated to also-ran status only one week into the NCAA football season.
Interest in ASU football has soared since 1996, when the Sun Devils went 11-1 and came within seconds of a national championship. A few weeks ago, more than 5,000 supporters drove 100 miles to watch ASU's final preseason scrimmage at Camp Tontozona under the Mogollon Rim. Season-ticket sales top 52,000, the most in 11 years. Talk of an undefeated season is common.
It's still an hour before kickoff, but more than 15,000 fans already await the appearance of their team.
Munn scans his script and responds to a cue directing him to read a promotion encouraging fans to wear "solid gold" to the stadium. It is a pep talk few of the fans need. The student section is jammed with fans clad in gold tee shirts.
The crowd erupts with a rabid cheer as a column of Sun Devil players trots onto the field.
And Munn keeps on talking, his voice reverberating through the stadium. He finishes the plug, and flicks off the public-address switch. He appears surprised and a bit miffed.
"The team interrupted me in the middle of my announcement," Munn says to no one in particular.
The cheers swell as more Sun Devils appear on the field.
That doesn't deter Munn from plowing into another promotion, this time for Fox Sports News.
A struggle has begun--and it has nothing to do with the two football teams about to play a crucial game.
The real battle during ASU home football games pits fans against a high-tech marketing machine that employs a distracting array of audio, video, live stunts and bright signage to hammer commercial messages into a captive audience.
No matter how the game unfolds, no matter the situation on the field, Sun Devil fans face a fusillade of advertisements. The ads divert attention from the field and refocus the "market" on products and corporations being hawked.
If sports commercialization were competitive, ASU would be the Pac-10's undisputed champion. Even the Tinseltown universities--UCLA and USC--have marketing efforts that pale in comparison to the Sun Devils'.
The ASU marketing machine seems impervious to the action on the field.
This is never more apparent than when the ASU-Washington game reaches its climax. The Sun Devils trail by four points, but have the ball on the Huskies' eight-yard line. It's fourth down and goal, with less than two minutes to play.
The band strikes up the school fight song.
The crowd roars with anticipation.
But not for long.
The PA system combines with the giant electronic video board to quash the cheering with a blaring, 30-second commercial for Biddulph Oldsmobile.
The natural tension of the moment evaporates.
For the ASU athletic department, the only tally that appears to matter is the more than $2 million it rakes in each year from "corporate partners" whose jingles, slogans and come-ons bombard Sun Devil football fans.
It's 90 seconds 'til kickoff.
Jeff Munn is recognizing the 13 millionth fan to enter Sun Devil Stadium since it opened in 1958. The occasion turns into a marketing moment with striking similarities to a Jerry Colangelo-produced sporting event.
"That fan is seated in section 8, row 32, seat 1. That fan will receive round-trip tickets for two on America West Airlines, a $50 gift certificate to be honored at Don and Charlie's Restaurant and $50 in gasoline from 76/Circle K and a bouquet of cookies from Cookies in Bloom. Congratulations!"
Sixty seconds to kickoff. A heavy-metal track called "The Zoo," by an obscure 1980s German band the Scorpions, pulses through the PA system, obliterating any attempt by the crowd, cheerleaders or band to stir up some action.
Thirty seconds to kickoff. The crowd is on its feet, but its cheers are drowned out by the canned music and another plug.
"Tonight's opening kickoff is sponsored by Enterprise Rent-A-Car of Arizona," Munn states in the smooth, cordial cadence that will not change throughout the night. "Enterprise will pick you up. Call 1-800-Rent-A-Car. If you're seated in section 4, row 11, seat 3, you have won a free weekend car rental from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Stay in your seat. An athletic department representative is on their way to you, with your prize."
Ten seconds to kickoff.
Cut back to the Scorpions. The head-banging music continues until the instant Washington's kicker boots the ball into the air.
As the ball sails toward the north end zone, some 30 Enterprise Rent-A-Car executives and their guests watch from the comfort of their VIP loge seats. The suite seats are part of a three-year, $760,000 advertising package Enterprise signed in 1997 with the ASU athletic department.
That might sound like a lot of money, but Enterprise only forks over $2,500 a year in cash, for a scholarship fund. The balance comes in trade. Enterprise provides at least 15 new Chevy Luminas for year-round use to selected ASU coaches and administrators.
In exchange for the scholarship money and cars, Enterprise is listed as sponsor of every kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium, and every men's basketball tip-off at the University Activity Center. Estimated value for the year: $20,000.
But that's just the start. Enterprise also gets one panel on a three-way, rotating sign on the stadium's southeast corner scoreboard. Value: $80,000 a year. Kick in two more 30-second public-address announcements during all ASU home football and men's basketball games valued at $24,500. Enterprise also gets two 15-second commercials with audio and video during each football game, worth $12,000.
The list of perks ASU grants Enterprise fills more than three pages of its advertising contract. There are trips to road games, banquet-hopping with ASU athletic director Kevin White and the "opportunity" to mail Enterprise promotional materials to Sun Devil season-ticket holders (a benefit with a listed value of $10,000).
All this for 15 vehicles and a scholarship that barely covers a semester of in-state tuition.
Enterprise's is the first of a wave of ads that pummels fans during play stoppages and even between plays.
While many spectators have a difficult time recalling the sponsors of the ads, there is no doubt that the audio and video blasts dampen the live experience.
"Quite frankly, the thing I notice most about it is it interferes," Harold Rowland says during halftime. A 10-year season-ticket holder from Phoenix, Rowland says he's disgusted with the promotions.
"It used to be that they would play 'Charge' over the PA system. Now all you hear are commercials. I don't need commercials."
Doug Calcaterra, another season-ticket holder, says the blitzkrieg of advertising noise is unlike any he's experienced in other stadiums.
"It keeps me away from the game. The marketing atmosphere as a whole just makes it feel like they are shoving it down our throats," Calcaterra says. "I have never been to a stadium that made me feel like that before.
"I've been to a lot of games in my life. I love ASU games, and I have had season tickets for years. But it is just very loud and annoying. I understand they have to market it. But there's a better way of doing it without taking away from the atmosphere."
Three minutes into the game, ASU scores on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead. The audio pitches are silenced as the crowd erupts for a prolonged celebration that stretches all the way through the ensuing kickoff.
The stadium throbs with football passion. A full moon beams through threatening clouds. The band plays flourishes. The crowd counts as Sparky, ASU's mascot, reels off seven pushups in front of the student section.
The fans are ready to fulfill their role as the "12th man" on the field during ASU's first defensive series--a crucial time when the fans can generate so much noise that they rattle the opposing quarterback and disrupt the offense. This 12th-man effect is no myth. Sun Devils fans have been known to unnerve the opposing offense with a unified roar that can be heard a mile away. Two years ago, Southern California and Nebraska unraveled under the relentless racket.
But not this night.
During Washington's opening possession, it isn't the rumble of the crowd that sets the tone, but a string of audio ads--most coming between plays--hawking products for Subway, Cellular One, Circle K, Samurai Sam's and U S West.
The U S West ad comes just before a critical third-and-10 play that Washington converts for a first down, moving the ball to the ASU five. Washington scores moments later to tie the game.
The touchdown triggers another spate of audio ads. The ASU band is drowned out by pitches for Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Circle K/Little Devil Endzone, Hancock Homes and a ticket promotion.
The crowd is subdued seconds before kickoff.
This pattern recurs many times during the next three hours. Fans rev up and momentum builds toward that rare moment of spontaneous frenzy--when traditions are born and memories forged--only to be derailed by an amplified voice.
The audio ads rain down, pimping Fox Sports Arizona, JC Penney, DiGiorno Pizza, Cox Communications (video and audio), Oscar Breadsticks, Fox Sports (again), Wells Fargo, Monti's La Casa Vieja (video and audio), Circle K/Little Devil Endzone (again), Arizona Public Service Company, Champion, Creative Communications, Met-Rx, Arizona Dodge Dealers, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Dircks Moving, ASU's Web site, Wells Fargo (again), and America West Airlines.
Finally, halftime arrives, providing ASU with another, more controlled marketing opportunity--a dinner giveaway from P.F. Chang's and a football throwing contest, sponsored by Dodge dealers, that features an ASU student and a season-ticket holder.
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."
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.
"I think it is really disruptive and says better than anything else the spectacle sports has become," says Feeney.
Spectacle or not, some believe football fans have only seen the beginning of the televisionization of the stadium experience.
Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, says he hasn't seen a university yet that is overusing video and audio technology during football games.
The former Miller Lite advertising executive says stadiums are destined to be dominated by huge video screens beaming in action from not only the game on the field but from around the country.
"People will go into the stadium to have a big-screen experience," Burton says.
What about action on the field?
"It will be critically important if the team is winning and perhaps be a little bit diminished if the team is losing," Burton says.
The jumbo-screen culture will jack the financial stakes even higher, at the risk of turning off fans.
"If the team is not competitive, will people desert the team if the entertainment is not what they expect?" Burton asks.
Paul Kalil is widely regarded as the master of stadium audio and video shows.
The 38-year-old owner of Los Angeles-based Big Screen Network Productions Inc. has produced the past 14 Super Bowls, coordinated stadium shows across the nation during the 1994 World Cup and handles in-stadium productions for the Los Angeles Dodgers and UCLA football.
Kalil is acutely aware of the powerful force he controls.
"A lot of people take this for granted," he says. "But there is potential for either enhancing a game or destroying a game."
It is essential, Kalil says, to keep the event as the central focus.
"My position is, very simply, that the media has to be first and foremost a complement to the game on the field. That's what people are there for. To watch the game and support the school," he says.
Kalil says the best use of the video screen is to "deliver the inside story of the game" to fans in the stands.
This can be accomplished by using instant replays, providing statistical information during the game, background pieces on players, coaches and the school. During lulls in the action, such as time-outs, the video screen can provide entertainment, but it should be closely tied to the venue, the team, cheerleaders, the marching band and fans.
"Historical memories, plays from previous games, funny plays, providing news about other games around the country" enhances the stadium experience, he says.
But even these forays must be moderate.
"Care needs to be taken so that you are not interrupting the game," Kalil says. "You have to be very careful and very aware of the game."
The inclusion of advertising increases the risk of running amok. This can be avoided, he says, by retaining the flexibility to forgo broadcasts at inappropriate moments.
Blasting a car ad before a key play late in the fourth quarter--as ASU did in the Washington game--is clearly an inappropriate moment, Kalil says.
While such a grievous mistake jumps out at Kalil, ASU's top marketing officials were oblivious to the commercial. Neither Collins nor Blazevich said they were aware of its timing.
Kalil says one way to avoid clashes between advertising and athletic drama is to shed the television-production mentality that is frequently incorporated.
"This is very unlike television production," he says. "You're combining television with theater. The dynamics don't play out the same. The dynamics of live theater cause you to have to make adjustments."
Yet ASU's execution leans heavily toward television production.
The athletic department contracts with KTVK-TV Channel 3 television news director Dennis Dilworth to direct the video and message screens during home games. An avid Sun Devil fan, Dilworth operates from a television production control room, which is located at the south end of the press box.
The control room contains more than 50 television monitors of all sizes. About a dozen workers, all wearing gold tee shirts bearing ASU's marketing slogan, "Playing With Fire," operate computers and control panels that command various electronic signs in the stadium.
Dilworth sits about 30 feet from windows overlooking the field, which are kept closed. He never glimpses live action of the game. The roar of the crowd barely penetrates the thick glass of the control room.
"I'm blocked off from the game," Dilworth says. "I'm not seeing what's out the window. I'm not seeing what's going on. All I'm looking at is monitors, just like if I'm directing a game from the truck or directing a newscast."
Dilworth watches monitors that display feeds from seven cameras and selects which image fans should see on the video screen.
For years, ASU did not display live action on the video screen. But that policy has changed under White.
"I like to compare it to sitting at home watching a football game," Dilworth says. "That's basically the way we try to do our coverage out there--live action, a replay if it is warranted and then a sponsor if there is a time-out."
Dilworth says he relies on Munn to keep him abreast of crowd reactions because the public-address announcer has a direct view of the field and nearly always keeps his window open to get a good feel for the mood in the stadium.
Dilworth says he and Munn decide whether an advertisement should be broadcast as scheduled in the script or delayed and, if necessary, skipped entirely because of a game situation.
"We let the game, in a lot of situations, dictate what we are going to do," Dilworth insisted.
But not always.
Dilworth says that as the Devils prepared for the critical fourth-quarter fourth-down play, he and Munn discussed whether to run the Biddulph ad. Dilworth recommended broadcasting the spot because it features Sparky, flames and ends with a "Give 'em hell, Devils" sound bite.
"We felt the spot maybe lent itself to spurring people on," Dilworth says.
If the Biddulph ad had been a straight car commercial, Dilworth says he might have done otherwise.
"That would have really brought things to a screeching halt," he says.
The sun beats down on more than 90,000 fans inside the Rose Bowl on September 12 for UCLA's opening game against No. 23 University of Texas. The temperature hovers near 90 degrees as the No. 6 Bruins take the field.
As the teams prepare for kickoff, the focus is on the field.
There is no canned music, no kickoff sponsor, no video board commercials--although the Rose Bowl has a state-of-the-art, Panasonic video screen.
It's simply football.
UCLA takes a far more conservative approach than ASU to corporate advertising at its football games. The impact of advertising on fans is something the university carefully monitors.
"It's a touchy subject," says UCLA marketing director Scott Mitchell. "We try to keep the game clean and pristine, and when we do tie in an advertiser, we try to have some fun with it so it's more than just a plug for one of our supporters or sponsors."
The differences between ASU and UCLA--both publicly funded institutions--are dramatic. ASU's audio and video script book covers more than 120 pages; UCLA's broadcast plugs don't fill four pages.
While ASU broadcasts TV-style 30-second commercials on its video screen, UCLA shows highlights of games from around the country and great moments in UCLA football history.
While ASU audio ads will go on for paragraphs, UCLA limits sponsorship plugs to no more than 25 words. In addition, UCLA's PA system is much softer than ASU's.
UCLA recognizes corporate sponsors with brief thanks over the PA system. But at no time during the Texas game were audio ads, let alone video, broadcast at crucial moments in the game or even between plays.
UCLA is also careful not to distract from the game with giveaway contests.
The result: UCLA fans enjoy fine college football in a historic setting with minimal commercialization.
With setting, tradition and focus on their side, UCLA fans avidly embrace their supporting role; thousands wave blue-and-white towels emblazoned with "UCLA 12th Man" while yelling "One, two, three, move the chains!" after every first down. The towels sell for $1.
Fans had plenty to cheer about Saturday as the Bruins, led by sensational quarterback Cade McNown, routed Texas 49-31.
A few hours later and 25 miles south, tens of thousands of University of Southern California football fans mill about on the private college campus, enjoying picnics before the Trojans game against San Diego State University in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
As kickoff approaches, fans drift toward the venerable stadium, passing the giant magnolia and eucalyptus trees that tower over the pathway. A massive rose garden flanks the facility that hosted the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
Inside the Coliseum, the dominant sound is the famous USC marching band, which seldom stops playing. Packed into a tight formation between the 10- and 20-yard lines, and filling the first 15 rows, the band literally sets the tone for the stadium atmosphere.
The 55,000 fans barely fill half the seats. But the place seems full because the seats behind both end zones are roped off. Giant banners promoting USC's corporate sponsors are placed over the roped-off sections.
While the Coliseum's signage is more prominent than Sun Devil Stadium or the Rose Bowl, the Trojans' use of the Mitsubishi big screen and audio advertising is similar to UCLA's.
One of the few audio/video promotions is an anti-drinking advertisement in which head football coach Paul Hackett and a highway patrolman encourage fans to use a designated driver.
There were only a couple of audio giveaways, and no ads after touchdowns. During long TV time-outs, the video screen broadcasts images of the band, cheerleaders, players and people in the stands. The screen zooms in on the referee when penalties are announced.
USC marketing director Mark Ryan says that while the athletic department is always seeking more revenue, the university doesn't want to give up what it sees as an important element in winning football.
"We want to maintain the home-field advantage," he says.
The No. 22 Trojans did, routing SDSU 35-6.
Most major colleges--including some storied programs--take a far lower-key approach to advertising than ASU.
Notre Dame, which plays at ASU October 10, eschews nearly all forms of advertising during football games--other than a corporate logo on the back of tickets.
"There is no signage," says Notre Dame sports information director Mike Enright. "Everything pertains to the game."
Notre Dame, which has the luxury of a lucrative television contract with NBC, has no audio advertising and no video screen.
Enright doesn't expect Notre Dame will ever become more aggressive at marketing its football games.
"I don't think there will ever come the day where you will see that at Notre Dame," he says.
Other major conferences also take a more moderate approach to in-game ads.
John Walters, a college-football writer for Sports Illustrated, says the Pac-10 schools are "much more aggressive" in marketing compared with other major conferences.
Walters says the atmosphere for football at schools like Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Louisiana State in the Southeast Conference, and Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan in the Big 10, is relatively unpolluted by advertising.
"Those places are just amazing," he says.
Arizona State's marketing, by contrast, is so aggressive, it is "selling its own program short," going so far as to require fans to purchase season tickets just to get a seat for the Notre Dame game.
The approach could create ill will, says Walters, who grew up in Tempe and attended ASU games in the late 1970s.
"I [would] feel cheated as an ASU alum or fan, thinking they are going to blackmail me for the Notre Dame game," he says.
Walters says too much marketing outside and inside the stadium threatens to ruin the game for the fans--particularly the most devoted backers who support the team in good years and bad.
"Fans want a pure experience," he says.
After nearly 200 minutes of steady advertising inside Sun Devil Stadium, the ASU marketeers finally fall silent. Apparently, all the ads have run--and there are still two minutes of football to be played.
ASU grabs a 38-35 lead on a fourth-down touchdown pass from Ryan Kealy to Tariq McDonald. ASU kicks off to the Huskies.
Washington faces a third down and three from the ASU 49. The Huskies call time-out.
As the ASU band launches into "We Will Rock You," the crowd begins clapping and starts building into a crescendo fortissimo.
The crowd roars as Washington quarterback Brock Huard settles behind center, and becomes deafening when Huard fumbles the ball--it's recovered by the Huskies.
The clock is running. Washington faces a fourth and 17 with 35 seconds to play from the Huskies' own 37. Fans turn it up another notch, stomping on seats, screaming to rattle Huard. It's pure frenzy. The Sun Devils are one play from victory.
This time, Huard is unfazed. He calmly lofts a spiral that is gathered in near midfield. Nearly 72,000 fans emit a sound of shocked disbelief as Reggie Davis goes 63 yards for a touchdown, putting the Huskies up 42-38 with 28 seconds to play.
"I don't believe it," a woman screams.
The Sun Devils have one more chance. The band fires up the ASU fight song with six seconds to play before Kealy's desperation pass falls incomplete.
It's a crushing defeat. Many fans are too stunned to move. They slump quietly in their seats, staring across the stadium. Others are angry. Most silently shuffle down the stadium aisles and slip dejectedly into Tempe's streets. The ASU band plays the fight song. Lightning darts across the sky.
And Jeff Munn launches into another plug:
"Fans, it's now time for the Met-Rx play of the game. Please direct your attention to the video board for today's great play."
There's no need to watch.
Contact John Dougherty at his online address: email@example.com
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