Longform

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!"

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty