Though technically started in 1902 when Michigan steamrolled Stanford 49–0 at the Tournament East-West Football Game in Pasadena, college football bowl games have been consistently played since 1916, with appellations that paid sole homage to such necessities as cotton, oranges, sugar, the sun and, of course, roses.
That stage is shared now. The first slate of this bowl season's games, which kicked off last weekend in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Boise and New Orleans, celebrated a T-shirt manufacturer, trucking line, motor oil and potatoes.
Though ubiquitous now, the title and presenting sponsorship of these gridiron pageants dates back to 1983, when the Florida Citrus Growers renamed the Tangerine Bowl with their own, broader fruit-category moniker. Of the 35 bowl games to be played through Jan. 6, seven are sponsored by financial services–related businesses, another five by restaurant chains and five by automotive- or transportation-related brands. Two will bear the names of suppliers from the military-industrial complex.
In this testosterone-fueled world of football comes Belk, a 125-year-old family-owned Southern department-store chain with a predominantly female customer base. Not only are they unique in their target demographic but they are also the first general-merchandise retail chain, regional or national, to sponsor a bowl game.
And their game plan must be gaining yardage, as Saturday's Belk Bowlwill be the retailer's third iteration and they have recently signed up for at least six more.
Belk has 300 stores in 16 contiguous Southern states—from Maryland down to Florida on the East Coast, across the gulf to Texas, back up through Arkansas to West Virginia and everything in between. The pace of change to a retailer like this is usually akin to pouring molasses on a cool day.
Sponsorship industry-watcher IEG agrees this is a nontraditional pairing. "As a retailer and a department store, it certainly hasn't been the sweet spot for bowl sponsors," said Jim Andrews, IEG senior vice president. "They stand out in that regard."
But in December 2010, in keeping with its $70 million branding makeover, Belk management literally kicked off its desire to be the harbinger of its tagline—"Modern. Southern. Style"—when it announced the title sponsorship of a 2011 college football bowl game in its headquarters hometown of Charlotte. It was a way for the privately-owned company to create national buzz about its brand.
"A lot of life is timing, being in the right place at the right time," Belk's executive vice president of marketing, sales promotion and e-commerce Jon Pollack told CNBC.com.
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In the run-up to the 2010 rebranding, research confirmed that their core customer was female and responsible for more than 80 percent of the purchases made. "When we did an in-depth study of what she likes, what bubbled to the surface was that there was football. It was kind of a way of life for the weekend, a chance to reconnect with family and friends. And they dress for it," Pollack said.
"People from the Big Ten or the PAC 12 can brag about what they do, but there's nothing like tailgating in the South," Pollack said. "If you go to the Grove at Ole Miss or the Iron Bowl (annual game between Alabama and Auburn) or go to Georgia, tailgating is just an art form. Knowing that, we were very intrigued."
Given the research, Belk quickly realized sponsoring college football could help the company build its brand and grow its customer base. The serendipity of timing came when the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which operates the bowl as well as the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship game, was in renewal talks with Meineke Car Care, which had titled the game from 2005 to 2010, following Continental Tire's run from the inception in 2002 to 2004. When Meineke didn't renew, Belk jumped into the game.
Although Pollack described the investment only as "significant," he did admit that the company spends as much or more on activation as they do for rights to the game. Will Webb, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, also declined to give the price tag on the actual title fee but said that Meineke was paying close to $1 million and that Belk was north of that.
After selling it internally, Pollack and his team set about formulating and executing their game plan. "We used this first three-year contract as a test-and-learn cycle for us," he recalled.
On their quest to learn best practices, they met with officials from the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta; Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas; and Cotton Bowl in Dallas to learn how these sponsors made sports part of their overall marketing efforts and community involvement. This helped Belk forge ongoing partnerships with specific schools for promotion through channels such as social networks and in-stadium advertising.
The rewards came quickly, in part from doing national advertising for the first time. That 2011 game televised on ESPN between NC State and Louisville reached 15 million viewers and boosted game-day Belk.com sales 92 percent, as noted in the company's 2012 annual report. The aftereffect was also significant. Total sales for 2012 increased 5.3 percent, to $3.7 billion, compared to the prior year, the report revealed.
"The size of the impact surprised us," admitted Pollack. "Before the Belk Bowl, on Belk.com about 12 percent of our sales and traffic came from outside of our 16-state footprint. In 16 states we are a multichannel retailer, but in the other 34 states, they don't know us, because there's no way to physically shop."
Pollack described this event as "a massive shift in growth." "To this day, our growth outside our footprint online is greater than our growth inside," he said, noting that 18 percent of the new traffic came back for a second time, compared to a usual 5 percent to 6 percent return rate. "Not only did we get people engaged, they liked what they found and stayed engaged," he said.
It also works with vendor relationships. Current vendors involved with the game include Haggar, New Balance, Keurig and Geoffrey Beene.
(Read more: The other "football": More in U.S. heading to games)
Fast-forward to today and you can see that Belk's strategy continues to pay dividends. A bowl game is in business to sell tickets—in this case, 73,778 seats at Bank of America Stadium—and a sponsor who gets aggressively behind that, especially one with the local/regional consumer reach that Belk has, helps fill the building beyond what the universities bring. Webb said, "Belk is always challenging staff to make this event bigger and better."
Belk merchandises the sponsorship throughout their stores and currently sells school-branded merchandise for women—from $399 logoed cowboy boots and $99 leather handbags to $52 camisoles and $17 T-shirts. While in-store stock may vary, Belk.com carries an assortment of more than 1500 items for men, women and children representing at least 38 schools.
Sports partnerships are a definitive and branded segment of Belk marketing now. Just outside Pollack's office is a section of cubicles with a sign reading "Sports Marketing" hanging from the ceiling above. Along with collegiate relationships, the company has deals with pro teams, including the MLB Atlanta Braves, the NFL Carolina Panthers and the NHL Carolina Hurricanes. A men's clothing line designed with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is available exclusively at Belk's.
Events and promotion surrounding the game this year include an interactive Belk Bowl Tailgate Tour at games throughout the region; a sweepstakes; a 5K race; a Rock-the-Belk-Bowl contest for Charlotte area elementary, middle and high schools that will award $150,000 in technology grants for creating and displaying educational and Belk Bowl–themed designs on school rocks or bulletin boards; and a free fan-fest concert, featuring country icon Blake Shelton, not to mention his 4.5 million Twitter followers.
The six-year sponsorship renewal that Belk announced in early November will have even greater geographical value, as the bowl will now pit the Atlantic Coast Conference against Southeastern Conference schools, replacing the more Northern-based and basketball-centric Big East Conference. All 14 SEC schools are in Belk's footprint, along with 11 of 15 ACC universities. The four not in the Belk geography are Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, which—though members of the ACC for all other sports—are keeping their independence for football.
"This whole experience has exceeded our expectations," exuded Pollack.
—By Steve Goldberg, Special to CNBC.com.