Why Is A Fighter Jet Maker Sponsoring A Bowl Game?

Of the 31 sponsors of college bowl games, 27 are consumer products or services, deals that were struck so that the public becomes more aware of their brand. But two bowl sponsors in particular stick out like a very sore thumb: Bell Helicopter and Northrop Grumman.

Military Bowl
Source: Northrup Grumman
Military Bowl

You see, unlike a bag of Tostitos that cost $1.99 or a Discover card that you can apply for, Bell Helicopter and Northrop Grumman aren't hoping to sell you anything when you watch or attend their bowl game.

And that's a good thing because It's not like you could afford anything they sell. Bell, which is in its fifth year of sponsoring the Armed Forces Bowl, sells their V-22 Osprey helicopter for $67 million. Northrop Grumman, which is entering its first year of a three-year contract to be the primary sponsor of the Military Bowl played at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 29, makes fighter jets like the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which starts at about $30 million each.

Noticing the theme of the two most non-traditional bowl sponsors isn't hard. They both support the US armed forces and feature usually feature Army, Air Force or Navy, depending on whether or not they are bowl eligible in a given year. The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl hosts Army this year after three straight years of Air Force playing in is game. The Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman is guaranteed to get Navy in 2011 and Army in 2012, assuming they qualify in those years for the college football postseason.

So why does sponsoring a bowl game make sense? For that answer we turned to newest entrant Northrop Grumman, which Fortune listed at the 204th biggest company in the world with revenues of $35 billion.

"This is not something we would normally get involved in," said Randy Belote, vice president of strategic communication for Northrop Grumman. "But we made it make sense."

After sampling with a smaller sponsorship with the bowl, then called the EagleBank Bowl, two years ago, by putting its logo in the end zones for the game between Navy and Wake Forest, the global security company sat out a year. But when EagleBank decided not to return and bowl organizers called back Northrup Grumman, they said yes.

"The game is obviously in Washington D.C. and we do so much of our business with the government," Belote said. "We felt we could use this bowl to support and fundraise for the USO (whose mission is to provide the troops with a home away from home) to express appreciation and gratitude to the men and women who serve in the military because they are both our employees and our customers."

What has been described as a "sizeable portion" of the bowl proceeds will go to the USO and Northrop Grumman is encouraging people to donate money through the official bowl Web site, www.militarybowl.org. That money will go towards providing free tickets to those in the service at no cost. In the first week, Belote said Northrop Grumman employees donated more than $5,000.

The free ticket program could lead to greater crowds for the game, which averaged only 25,925 fans in its first two years. So too could a good matchup. The early pick of East Carolina gives fans a couple more days to arrange their travel and if an ACC team with a strong tradition, like Clemson, is picked as ECU's opponents next week, tickets -- priced at $25, $55 and $90 -- could go.

Another reason for sponsoring the bowl game is to get the Northrop Grumman name familiar in the community. Earlier this year, the company -- which has 120,000 employees -- announced it was moving its headquarters from Los Angeles to the nation's capitol.

Belote told CNBC that the company will activate its partnership by having the HD-1, the bomb retrieval robot that the company makes that had a prominent role in the movie "Hurt Locker," do something surrounding the game.

Said Belote: "He's our star."

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