NEW YORK (AP) - The Super Bowl did not start as the Super Bowl. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament eventually came to be known as March Madness, and its semifinals as the Final Four. Now, even the most casual sports fans know exactly what they are.
The College Football Playoff is a blank slate and those who created it have tried to steer clear of clutter in the hope of creating the next ubiquitous sports brand.
“We did want a simple and descriptive name rather than a cutesy name,” said Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff. “We did know that (the brand) would grow organically.”
When the name of college football’s first playoff at the sport’s highest level was unveiled in 2013, it seemed a little too simple to some people.
One tweet aimed at the event’s executive director by sports writer Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle summed up the reaction: “I bet Bill Hancock’s dog is named Dog.”
Jokes aside, the plan was smart, said Joe Favorito, a veteran sports media consultant and professor at Columbia University.
“You don’t want to create something that’s artificial when you don’t have to,” he said.
Favorito said a name can limit a brand’s long-term value, especially when it comes to the possibility of having a title sponsor.
“In the world we live in now, it’s much easier to take your time and find if there is a brand that can be ingrained into the name … as opposed to putting something else on it,” Favorito said. “Once you put something else on it, and call it the College Super Bowl or something along those lines, it immediately loses brand value. If I’m them, I would keep it as vanilla as possible and see if a brand comes along in a few years that is at the right price point.”
Favorito said the stadium where the first College Football Playoff national championship game will be played Monday night between Oregon and Ohio State is a good example of how patience can pay off when it comes to title sponsors and branding.
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, opened in 2009 as Dallas Cowboys Stadium and not until 2013 did Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sell the naming rights for a reported $17 to $19 million per year, though the terms of the deal have never been made public.
AT&T is the presenting sponsor of Monday’s game, not the title sponsor, which means the company name comes after rather before the name of the game.
Ultimately, College Football Playoff might just be a placeholder. What we now know as the Super Bowl was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game until a sports writer came up with the catchier name and it stuck. The names Final Four and March Madness also originated from coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament and were so good that organizers latched on to them and made them their own.
The conference commissioners who put together the four-team playoff to replace the Bowl Championship Series, which was designed to create a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship game, hired Premier Sports Management in Overland Park, Kansas, to help name the new system.
Their instructions: Stay away from the words ‘final’ and ‘four’ and the letters B, C, and S.
The legacy of the BCS will always be a strange one. In some ways it helped popularize college football and make it more of a national sport, but many fans grew to despise the BCS during its 16-year run and view it as an obstacle to something bigger and better.
“We explored the possibility of changing the name of the BCS and people in the branding world said ‘Don’t you even consider doing that,’” said Hancock, who was BCS executive director from 2009-13. “Because the brand was so well-known. Although it wasn’t extremely popular, they said ‘Do not change it.’ That brand has a great identity.”
Along with a new name came a new trophy and logo. The BCS seems long gone, but the CFP is still working with the bowls. Under the BCS the bowls had a hard time maintaining their identity. The system was confusing, and that hurts a brand, Favorito said.
The early returns from the first College Football Playoff look promising for the six bowls that will take turns hosting semifinals over the next 12 years. Last week’s semifinals were played in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl in their traditional New Year’s Day time slots and those brands were prominently on display.
“Having the rose (logo) at midfield was huge and working it out with the CFP and with ESPN was a very high priority for us,” said Rose Bowl CEO Kevin Ash, whose game matched Oregon and Florida State.
Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said the Ohio State-Alabama game in New Orleans “was indistinguishable from any Sugar Bowl.”
The games drew massive television audiences for ESPN, with Ohio State-Alabama setting a cable record for viewers with 28.271 million.
The College Football Playoff has elements of both the Super Bowl (it’s football) and the Final Four (it’s got a bracket). Hancock said that while there will never be another brand like the Super Bowl, college football’s championship can create a brand with the best elements of those two sporting events that transcend sports.
“We don’t want to be the corporate event the Super Bowl has become,” Hancock said, “but we darn sure want there to be CFP championship game parties in small towns all over this country and I think that’ll happen.”
So what will the playoff ultimately be called?
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