We joked Monday about how we would've loved to work for the Fiesta Bowl during the John Junker heyday, because who doesn't enjoy attending $30,000 birthday parties? But you, gentle readers, may be as surprised to learn that bowl employees work more than four days a year as our own mother was to learn that we work more than four months. While recuperating from the crush of bowl season, Campus Union spoke with bowl worker bees and executive types busy putting bows on their 2011 games while laying the groundwork for the 2012 postseason. Here's what we learned.
Months of moving parts
Every postseason college football contests maintains a year-round calendar of sorts, though we were surprised on both ends of the spectrum by just how many and how few year-round employees are retained by certain games. (For comparison's sake: The Outback Bowl employs five year-round staffers; the Music City Bowl has nine, most of whom double up with duties to the Nashville Sports Council; and the Orange Bowl has 30, with plans to bring on an additional nine full-time positions this year to accommodate preparations for hosting the BCS title game.) The timeline varies wildly based on available personnel, resources, the organization's presence in the community and how the game approaches its own team selection process. The first scout I personally laid eyes on last season was a very nice lady representing the Champs Sports Bowl in Morgantown in Week 3 during LSU-West Virginia. Both squads, of course, would go on to win their conferences and play in BCS bowls, but that early in the season, bowl scouts share the same disadvantage as the rest of us: All they have to go on is preseason rankings and their own prognostications.
Still, for a game like the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which draws from two of the more voluminous conferences, scouting all potentially eligible teams in person in a single season is a daunting task. Volunteer CFA scouts go out in Week 1 to begin assessing various SEC and ACC squads, though the bowl's selection committee does not convene until November.
And yes, paranoid tailgaters: Visiting scouts assess the campus environment everywhere they go to gauge fan engagement, so look alive out there. One bowl employee told me a story about the Hall of Fame Bowl offering Penn State a bid in Week 2, back in the early '90s. Early impressions count.
But the bleak midwinter, when the fields are frozen solid and the swag pens boxed up for next fall, is perhaps the best time to get a glimpse of college football flexing its business side. After the Chick-fil-A Bowl wraps, for example, representatives will fly out to all five BCS bowls to scout what the bigger boys are up to and see how they can apply that knowledge to the scene in Atlanta. (Nice work, if you can get it, eh, Pinstripe Bowl scout spotted at the first LSU-Bama game?) They'll create surveys to send to the participating schools, asking everybody from the university president to the alumni in attendance to the cheerleading coach about their experiences and how they can be improved. They'll go back to campus after the game to visit the winning team, schedule the trip to coincide with a home basketball game, and re-present the trophy in front of the student body. February is set aside for meeting with the game's corporate sponsors, going through every bowl week event from the previous season and retooling the plan for next year. And come spring, it's time to start refilling the war chest for next year.
Keep the lighthouse burning
According to Chick-fil-A Bowl CEO Gary Stokan, three of the top five highest-drawing annual conventions in Atlanta are the SEC Championship Game, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Chick-fil-A kickoff game. Stokan credits poultry-sponsored football with bringing in $6 million in state sales tax. In 1998, the bowl changed the name of its selection committee to "team marketing and selection committee," and most of the bowl's year-round employees work in some capacity on the former aspect, staging events like April's charity golf tournament, which pairs college coaches with pro athletes on the links and raises money for scholarship funds. In the fall, they'll also field offers from ACC and SEC schools who are themselves reaching out with their own marketing plans, pitching how they'd sell the game to their own fanbases if selected.
Florida Citrus Sports faces a unique set of fundraising challenges thanks to the lack of a pro tenant in its home, the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. The stadium is managed by the city of Orlando, but FCS finds itself more often than not driving the agenda for renovation and turf repair. To increase allure, the organization built the skyboxes in the stadium and is responsible for the latest scoreboard system and video board installations. FCS maintains a year-round staff of less than 20 people, which will swell with the addition of 500 to 700 volunteer workers during bowl week. While late-December labors run more in the "place 100,000 pieces of fruit on these parade floats" direction, this time of year FCS employees are focused on maintaining their season ticket base, raising money for next year's payouts and working with organizational partners at Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World.
Keep on strattin'
But the job we'd most covet belongs to Matt Repchak. FCS' Assistant Director of Marketing Communications and Digital Media arrived in Florida fresh out of Northwestern in 2005, and is the party behind the @FCSports, @CapitalOneBowl and @ChampsSportsBwl Twitter feeds. (Bio excerpt from that last account: "We realize we are missing an o.")
We won't belabor the point of Twitter's growing omnipresence as a news source, although we can think of several bowl organizations that could stand to see that dead horse flogged a touch more. There are bowls that make good use of social media tools (the Alamo, in particular) and bowls that don't seem to understand what a valuable thing a real-time conduit to their audience can be (too many of the rest), but none have adopted a strategy of anthropomorphizing football games with quite the agility and success of FCS.
Whether alerting fans low on cash that a certain ATM in the Citrus Bowl Stadium was out of order, or gently explaining to irate hordes at home that bowl staffers probably shouldn't be setting the precedent overruling the attending media's choice of Alshon Jeffery for game MVP despite his ejection on a highly controversial fighting call, Repchak was playing his own game of Galaga during bowl week, neutralizing concerns with a real human response and a dash of good-natured humor. "We try to be as progressive as we can with this stuff," Repchak says. "We have to deal all the time with things we're not in control of, but we try not to respond with talking points or brush-offs." He's quick to pass credit along to the entire staff for its response to gameday matters like the malfunctioning cash machine, but when the stadium lights were flipped off and Capital One's corporate offices were still fielding calls from viewers steaming over Jeffery's selection, Repchak remained on site late into the night, addressing a relentless wave of righteously indignant tweets. "I felt like if we'd just put up a statement and left, we would've been opening ourselves up to a whole litany of negative responses."
We can certainly relate to the origin story of the Champs Sports and Capital One Bowl's success in new media. How did this particular branding strategy take shape? Repchak: "I just kinda started doing it." What could be bloggier?
FCS had some particular advantages in this case that got it past common hurdles facing every company adopting a new face for new media: As a longtime employee, Repchak was a trusted party familiar with the organizational culture, and as a guy on the marketing end of things, he was ideally positioned to know exactly what sort of image his employers wanted to project. Social media is a young person's game, to be sure, but leave this kind of power to an intern and he might not feel empowered enough or have the necessary knowledge to answer readers' questions with confidence and authority. Assign these duties to a temporary employee during bowl season, and when she moves on, so does the voice she's created for the feeds.
Perhaps more crucially: Not only does FCS place a great deal of trust in Repchak's work, their ideas as far as what constitutes success in the field are in line with one another. Where a stodgier organization might occasionally tap a pioneering fellow on the shoulder and ask him to take it down a notch, the two bowl feeds and corporate feed will continue to interact with fans and grow their audiences year-round. For his part, FCS CEO Steve Hogan expects to see more postseason outfits adopt FCS' practices in new media, or something very like them. "If you're not there, and you're not being aggressive, you're behind already."