ST. PETERSBURG — It's a funky name: the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. But the new sponsors for the former St. Petersburg Bowl might need more than an eye-catching name to create a thriving, profitable contest.
With a proliferation of college football bowl games and a local market with limited brand-name options, both nabbing a corporate sponsor for the annual St. Pete football gathering and keeping it is a challenge.
"Once upon a time, it wasn't necessary for bowls to have sponsorships," Wright Waters, the executive director of the Football Bowl Association, said.
Times have certainly changed. Hosting a bowl game is a big business that is profitable for many sides. Sponsorship contracts can start around $500,000 with other major bowl's buy-ins collecting millions or tens of millions of dollars.
Wednesday morning, ESPN Events announced a new three-year, title-name sponsor with Arkansas-based Bad Boy Mowers, a national lawn mower manufacturer. Figures from the deal were not disclosed.
Even if the Bad Boy Mowers deal ends, the bowl will permanently be called the Gasparilla Bowl. The theme introduces the mythical Spanish pirate to those not already familiar with the annual festival in Tampa, said Clint Overly, vice president of ESPN Events, which is responsible for the St. Pete Bowl, 13 other college football bowls and host of other sporting events.
The name change reflects a strategy to expand the games reach beyond St. Pete to a six-county area stretching east to Lakeland and north to Hernando County.
"It's not necessarily that we're moving St. Pete out the way," said Brett Dulaney, the bowl's executive director. "It's just that we have so many other people that want to get involved in our game, it's a great opportunity just to brand it that way."
Pinellas County is allocating up to $135,000 to help market the bowl and market St. Pete and Clearwater as travel destination.
The last few years have seen quite a few changes within the bowl game landscape. More than ever, the games are providing a financial boost for the team's conference. Last year, Division I-A teams, who are eligible for the FBS bowls, split $600 million, according to the Football Bowls Association.
Meanwhile the number of bowl games has increased, with more than 40 Division 1-A match-ups this year. More bowl games mean more options for companies with brand giants choosing to sponsor the top-tier games. Other businesses sign long-term contracts guarantee the publicity.
In Tampa Bay, top local companies such as St. Petersburg-based Raymond James; Tropicana, with its Bradenton roots; and Tampa-based Amalie Oil Co., maintain naming rights to the professional sports stadiums. The Outback Bowl, which is sponsored by the national restaurant chain in Tampa, is a premier game with high attendance and television ratings.
Before picking up title-name sponsorship, the Tropicana Field-based bowl went two years without a main financial contributor. The event had to pull more funding from ticket sales, television rights and local advertising to continue.
The St. Petersburg Bowl attracted 2.05 million TV viewers last year, according to the Nielsen ratings. Overly at ESPN Events, said he was satisfied with the bowl's performance, a lower-tier bowl in comparison to the Outback Bowl in Tampa, which drew 6.1 million viewers, or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. with 16.25 million viewers.
Before its brief, no-name status the St. Petersburg bowl game was sponsored for two years by the Tampa-based sports bar chain Beef 'O' Brady's. Other former sponsors included magicJack and Bitcoin.
"That's the challenge of bowl games in markets where is a lot of entertainment: There are only so many dollars in the market to go around," Steve Dupee, executive vice presidents at GMR Marketing, said. "There may be brands that are already invested in other sports or events."
Many bowls have figured out that local brands are not the only businesses willing to pay for the national exposure from the television audience to fans packing arenas around the nation.
The emergence of the college football playoff "took away some of the juice" from the lower-tier games with more attention to those key match-ups, said Dupee.
He also points out that reason a company wants to sponsor a bowl game may differ. For example, a local company may want to appear as a "good corporate citizen" to the community while allowing the company's employees and shareholders with a chance to enjoy the game and other bowl-related events.
Other companies may see the college football demographics as a key target for the company's new product or the brand as a whole. Or a business may want a national push or branch into a new region, which could be one of the reasons for Bad Boy Mower's sponsorship, said Dupee.
College football is a proven and "healthy" investment, he said, coming in third in popularity behind the NFL and MLB, according to the Harris Poll.
"Anyone can get a sponsor," said Waters. "But it has to be a company that fits."
Times reporter Matt Baker contributed. Contact Tierra Smith at tsmith@ tampabay.com or (414) 702-5006. Follow @bytierrasmith.