On Dec. 4, news broke out of Arizona that the storied Fiesta Bowl — part of college football’s elite “New Year’s Six” bowl series — had a new title sponsor for its 45th annual game, which was played Friday. But it is not a Fortune 500 company or even a household brand, as was the case with its previous two title sponsors: Tostitos and Vizio.
The new title sponsor: BattleFrog.
The reaction around the country: What?
The Phoenix Business Journal’s headline of the announcement read: “ESPN inks obscure sponsor for Fiesta Bowl.”
An article in New York’s Newsday, “Bowling for Dollars — And Product Recognition,” says: “What is BattleFrog? An obstacle race series. And what is an obstacle race series? Umm…”
And guess where this obscure company in an obscure industry is based?
But even in South Florida, BattleFrog barely registered on the business radar when the announcement was made. At the start of 2013, the company that organizes and runs outdoor fitness events and obstacle races wasn’t even in existence.
BattleFrog principals are betting that this title sponsorship not only will help their brand compete with some of the leaders in the relatively new obstacle race industry — including Spartan Race, Warrior Dash and Tough Mudders — but it also will help the brand leap into the national consciousness.
“It’s a brilliant move for BattleFrog,” said Larry Mann, executive vice president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based integrated sports marketing and media firm. “And it should be a great lesson to all B-list marketers that traditionally don’t have big budgets that when a great opportunity presents itself, and you can find the right angle, jump in and do it. And do it right.”
BattleFrog’s bold move looked even brighter when the New Year’s Day matchup at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale was announced: No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes, last year’s national champion.
“Fantastic,” said Michael Donnelly, a former Navy SEAL and a founder of BattleFrog. “Couldn’t be a better draw unless it was University of Miami. I was born and raised in Miami and my wife went there.”
For its investment, BattleFrog was able to introduce itself to the millions of viewers who watched the Fiesta Bowl, both in person and on ESPN. After Ohio State scored the opening touchdown in its 44-28 victory over Notre Dame, the first commercial featured BattleFrog’s obstacles races, showing kids and adults competing with determination.
The commercial ended with the company’s slogan: Battling is Believing.
During the first round of commercials, BattleFrog also had a commercial spot in which Ramiro Ortiz, CEO of BattleFrog, delivered what is known as the “company message.”
BattleFrog also benefited from the mastery of ESPN’s production that highlights its sponsors throughout its pregame show and the game. After every replay, the Fiesta Bowl logo with BattleFrog was shown. When ESPN commentators Chris Spielman and Sean McDonough discussed the game on camera, the logo was prominently displayed between them.
On the field, there was so much signage that featured BattleFrog that it was almost impossible to watch a play and not see some reference to the company. On the field, the Fiesta Bowl logo with BattleFrog was painted at the 50-yard line, where the coin toss was held. At four other locations on the field, between the 20- and 30-yard lines, there was signage that read: BattleFrog, Obstacle Race Series. The company name also was placed in the end zones and around the field.
Even the yardage markers had the Fiesta Bowl logo with BattleFrog at the top.
Cost of landing deal
In 2012, longtime Fiesta Bowl title sponsor Tostitos reportedly paid $17.5 million for its deal that year. When college football changed to a playoffs format to decide its national champion in the 2013/14 season, ESPN signed a multibillion dollar, 12-year deal with the NCAA that included exclusive rights to broadcast and market the playoff games and most of the bowl games.
The cost of landing title sponsorships nearly doubled overnight. This year the title sponsors for the other five “New Year’s Six” bowl games (Capital One, Allstate, Goodyear, Northwestern Mutual, Chick-fil-A) are paying around $35 million each for their title sponsorships in a package that includes advertising spots throughout the college football regular season, according to industry experts.
Neither BattleFrog nor ESPN would say how much BattleFrog paid for its one-year deal. (BattleFrog also declined to comment on the company’s revenues or profitability.)
But industry experts say ESPN had a “fire sale” this year with the Fiesta Bowl title sponsorship. Last year the Fiesta Bowl, with a Boise State/Arizona matchup, drew only 7.4 million viewers, the fewest since at least 1985, according to Sports Media Watch.
Because BattleFrog signed only a one-year deal for the 2016 New Year’s Day Game, which was not one of two semifinal college football playoff games, the price tag was probably in the $3 million to $5 million range, industry experts said.
That’s a great deal considering that ratings for the just-played Fiesta Bowl were expected to be much higher with the matchup of two football powerhouses with large followings.
Even before the announcement of the competing teams, it was a deal too good to pass up, said Ortiz, the company CEO who is former president of two Miami Banks.
“We literally put the deal together over Thanksgiving weekend,” he said. “This is a benefit of being a private company with shareholders that look at the long term. An opportunity like this doesn’t come around often. Because we didn’t have to go through six committees, we could make a quick conference call and get it done.”
Unlike the case when he was in banking, Ortiz said this company is not focused on quarter-to-quarter earnings but is focused on “the much longer picture.”
And while the sponsorship is “significant money” for any company, and especially one still in the early growing stages, Ortiz said that as a longtime member of the Orange Bowl Committee, he knows this is not a risky leap of faith but a solid leap into the big time.
“I am very familiar with the value and benefit of major bowl exposure,” Ortiz said. “And an event like the Fiesta Bowl fits into our big picture very nicely for several reasons. The audience for a bowl game is folks who attended the university, and a mix of millennials and active affluent consumers involved with the university and college football. It’s a dream demographic for us.”
Mann said the sponsorship also fits well for a fitness company, considering many people make improving their fitness a New Year’s resolution.
The title sponsorship became available when Vizio decided not to renew after just one year. ESPN spent months looking for another company to step in for a two-year deal that would include next year’s game, which is one of the coveted two semifinal playoff games. But by November, there were no takers so ESPN resorted to finding a partner that would work for one year.
For BattleFrog, it helped that it already had a rela tionship with the giant sports cable network. Last summer, ESPN aired three episodes of the “BattleFrog College Championship,” which showcased 16 colleges competing in shortened obstacle races that made for exciting television that could be rerun many times.
“They kind of dipped their toe in the water and built a relationship that way,” said ESPN’s Gil Beverly, senior director of sports management. “And as they looked to further establish their brand and their national footprint with a broader swath of consumers, in my opinion they wisely leveraged ESPN from an advertising perspective … to get a lot more exposure.”
While ESPN did not get as much money from the deal as it received from the other New Year’s Six title sponsorships, Mann said the one-year deal with BattleFrog makes good business sense because ESPN also will receive more exposure for its future programming with BattleFrog.
“ESPN saw that NBC Sports locked up with the Spartan Races and some of the other competitive race series and they saw the opportunity to be in business with BattleFrog,” Mann said.
BattleFrog was just a concept in the summer of 2013, when Donnelly and two other members of SEAL Team 4 thought they could put together a better obstacle race company. They met with a lawyer friend and the company was launched. They began modestly with six races in 2014 and 15 races last year.
“We always knew we wanted to go national,” Donnelly said. “But we didn’t think in the beginning we would be able to take off as quickly as we did.”
But Battlefrog, with the help of “friends of friends,” landed a major European investor, the Centurion Racing Group.
“Once we got the Centurio Group behind us, it was easy to go national,” Donnelly said. “We went 0 to 60 in a month.”
This year, they have jumped to 44 races across the country.
The company, with about 30 employees, was already busy putting together the vastly larger race schedule when the BattleFrog deal jumped in their laps. They spent December putting together last-minute commercials and other marketing tools to take advantage of their title sponsorship. It included hosting a fanfest at the University of Phoenix Stadium, with an obstacle course that fans young and old could try.
“We have been running at 100 miles per hour,” Ortiz said. “But we’ve been having fun. It’s very different than the banking industry.”
What: Limited liability company that organizes and operates obstacle races for adults and children of all abilities and fitness levels.
Founded: In 2013.
Headquarters: 8899 NW 18th Ter., Suite 200, Doral.
Employees: About 30.
Executives: Ramiro Ortiz, chief executive officer; Alejandro Castro, chief financial officer; Raul De Quesada, chief marketing officer; Michael McAllister, co-founder and general counsel; Dean Joyce, director of field operations.
Race series: The 2016 schedule has 44 obstacle races across the United States, including one in Miami on March 5. Each event includes an 8-kilometer course with at least 25 obstacles that include ropes, mud, ladders and more with names such as Jerry Can Carry, Normandy Jacks, Mounds of Ground and Tip of the Spear. There are also events for extreme athletes as well as the Tadpole Dash for kids.
TV events: In 2015, the BattleFrog College Championships aired for three episodes on ESPN, with the programming being re-aired many times. The series is renewed for 2016.