San Diego Business Journal

Holiday Bowl Team Promotes San Diego, Football and Big Money

BY TANYA RODRIGUES
Staff Writer

"Go long!"

Bruce Binkowski, executive director of the Culligan Holiday Bowl, runs past Mark Neville, the bowl's assistant executive director, to make the catch. The two, wearing shirts and ties, tossing a football between them, are about to have their picture taken.

The lightheartedness goes on when they casually recall the question they're asked most often: "What do you guys do all year?"

Belying the easygoing demeanor, it's serious business, with a economic impact of more than $20 million.

Since 1978, the football game and the week of activities surrounding it have developed a major presence in San Diego for the last week of each December , but the seven-person staff's work goes on for the remaining 11 months and three weeks.

On the first day of March, for instance, the staff was in the midst of planning several of the other Holiday Bowl-sanctioned events that take place throughout the year.

They include an outrigger challenge in April, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in May, a hole-in-one golf shootout in September and a vintage car race in October.

According to Binkowski, the events raise money for the game and promote the bowl to residents.

Each employee, from the business manager to Binkowski's executive assistant, runs at least one event. For instance, they oversee brochures, sign-ups for the outrigger competition. They reserve space for the basketball tournament and send out postcard reminders to past players.

Celebrating 25 Years

Another event will be added for this year , a gala in November to celebrate the Holiday Bowl's silver anniversary. Preliminary planning for it has already begun.

March 1 marked the start of the Holiday Bowl organization's fiscal year.

Sponsorships, including the title sponsor, add up to about 25 percent of the bowl's annual budget, as does TV and radio broadcast rights. Ticket sales make up the remaining half.

The Holiday Bowl runs on a $6 million annual budget. Eighty percent of revenues go to the conferences that send teams to the bowl. The compensation is known as payout.

This year, the payouts were $2,044,988.

The results from 2001 game, which took place Dec. 28, indicated a total economic impact of $20.5 million, according to a report done by locally based CIC Research.

Between attendees and the teams who took part, last year's bowl game resulted in the rental of 21,500 room nights at local hotels and direct spending of $10.8 million, CIC said.

For all bowl games, bringing in visitors is a major focus. Each university gets an allotment of 11,500 tickets that they're expected to sell to alumni, students and fans.

When a team sells out its allotment, it's called "traveling well."

Along with the following the different schools inspire, various factors affect how many people who will attend a school's game in a particular location. They include the number of alumni who live in the region and the weather in the school's home city.

Selecting teams depends on contracts the bowls have with the collegiate leagues.

Tough Decisions

In San Diego, the bowl has the second- place team out of the Pacific-10. More options exist with their contract with the Big 12 conference , where they have the third pick.

As a general rule, the record stands before the team's ability to generate hotel bookings and visitor spending, but it can be a tough decision.

"We just pick the best available team, and it's not always based on how many fans will travel," Binkowski said. "You want fans to come and to create an economic impact in the community, but also you consider (the team's) record," he said.

For instance, the bowl invited back the University of Texas, which had played the San Diego game last year.

"We may have been able to pick somebody else who maybe would have been able to bring more fans, and that's important to us, but our integrity as a bowl says we bring the best team that the Big 12 has to offer," Binkowski said.

The bowl's been fortunate, Binkowski said. "Even last year, with the way the year went in terms of travel issues, both Texas and (the University of) Washington did an outstanding job. They didn't sell all their tickets, but they traveled better than expected and stayed longer."

The Holiday Bowl is broadcast on ESPN, and has been its highest-rated bowl game. The four main bowls, the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange, are broadcast on the major networks.

Last year, the bowl had a 5.3 rating, which indicates that more than 9 million people were watching. The ratings were the bowl's highest ever, with the exception of the 1998 game.

Part of the draw could be an element to the Holiday Bowl game that sportswriters, fans and the colleges have marveled over for years: edge-of-the-seat endings.

Down to the Wire Finishes

Thirteen of the 24 games have been decided by a touchdown's margin of 7 points or less. For many of those games, including the last one, the game has been decided in the final minutes. The average score in the last four games has been 32-28, Binkowski said.

"Unbelievable " he said. "I couldn't tell you in a million years how we do it."

According to Steve Schell, associate director of sales and account director of sports at the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, the bowl is well run. Because of that, it does a good job of bringing in visitors during the local tourism industry's slowest time, he said. Schell helps the bowl's staff reserve large numbers of rooms for the teams, bands and other big groups that come in for the game.

Judging from what Schell hears, the way the bowl's operated has scored all around.

Jim Muldoon, assistant commissioner for the Pac-10, echoed the sentiment, calling the bowl's staff "real pros."

"The thing we look at is what kind of experience our teams and our people who travel with the teams have when they go to these games," he said. "The Holiday Bowl gets consistently high marks across the board."

He feels that with its current conference match-ups, the game is in a strong position, from television and competitive standpoints.

"It seems to be growing in stature," he said. "Its best days are ahead of it."

New Sponsor Ahead

The staff may be planning the year's span of Holiday Bowl events, but Binkowski has a extra focus at this time: a new title sponsor.

Culligan Water's four-year agreement ran out at the end of February. Binkowski has been meeting with other potential sponsors.

It's a big decision, he said. "When a title sponsor comes on board, they have to be entwined into everything we do, from logos, to events, to help get their message across."

More than a hundred companies were approached in the beginning, but the number of likely sponsors has been narrowed to six.

"It could happen tomorrow, it could happen two months from now," Binkowski said.

Previous title sponsors have included SeaWorld San Diego and Thrifty Car Rental.

The post-Sept. 11 economy has made the search a little more difficult, Binkowski said.

At this point in the year, the bowl's staff is more anxious about it than the would-be sponsors, he said.

"There's no sense of urgency for a company this time of year," Binkowski said. "We may feel a sense of urgency more than the company would, because this is what we do."

He's confident it will happen. "We've got a great story to tell, and some great opportunities," he said. "We'll get that sponsor. It's just frustrating to try and get someone to say, 'Yep, let's go, let's do it.' "

The negotiations usually run smoothly once the two groups commit to working together.

"There's a mutual interest there," Binkowski said. "It's not a bidding war, it's just making sure that we're both on the same page."

The Holiday Bowl didn't have a sponsor for its first eight years. According to Les Lande, who was the volunteer executive director for the bowl's first year, starting the game was tough.

"Our emphasis in the first year was simply to put on a football game," Lande said. "It took a substantial amount of promotion and work to put on the first game because it was brand new and you had to sell it to the public." The first year's payout was $218,000 to each team, he recalled.

Lande hired the bowl's first employee, a part-time public relations director. It was Binkowski.

At the time, Binkowski has been handling public relations for several local sports organizations. The bowl became a way to support his other radio and announcing work. He became the public address announcer for the San Diego Padres, the Chargers and San Diego State football and basketball.

"Because the bowl was a part-time job, it allowed me to do all these other things," he recalled. Even after the job became full-time, in 1985, the board allowed him to continue the announcing work.

He gave up announcing about two years ago.

After longtime executive director John Reid decided to retire, Binkowski was invited to apply for Reid's job. "I knew I had to give up everything else I was doing, so I had to make that decision," he recalled.

It was the right one, Binkowski said. "I love the Holiday Bowl," he said. "I've been here since the day they opened the door, and I've seen this game grow from a little regional bowl game to one of the premier games in the country, and I couldn't leave it.

"You choose what you like the best," he continued. "The Holiday Bowl has been a very important part of my life that's why I did it."

According to Lande, the bowl is on the right path. "It evolves, like anything else, but they've done a good job of letting it evolve and making it evolve," he said.