Current Stories:

How To Market a Single-Game Promotion

by Danielle Catalano,

University of Tampa Assistant Athletic Director Gil Swalls explains his success story.

Gil Swalls is an Associate Athletic Director at the University of Tampa (UT), a 5,000-student D-II school in Florida. He has been with the Spartans since 1989, focusing on athletic marketing since the late 1990s. He first generated corporate sponsorships by selling signage to local businesses and attracted fans to Spartan events using small promotions and fan club drives. That marketing plan began to change two years ago when the university expanded its academic programs, which effectively more than quadrupled its student-body population and provided a larger audience for Swalls market toward.

Swalls quickly found success with his new plan last fall when he and a manager at a local Wendy's franchise agreed to a single-game promotion night during a men's basketball game. The well-planned promotion had entire Wendy's theme, and the outcome was a financial success. Sales for Wendy's substantially increased, and Spartan gate sales have more than doubled. Furthermore, the success attracted Wendy's corporate leaders to sit down with Swalls to discuss details about extending its sponsorship. To date, Wendy's sponsorship has tripled its funding. Here's a look at how Swalls came about his single-game basketball promotion success:

Create a Trial Promotion
Before talking to Wendy's about a corporate sponsorship, Swalls used a trial promotion.

"Wendy's is right across the street from a McDonald's. In this particular case, McDonald's was doing pretty well, but Wendy's wasn't really busy, so I went into Wendy's first," explains Swalls. "I talked to the manager, saying, 'My campus is right around the block, we have 5,000 kids, let's do some things.' He was receptive to that right away.

"The timing was right by Midnight Madness," he continues. "And this manager wanted to increase his late-night business, so we came up with a theme was a natural tie-in with the restaurant, using Wendy's slogan, 'Stay Up Late'."

The manager gave the school 100 hamburgers to pass out during the Spartan's Midnight Madness basketball event, and the restaurant's slogan was promoted over the public announcement system during each break and time out.

"Early the next morning, the manager called me and said that he had the best late-night sales ever," Swalls says. "So from there on, were had a relationship."

Climb the Corporate Ladder
Following the Midnight Madness promotion, the local general manager contacted his regional supervisor, Kevin Zarcone, Associate Director of Tampa. Zarcone had access to larger sponsorship money and wanted to discuss more details with Swalls about a larger promotion using another Wendy's theme.

Swalls brainstormed on the restaurant's menu for a new theme and came up with "Couch Potato" courtside seating and a Junior Hamburger halftime-eating contest. Zarcone liked the "Couch Potato" idea so much, that he agreed to a season-long sponsorship for that promotion. Deciding who would be the "couch potatoes", though, was a little difficult.

"It kind of went back and forth" Swalls says. "Sometimes we wanted to randomly pull fans from the crowds, but then sometimes we wanted to make sitting on the couch an incentive for various campus organizations on campus.

"That gave us a reason for us to go out and promote a game to the larger study-body with something extra," continues Swalls. "Now we have a perk to present to them, 'If you come to the game, three of your people can sit on the couch,'"

Listen to Potential Sponsors' Needs
Wendy's has professional relationships with Busch Gardens theme parks-one of which is located in the Tampa area-and it strongly promotes the Dave Thomas Foundation For Adoption, named after the founder of Wendy's who was adopted himself. The foundation focuses on increasing adoption awareness and youth service programs.

Zarcone wanted both the theme park and the foundation to be part of the single-game promotion, along with having Wendy's novelty items (plastic mini-balls and frisbees) passed out during the game and the Wendy's mascot in the stands. In return, the store would promote the Spartans' basketball game on the store's property.

Come to an Agreement
After a short negotiation period, the University of Tampa and Wendy's were able to accommodate each other's needs. Below are some of the ideas each agreed to:

Promote with Vigor and Visibility
On the night of the promotion, it was clearly understood that Wendy's was the game's sponsor. The restaurant was promoted over the public announcement system throughout the basketball game, as well as in the Spartan's electronic newsletter and the university's student newspaper. Wendy's banner ads were also strewn near courtside, on the floor, and on the "Couch Potato" couch.

Serendipitously, more visibility was generated when the Junior Hamburger Eating Contest took place. "This eating contest was so unique," says Swalls, "that the local television station taping highlights of the game for the 11 o'clock news kept the camera rolling for the duration of the halftime show. The halftime show was on the air longer than the game's highlights!"

Maintain the Momentum of Success
The immediate success for the local Wendy's was so profound, that Zarcone extended the store's local sponsorship until the end of the basketball season. Emil Brignola, Vice President of BBB Service Company, the Atlanta-based company that operates 58 Wendy's restaurants in Florida and Georgia-including the one the two blocks from the university-was equally impressed. He offered Swalls more sponsorship funding, if additional Wendy's-oriented promotions could be included with other university sporting events.

"Everything fell into place for everybody," says Swalls. "The theme was very important; it's what first drew attention. Timing was important, too. That local manager really wants to climb the corporate ladder, and saw this as advantageous."

Recruit the Right Staff
For the behind-the-scenes work on this promotion, Swalls counted his staff. "I found out that you really need to recruit the right people," he says.

After years of working with too many work-study students who lacked a general understanding of sports marketing, Swalls talked with Athletic Director Larry Murphies about "hiring" a small staff comprised of students majoring in either sports management or marketing, plus a few student-athletes. Murphies agreed and talked with school administrators. After short while, Swalls had a competent staff of 12.

"It's all about personality," says Swalls. "These kids already have an interest in sports and want to know the business of it. My philosophy is to increase campus awareness, and these student can provide concrete ideas to do just that."

Identify Your Target Audience
Swalls and his staff frequently talk with student-run organizations and clubs to find out what is trendy with the student-body. Swalls has discovered that social-networking Web sites, such as Face Book and, are popular amongst these organizations. In response, he's created a fan-only page on the Spartans fan club Web site, allowing fans to blog one another and upload approved images of themselves.

In order to have access to the site, though, fans must sign up and agree to receive the athletic department's weekly electronic newsletter. "For us, the newsletter and student newspaper are key to reaching our fans," says Swalls. "At least 60 percent of sidebar items are used to pull fans to a game."

When signing up, fans must answer a few survey questions, which Swalls evaluates to better understand his target audience. About 400 alumni and university employees receive the newsletter, and approximately 300 Spartan fans are registered on the fan club's Web site.

What-Not-To-Do Tips for Single-Game Promotion Success

Swalls offers these tips on what he does not do to ensure sponsorship success:

Avoid Competition: Other corporate sponsors of University of Tampa's athletics program include Poppa John's and Krispy Kreme, so Swalls is very careful how he schedules sponsored sports event. "We never conduct a Poppa John's promotions with Wendy's or Krispy Kreme's, or vice versa" he says. "It's not fair to anyone."

Beware of Overkill: "If you have promotions at every game, the crowd is going to expect something for each game, and that can be expensive," explains Swalls. He reserves larger promotions for Spartan home games against teams within UT's Sunshine State Conference. This tactic gives the crowd something to look forward and increases Spartan pride against rival teams, which can lead to more gate sales the next time the teams play each other.

Avoid Sport-Specific Sponsorships: None of the University of Tampa's corporate sponsorships are sport-specific. "Wendy's isn't just for basketball," says Swalls. "They also sponsor the Chili Tailgate Party for many home Spartan baseball games." Promoting the same sponsor at different sporting events generates more visibility for the company and more money for your school.

Don't Limit Your Ideas: Swalls may not be a fan of some reality shows, but they appeal to his target audience. By combining certain aspects of these shows with a sponsor's name, he's created easy-to-relate-to halftime promotions. Krispy Kreme's Fear Factor Doughnut-Eating Competition challenges contestants to eat doughnuts covered in marinara sauce for a Krispy Kreme-related prize, while Poppa John Jeopardy is popular with the crowd during any UT halftime show.

For more information on single-game promotions and tips, contact Gil Swalls at: or visit the University of Tampa Web site at: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.