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MILKING THE RAMS

CSU SHOPS AROUND FOR WAYS TO STUFF ITS PIGSKIN WALLET.

Hey, CSU! You've just hit the ranks of big-time football! You've got a conference championship, a national audience, TV contracts and a big bowl game! Whaddaya gonna do next?

Forget Disneyland. It's time to fire up the cash registers.
The real test of whether you've found the college-football limelight is not, of course, whether you win a national championship. It's how much money you bring in. (How else to explain Notre Dame?) And Colorado State University is convinced that it has arrived.

This week, honchos from the Fort Collins university's athletic marketing department are scheduled to meet with Denver's Bonham Group, Inc., a nationally respected consulting firm. At that time, Bonham is expected to report its progress on calculating exactly how much CSU's sporting events are worth to corporations looking to associate their names with high-profile athletic events such as those found at the school's Hughes Stadium.

The $17,000 contract with Bonham was signed early last November, according to Jay Hardy, who's in charge of selling CSU sports. Although by that time the Rams were 8 and 1 and well on their way to the best season in school history, Hardy says the team's success had little to do with the timing of the contract.

"That's part of it, I suppose," he says. "But if we would have been 5 and 6, we still would have been doing this."

The fact that the school has hired Bonham at all indicates that it is reaching for a new level of cash flow. The company was started by Dean Bonham, a former president of marketing for the Denver Nuggets, and Sidney Shlenker, past owner of the basketball team. Although it does much of its work helping colleges lock up corporate sponsors, Bonham also has been involved in lining up deals for clients as varied as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the embattled Great American Pyramid in Memphis.

Several years ago Bonham described in Colorado Business his spiel to a typical client: "We're going to tell you that you're nothing more than a property for the corporate world. And your ability to generate revenue from a variety of sources is going to be directly dependent on your ability to drive sales for the corporate world. Don't get emotional about it."

CSU began trying to market its teams in earnest in late 1990. Not coincidentally, that was the year the football Rams won nine games and for the first time attended a nationally televised postseason contest, the Freedom Bowl, in which they beat Oregon 32-31. (To be fair, CSU, then known as Colorado A&M, also played in the 1949 Raisin Bowl, losing to Occidental.)

Since then, Hardy says, CSU's sports teams have been fairly successful in bringing bucks to the university through sponsorships and advertising deals. Yet it wasn't until last year that the school first caught a shimmering glimpse of what a football program can contribute to a university's piggy bank.

Hardy says the school's athletic department started the year with a $469,000 deficit. But by the time all the football lucre started rolling in ($155,000 each for the Rams' two nationally televised games and $1.7 million from the Holiday Bowl, not to mention ticket sales that moved faster than an Anthoney Hill bullet pass over the middle), the department's budget was back in the black.

"As a marketing guy, I'd like to take credit for that," says Hardy. "But, obviously, it was the winning."

Now, with the hiring of Bonham, the school wants to cash in on its newly burnished name. Currently, CSU's sponsorships are strictly low-budget--particularly in comparison with the sporting fellows who play at the financially fulsome Folsom.

According to Chris May, who arranges the University of Colorado's promotions, if a corporation wants to get in on the action with a game-day sponsorship of the football Buffaloes, it must be willing to cut a chunky check. May says the deals are worth anywhere from $7,500 all the way up to six figures, depending on the exposure a company wants.

Up in Fort Collins, meanwhile, a corporation willing to shell out $5,000 (except for the popular Wyoming contest, which runs $6,500) can enjoy a raft of perks, including 100 football tickets, signs plastered all over the stadium, periodic mentions over the loudspeakers, an autographed ball and a tailgate party in its honor. Basketball games in Fort Collins are even cheaper. Last week, Wendy's sponsored an entire game for $2,000, Hardy says.

Still, the fees have added up. The school's treasury swelled by $216,000 last year thanks to such sponsorships. According to Hardy, that's 25 percent higher than the year before.

But, he adds quicky, it could be a lot more. One example: CU earns $600,000 in licensing alone (a bit over 7 percent of that $40 Buffs sweatshirt you bought goes to the school). CSU, meanwhile, earns only between $60,000 and $90,000.

CSU is hoping that other sponsors will sign on for a specific project. For instance, Hardy says officials from the school's athletic department are meeting with corporate bigwigs who might be interested in linking their company's name with the school's $8 million gymnasium renovations or a new scoreboard for Hughes Stadium.

Which is where The Bonham Group comes in. Soon, says Hardy, CSU should know exactly what it can charge. "They're going to give us a market analysis of everything we have to offer," Hardy concludes. "But I'd be lying to you if I didn't say the reason was to raise money.

 
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