EagleBank Bowl hopes to establish permanent presence on college football landscape

Last year's EagleBank Bowl, featuring Navy and Wake Forest, attracted 28,777 fans. Organizers say they're hoping Tuesday's contest will garner 25,000.
Last year's EagleBank Bowl, featuring Navy and Wake Forest, attracted 28,777 fans. Organizers say they're hoping Tuesday's contest will garner 25,000. (Preston Keres/the Washington Post)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; 4:14 PM

Last year, organizers of the EagleBank Bowl carried out a twofold plan: get the game off the ground, and introduce the Washington area to its own college football postseason event. Now, in the EagleBank Bowl's second year, officials tried to tackle a challenge faced by many of the other 34 bowl games now in operation: To create a brand that generates fan interest -- and thus stimulates spending in the local economy -- no matter which teams are playing in the game. They believe they are on track to establishing a sense of permanence on a bowl-season landscape that many view as oversaturated.

"It's starting to get slowly some traction, and that's good," said Jeff Fried, a primary consultant to the bowl. "I want people in this region to know that every Christmastime we're going to have a big-time football game here. . . . I think after another successful year, as you go into the third year, that foundation should really be getting there where you can start marketing that EagleBank Bowl name."

On Tuesday afternoon at RFK Stadium, the EagleBank Bowl will host Temple and UCLA, two teams that few expected would be playing in the game at the start of the season. But the Owls and Bruins find themselves here because neither of the bowl's original tie-ins was fulfilled. The EagleBank Bowl held the No. 8 selection of ACC teams, but only seven ACC teams were bowl eligible. Army, the EagleBank Bowl's other contractual tie-in this season, finished 5-7, one win shy of bowl eligibility.

This is an example of just one of the obstacles a young bowl must face during its march to sustainability. That the event is not held in a warm-weather locale only adds to the challenge. Until its brand becomes more concrete, the bowl's participants matter greatly to its degree of success and factor significantly into how much credibility it can stimulate, according organizers from other bowls around the country.

Jerry Silverstein, president of the GMAC Bowl, said it took three years before the event was able to produce its own momentum. Now in its 11th year, the GMAC Bowl -- to be played Jan. 6 in Mobile, Ala. -- has etched itself definitively into the bowl schedule, and it was only able to develop such durability, Silverstein said, because it could market on a regional level the talented players it featured.

"We've had players like Ben Roethlisberger, LaDainian Tomlinson, Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Brad Gradkowski; some of those high-profile people help a lot in establishing that" brand, Silverstein said. "We came through with some very powerful players that had national exposure that helped put our name out there in the press and in the marketplace around the country, so that gave us some instant recognition."

The Humanitarian Bowl has been around for 13 years, and it became a bowl season fixture despite being held in Boise, Idaho, a comparatively far-flung locale. Kevin McDonald, who now serves as the Humanitarian Bowl's executive director, has worked with the bowl in some capacity for seven years. He said the Boise community initially questioned the viability of a bowl game often held in snow and freezing temperatures.

But in the bowl's third and fourth year, Boise State was one of the game's participants. After that, McDonald said, enough local fans had been exposed to the bowl that attendance stabilized whether the hometown Broncos competed in the event or not.

The announced attendance at the inaugural EagleBank Bowl was 28,777. This year, EagleBank chief executive Ron Paul, a member of the bowl's executive board, said that given the teams involved, organizers were hoping for an attendance of about 25,000. Temple was expected to sell betwee 5,000 and 10,000 tickets, while UCLA was expected to sell 2,000. Had Army been bowl eligible, it would have been contractually on the hook for 21,000 tickets.

According to bowl organizers locally and nationally, the EagleBank Bowl has been well received by the bowl community. Beginning in 2010, the NCAA is going to award four-year bowl licenses, rather than hand them out on a yearly basis. And because the EagleBank Bowl already has agreements in place for participants over the next four years, it would appear the bowl is set to gain an added measure of stability.

Fried said EagleBank Bowl organizers will discuss the event's mission statement early next year to discern the direction in which they want to head in terms of expansion. One possible scenario involves the EagleBank Bowl entering into an equity arrangement with a worldwide sports and entertainment communications firm, an association Fried believes could afford the bowl an expanded reach. Such a partnership would provide the bowl greater financial backing, among other benefits.

"It all depends on what your goals are," Fried said. "Do you want to have a solid, regional event that provides economic support for the city and funds for charity purposes in the region, or do you want to grow the event to the next level?"

Organizers from numerous bowls contacted for this story agreed that being embraced by the surrounding community is a critical initial step in building an event's brand. To that end, EagleBank Bowl officials made a concerted effort over the past year to initiate and strengthen ties with local causes.

The EagleBank Bowl garnered sponsorships from 61 corporations, many of which are based in the District. In its inaugural year, the bowl attracted 22 sponsors. The bowl has been involved with local youth football leagues, as well as events with local chapters of the Boys and Girls Club. Additionally, the bowl adopted as its primary charity the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization designed to honor American service members injured in the line of duty.

"We've been all over the place building our brand," said Steve Beck, executive director of the EagleBank Bowl. "The more that that grows every year and the more we get the community behind us and realizing what it does for D.C. -- it brings a national stage to D.C. -- I think that's going to be evident in our production this year."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company