A Year Without College Football Gives Brands the Ultimate Brief

Turning this fall's shutout into a comeback win

News broke last week that the B1G, one of America's premier college athletics conferences, was postponing its fall football season due to concerns around the spread of Covid-19. Within hours, the Pac-12 followed suit. Many now expect what was once unthinkable: For the first time since 1869, there will likely be no college football this fall.

For brands that have tied themselves to the billion-dollar business of college football—Nissan, Home Depot, Outback Steakhouse, Dos Equis—this might seem like the latest in a line of 2020 setbacks. But with fans left craving and Saturdays left open, there's a silver lining. 

A postponed season gives brands the turnaround brief of a lifetime. You're all about connecting with fans around college football? Now's your chance to prove it—by providing a captive audience of millions with the joy and identity they might otherwise not get this year.

Creativity might not be able to replace the season, but for ambitious brands with a place in football, the right idea can flip this fall's shutout into a comeback win. Here's what that means for fan-friendly brands of all types.

Lighthearted? Stoke rivalries to provide a taste of the season.

For millions, college football is a three-month long march 'til Rivalry Week. Rivalries like Michigan-Ohio State provide the natural tension at the core of any good brief. Brands that stake themselves on fun and irreverence could lean into the energy around football's most famous feuds to give fans a taste of the season's heights.

The heart of all rivalry is a good give-and-take. With fans out of stadiums (and away from the other side), a beverage brand could stoke both sides through winking competition.

Imagine a social media contest where a statue of the winner's mascot is erected on the loser's campus. Or a digital activation that keeps the spirit of Rivalry Week alive by connecting every bad thing that happens in your area to your rival.

Villains are the best part of college football season. Fan brands that lean into the spirit of rivalry can ignite fall traditions that would otherwise be sorely missed.

Compassionate? Help communities stay connected. 

While nothing binds like a shared enemy, college football connects not just fanbases, but communities. Gamedays bring thousands into small towns that depend on just 12 Saturdays a year for revenue. Not only that, but events like regional games and homecomings bring friends and neighbors together—sometimes for the first time in years.

Brands that take a more empathetic tone could fill the void left by football's absence to help these groups stay connected and strong.

Imagine a beer brand helping friends watch games together even though they're apart. Or a logistics company helping campus restaurants stay afloat by delivering gameday food across the country. 

Home Depot, the presenting sponsor of ESPN's College GameDay, could even help keep sport-wide traditions like the traveling Washington State flag alive, giving the college football community at large a point of connection.

College football is so beloved because the connections it activates are profound. Unlike professional sports, it's not about what city you were born in—it's about a part of your identity that you chose, and the shared memories that come from that. Brands that help fans keep those connections strong over this canceled season will be embraced for many seasons to come.

Innovative? Provide alternatives, especially around the holidays.

Although rivalries and traditions may steal the spotlight, the real absence of the season will be felt in a setting much more emotional than a noon kickoff: a quiet Thanksgiving at the in-laws.

College football gives acquaintances of all kinds nearly six months of small talk: a blessed glidepath of social lubrication that perfectly intersects with the holidays. Brands of all kinds have an opportunity to solve this silence by giving fans something else to do, whether tied to football or not.

Imagine a fast-food brand using sidelined football commentators to cover the Thanksgiving Day National Dog Show. Or a brand like Nissan using a roster of past greats to rebroadcast old games. 

With Saturdays open, the possibilities are endless. Fans won't forget about college football just because this season's been postponed. The right idea, and a bit of creative ambition, can make a brand every bit as unforgettable.

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Alex Rakestraw
Alex Rakestraw is a senior strategist at Deutsch New York.

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