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Belk Stores Woo Female College Football Fans

CNBC , December 28, 2013

By Steve Goldberg

Though technically started in 1902 when Michigan steamrolled Stanford 49–0 at the Tournament East-West Football Game in Pasadena, college football bowl games have been consistently played since 1916, with appellations that paid sole homage to such necessities as cotton, oranges, sugar, the sun and, of course, roses.

That stage is shared now. The first slate of this bowl season's games, which kicked off last weekend in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Boise and New Orleans, celebrated a T-shirt manufacturer, trucking line, motor oil and potatoes.

Though ubiquitous now, the title and presenting sponsorship of these gridiron pageants dates back to 1983, when the Florida Citrus Growers renamed the Tangerine Bowl with their own, broader fruit-category moniker. Of the 35 bowl games to be played through Jan. 6, seven are sponsored by financial services–related businesses, another five by restaurant chains and five by automotive- or transportation-related brands. Two will bear the names of suppliers from the military-industrial complex.

In this testosterone-fueled world of football comes Belk, a 125-year-old family-owned Southern department-store chain with a predominantly female customer base. Not only are they unique in their target demographic but they are also the first general-merchandise retail chain, regional or national, to sponsor a bowl game.

And their game plan must be gaining yardage, as Saturday's Belk Bowl will be the retailer's third iteration and they have recently signed up for at least six more.

College football, Southern-style

Belk has 300 stores in 16 contiguous Southern states—from Maryland down to Florida on the East Coast, across the gulf to Texas, back up through Arkansas to West Virginia and everything in between. The pace of change to a retailer like this is usually akin to pouring molasses on a cool day.

Sponsorship industry-watcher IEG agrees this is a nontraditional pairing. "As a retailer and a department store, it certainly hasn't been the sweet spot for bowl sponsors," said Jim Andrews, IEG senior vice president. "They stand out in that regard."

But in December 2010, in keeping with its $70 million branding makeover, Belk management literally kicked off its desire to be the harbinger of its tagline—"Modern. Southern. Style"—when it announced the title sponsorship of a 2011 college football bowl game in its headquarters hometown of Charlotte. It was a way for the privately-owned company to create national buzz about its brand.

"A lot of life is timing, being in the right place at the right time," Belk's executive vice president of marketing, sales promotion and e-commerce Jon Pollack told