As week one of the 2010-11 college football season approaches, mention the Bowl Championship Series to a typical fan and get ready for a lecture.
It’s unfair, it favors perennial heavyweights without giving up-and-coming teams a chance or it’s a shameless money-making scheme for the conferences and TV networks are all common complaints. After all, Utah destroyed Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and was the only undefeated team that season, the 2007 LSU squad was the first 2-loss champion in college football history and, let’s be honest, Ohio State didn’t deserve to be in the same stadium as Florida in 2006.
But the BCS has managed, inadvertently or otherwise, to do what every other college or professional sport wishes it could – it generates conversation after the championship game is over.
Controversy breeds conversation, and no sport ends its season more contentiously than college football. In every other major sport, only one team wins their last game of the post-season, and they are declared the league champion. In college football, half the teams win their last game.
How is this good for college football? People talk. They talk about who would’ve won if the BCS champion played the winner of the 3-4 match-up or how their team’s defensive scheme could’ve stopped the BCS champion when their opponent couldn’t. And they don’t forget – Auburn fans still talk about their 2004 snub and Boise State will remind anyone listening that they’ve been undefeated since 2008 without any serious BCS Championship consideration.
But most importantly, they watch. Whether to fuel their ire or rectify last season’s injustices, college football fans will forever tune in next season to see what happens.
The proof is in the numbers – 17.7 percent of U.S. television viewers watched Alabama and Texas play in the BCS Championship game in January, as compared with 12.8 percent who watched the NBA Finals, 11.7 percent who watched the World Series, 9.7 percent who watched the Final Four and 4.7 percent who watched the Stanley Cup Finals. Only the Super Bowl has better ratings.
Controversy is not always bad, even though we’ve been tempered by oil spills and stuck gas pedals to think it so. Controversy begets discussion and spurs otherwise ambivalent parties to action. While not fit for every brand or every situation, an ounce of controversy can be worth a pound of traditional PR.
Just ask Burger King. In early 2009, the company rolled out the “Whopper Sacrifice,” a Facebook application that rewarded users with a coupon for a free Whopper for every 10 friends they “defriended” on Facebook. Rather than allow an anonymous defriending, the application also alerted each defriended victim that they had been ditched for a free Whopper. Despite its controversial purpose, the application was extremely well-received by Facebook users, resulting in the defriending of 233,906 friends in less than a week (before it was shut down by Facebook for “privacy reasons”). Burger King also received extensive press coverage and incited debate among brand experts and consumers about whether it was ethical to promote and reward anti-social behavior in social media.
Burger King took a product it has sold since 1957 and used controversy to reinvigorate its brand awareness more than 50 years later. The sandwich was exactly the same and the price hadn’t changed, but the campaign generated hundreds of millions of impressions featuring the Whopper.
Squeaky clean PR has its place, especially if your company’s line of work invites controversy to begin with or is in a heavily regulated industry. But if you’re hawking burgers or the BCS, controversy may just work for you and your brand.