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Sox-BC venture picking up steam

Spinoff finds promoting college sports is different than pushing a pro team

Jason Sweeney has long been a fan of the Red Sox. So the owner of three local Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream franchises was more than willing to listen when one of the Sox's business executives called him one day pitching something entirely unrelated to the team: a sponsorship of Boston College athletics.

The Sox then wooed him with a party at Fenway Park, where they served cheese and crackers and showed a BC commercial on the scoreboard. Soon after, Sweeney's ice cream franchises struck a deal to become an official sponsor of BC.

When the Red Sox's fledgling business spinoff, Fenway Sports Group, unveiled a partnership with Boston College in February to market its sports teams, both parties saw huge potential in the deal. (The New York Times Co., which owns the Globe, also holds a 17 percent stake in the Red Sox). Boston College wanted to raise its profile and attract corporate sponsors as it moved into a new league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, from the Big East. The Sox's ownership group saw the opportunity to take their marketing savvy outside of Fenway Park -- and, in the process, make some money that would be exempt from baseball's revenue-sharing rules.

After a slow start, Fenway Sports Group has racked up some big successes in recent weeks, as BC prepares to open its football season with a game against Brigham Young University in Utah on Saturday. BC signed new deals with the Massachusetts State Lottery, current Red Sox sponsor Giant Glass, and two local car dealerships, BMW of Peabody and Mini of Peabody. Overall, sponsorship revenue is up 70 percent over BC's total at this time last year, while the Sox's relationships with local radio stations have helped expand BC's radio network from four stations to 13.

But in their efforts to sell BC, the Sox executives also found that marketing a college program in a hotbed of professional sports is quite different from selling the hottest team in town. After the initial fanfare, Fenway Sports Group went months without a major sponsorship deal. To date, executives have signed eight new sponsors -- but about six existing BC sponsors left. And when the Sox executives offered some of their own big-name corporate sponsors, such as John Hancock Financial Services Inc., deals with Boston College, the companies turned them down.

Some of the marketing techniques that made the Red Sox so successful at Fenway do not translate well to college sports. Though one of the Sox's biggest sponsors is Anheuser-Busch Cos., maker of Budweiser, BC did not want an alcohol sponsorship. Red Sox executives also learned that, while many of their own current sponsors are thrilled just to get a sign in Fenway Park, signs are not enough for some BC sponsors: They want to make sure students see their products. BC's new car sponsor, BMW of Peabody, is planning a car show in BC's basketball arena, Conte Forum, and may offer discounts and test drives for students.

''It has been a learning curve for us," said Mike Dee, president of Fenway Sports Group and chief operating officer of the Red Sox. ''You can't just say, 'We did this and that at Fenway, so we'll do that here.' We can't take the same playbook we use on Yawkey Way and use it on Chestnut Hill."

Despite those initial bumps, however, both BC and Fenway Sports Group describe the partnership as a success and they say they are gaining momentum in Boston.

''We're very pleased with the way things are going," Dee said. ''This has been everything we had hoped it would be."

Soon after announcing the BC deal, the Sox made sweeping changes at the athletic department. They created an ad campaign to introduce BC and its new league, the ACC, to Boston, with colorful photos of BC athletes and the slogan ''There's a new league in town!" Sox executives helped BC's athletic director, Gene DeFilippo, and other BC officials get time on the talk radio circuit, as well as during radio broadcasts of Red Sox games.

Fenway Sports Group made an early decision to increase prices on sponsorships, which cost the team a handful of clients but ultimately paid off: Many of the sponsors who stayed increased their involvement with the school.

They also courted potential sponsors Fenway style. At a ballpark barbecue earlier this summer, the Sox's business executives offered corporate customers free food, and gave them a tour of the field. They put up flags representing all of the schools in the ACC, and the Sox's mascot, Wally the Green Monster, made the rounds.

In the middle of the crowd, Fenway Sports Group executives hovered around executives from Boston Cedar & Millwork, a Holbrook distributor of building materials, which had been mulling a BC sponsorship for weeks. Rob Ankner, the company's president, is a BC alumnus, and he said he wanted to promote his WeatherBest decking at BC. When DeFilippo came over to chat, the executives told him he had a deal.

''For our customer base, this is an absolute natural fit," Ankner said.

Despite recent efforts, the Sox still face several hurdles in selling BC, sports marketing specialists said. Though BC posted winning records in both football and basketball last year, the college must compete with the Red Sox and Patriots, which both won championships. That makes it more difficult to attract corporate sponsors, said Stephen A. Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in sports management.

''I don't think this will ever be a collegiate market again," he said. ''I am not saying give up, but I am saying be realistic. BC is the most marketable college sports program here, but that only makes it the best of its genre. It doesn't make it really competitive with the professional teams."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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