The Gator Bowl ... It's a Year-Round Thing
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #14

Years ago, a fellow from Virginia Tech took a job with the Orange Bowl. Friends kidded him mercilessly. What a life. Live in Miami and work, essentially, one day a year.

If only they knew.

The actual bowl game is the most visible and obvious function of any bowl committee. Most people think that's all there is to the job.

"Probably 75 percent of the people think that," said Rick Catlett, president of The Gator Bowl Association. His main event is the Jan. 1 meeting between Virginia Tech and Florida State at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. "If you’re not involved in the bowl volunteerism, you’re not aware of what all the bowl does for the community."

Here are some numbers that casual fans might find staggering:

  • People think his job is part-time, Catlett said. Nope. He’s full-time. He’s one of nine full time employees of the Gator Bowl Association. He has a vice president of media relations, a director of marketing, a director of events, a ticket operations manager and "the ever important business manager." Assistants to some of those positions fill out the rest of the full-time staff. Three seasonal employees join the staff in October through the end of the bowl game. And those are the paid folks.
  • More than 500 volunteers serve the Gator Bowl in a variety of capacities, from directing events to manning the hospitality room in the media hotel (maybe the toughest job of all). There’s an 11-member executive committee and a 92-member board.
  • The Gator Bowl is one of 31 events the Gator Bowl Association produces a year. That’s right, 31, or more than two a month. There are a trio of major golf outings, a pro-am that last year drew 11 professionals from the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour, a Shania Twain concert, the 5K US Championships, a national-level junior tennis tournament, a soccer tournament and more. A year ago, the Gator Bowl Association conducted the Pigskin Classic football game between Florida State and Brigham Young.

In addition to the events it produces, the Gator Bowl Association has to raise money – about 5.5 million bucks worth - through sponsorships. If Catlett had to describe his job without using the name of the bowl, he’d call himself a sports marketer.

Yep, it’s a busy job for Catlett and staff. More than just one football game.

Most of the money – about 75 percent – raised by the game goes to the two participating teams. Other events, Catlett said, raise approximately $250,000 for various charities in the Jacksonville area.

The man in charge is a 50-year-old lifelong college football fan and almost life-long resident of Jacksonville. Catlett was born in Athens, Ga., where his father played football for the University of Georgia. By the time he was two years old, Catlett lived in Jacksonville, and he’s been there ever since.

He has a government background and never envisioned a job in sports. "I worked in the mayor’s office for three different mayors here in Jacksonville," Catlett said. "One of my assignments was the sports complex, overseeing the operation. That led me into our NFL task force when we were chasing the NFL team. In 1990, Touchdown Jacksonville was formed and they hired me away to be executive vice president.

"When we got the team (the Jacksonville Jaguars), the Gator Bowl job opened up and I came over here in 1993. By a fluke of circumstances, I ended up in sports."

Down time doesn’t come when the game ends. The teams go home and unwind. Catlett and his staff regroup and rewind. Let’s let Catlett give us a walk-through of a year in the life:

January. "We spend about 70 percent of our dollars during November, December and January. The first week (after the game) is getting everything back, getting everything inventoried and stored away and beginning the process of making sure all the bills get paid.

"On Jan. 15, we’ll have our first executive committee meeting and we’ll lay out our entire calendar. What events, who will chair those events."

Not that there isn’t some fun involved. "We also have our big celebration, our volunteer party. It’s a major event for 700 people, a sit-down dinner with a dance afterwards."

February. "We’ve done our planning. We begin our marketing. We spend a tremendous amount of time renewing our sponsorships, selling our renewals to the community. We have 44 sponsors that we have to renew every year. It’s Marketing 101."

March. "That’s the month of the Players Championship (on the PGA Tour) held here in Ponte Verde. We do a sponsorship and bring in the Toyota and Gatorade people for the players championship."

April. "That’s the month we host the First Union Gator Bowl Junior Tennis Championships." Catlett said 252 juniors from across the country participated last year. Anyone who thinks running such a tournament is easy ought to try doing it just once.

May. "We don’t have any events in May. We spend much of the month going and knocking on business doors in Jacksonville, selling packages and drumming up support for the game."

June. "We finally get a break. Everybody takes their vacations. We sort of slow down in June."

July. "It’s time to bring all of our sponsors together for our summer weekend splash. This is kind of like another opportunity to say thank you for renewing for this coming year."

August. "We put on the Toyota golf outing for all the dealers throughout the country (Toyota is the Gator Bowl’s title sponsor). We call it the Toyota Drivers Cup. We also attempt to produce a preseason game, and we’re still trying to get one for 2002."

September. "This is kind of our kickoff month. All of our committees and everything go into full swing. We usually have some major public kickoff event held at the stadium."

October. "Florida-Georgia." ‘nuff said. The annual SEC game between the arch-rivals is played in Jacksonville. The city puts it on, the Gator Bowl Association assists in its operation.

November. "We have our Gator Bowl Pro-Am golf tournament, we wrap up sales and we try to wrap up team selection in late November."

December. "We start dealing with the teams and all that goes with that." Coaches are brought in early for press conferences. Practice sites are readied, activities for the participating teams are finalized.

Much less time is spent traveling to see potential teams, Catlett said. When he started, his budget for team selection, he said, was in the $50,000 range. This year, he said, "I don’t think we even spent $10,000."

With league tie-ins, the Gator Bowl already knows it is going to get the first choice of teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East Conference after Bowl Championship Series representatives are determined.

Both leagues conduct their annual meetings in the Jacksonville area. Catlett and his staff take advantage to get to know the people in the leagues then. Going to a game is not the best time to get to know an athletic director, who is busying entertaining sponsors of his own.

"Four or five days on a golf course is much more valuable than going to a football game on a weekend," Catlett said. "Plus, so many games are on TV so we can sit and watch and get a very good idea about all the teams in both leagues."

The week of the actual game is probably the easiest and most enjoyable for Catlett. As football coaches like to say, the hay is in the barn. The work is done, enjoy the fruits of all that labor.

"At that time, the volunteers are working at their highest point," Catlett said. "For us, the staff, it really is a celebration. Everything is in place and it just has to operate. We just kind of roll from event to event.

"We certainly have our largest impact that week. The focus of Jacksonville is on the Gator Bowl and Gator Bowl week. You have the players in here and the fans in here, and watching them enjoy everything is the biggest part for me."

 

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