First Armed Forces Bowl sellout comes with significant commitment

By Troy Phillips

It took about a five-minute meeting, mostly by conference call, to do the deal.

When it ended, the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl had an unprecedented title sponsorship deal among the 15 bowl games staged annually by ESPN Events.

Six years, baby.

The bowl’s 16th edition on Saturday registered its first official sellout, record attendance (44,738), its first three-time champion (Army) and sent a message locally and nationally that its roots are as strong as any college football postseason event.

Army put up the most points ever in an AFB, walloping Houston 70-14 at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium.

“With the continued growth of this game, this isn’t going to be the last sellout we have,” Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. “Fort Worth has wrapped its arms around it.”

On December 21, the bowl announced its current six-year agreement had been extended six more years through the game following the 2025 college season. Lockheed Martin, which followed Bell Helicopter as title sponsor, first signed on for the Jan. 2, 2015 game – a three-year deal that was later extended through the 2019 season.

ESPN Events, which routinely seeks out new title sponsors for its bowls  after only a few years, probably thought it had hit the jackpot on Lockheed Martin. Many of its bowls are before Christmas, and all are outside the New Year’s Six games. Good matchups, themes, destinations and local support are important sustaining factors, but strong title sponsorship is vital.

“Six [years] is certainly beyond what’s normal,” ESPN Events vice president Clint Overby said of LM’s extension. “That’s not a level of commitment you generally see. It’s a real positive.”

Landing a Saturday date the first week of bowl season and sliding service-academy team Army into an at-large spot were big for this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.

Ten of the bowl’s 16 years have included either Army, Navy or Air Force, a trend that has held up during Lockheed Martin’s five years as title sponsor. One in four of LM’s 15,000 employees at its various divisions are military veterans, which underscore’s the defense contractors continued support of the event.

“We view this as a long-term commitment, just like they commited to serving our country,” Lockheed Martin aeronautics division executive vice president Michele Evans said. “We want to continue that commitment.”

That LM re-upped – significantly – for six years didn’t come with hesitation, Evans said. “Not a bit. It was a five-minute call.”

“Shortest meeting we ever had,” LM missile and fire command executive VP Frank St. John said. “No other bowl game symbolizes what Lockheed Martin is about.”

Ringler called LM a “phenomenal partner” that has seen the value of the return in its sponsorship investment.

“They see all we do to pay tribute to our veterans, including the ones who fly their planes and use the equipment they provide to protect our country,” he said. “It’s their way of saying thank you, and we thank them for helping us be able to do this.”

In past years, the bowl has signed service academies to appearance contracts in advance of a particular year. That could continue, or an academy could be invited through the at-large process, but Overby said ESPN Events believes the bowl is healthy enough after 16 years to go without service academies in a given year as the chips fall.

“The game itself is just part of the opportunity to honor the troops and our country,” Overby said. “It brings in a lot of people for a day of appreciation. Having an academy has been part of it several times, but it’s not a requirement. An academy team in the game and honoring our service men and women and veterans are mutually exclusive.”

Lockheed Martin, Overby said, has provided stability and longevity. Without that, the game might be still waiting for its first sellout.

“We couldn’t have done it without Lockheed Martin’s support and being a part of what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s a hand-in-glove relationship.”