College football turns to lobbying for off-field advantage in playoffs

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As college football begins its first playoff system to determine the national champions, a dozen experts will select the four teams to advance to the national semifinals.

To gain an advantage off the field, a few teams have turned to an old-fashioned strategy — lobbying.

Baylor recently hired former George W. Bush communications adviser Kevin Sullivan to advocate the Bears’ inclusion in the final four. With a strong background in sports marketing, Sullivan started Monday with a mass email making a case that a Baylor win over Kansas State should move it past Texas Christian. In the rankings, released on Tuesday. Currently, Baylor ranks No. 6; TCU is at No. 3.

A win Saturday would position the Bears for the Big 12 title after a head-to-head tiebreaker. Baylor defeated TCU back in October.

The email sold Baylor’s story using a perfectly worded social-media language: “With #AmericasTopOffense … the Bears Are Among Nation’s Most Entertaining Teams.”

Baylor retained Kevin Sullivan Communications “as additional support in telling the Bears’ story over the course of the last few weeks of the 2014 college football season,” said Baylor’s assistant athletic director Nick Joos to the New York Times.

Other considerations for Baylor include an appearance in the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl, which are hosting two semifinal games each. The Cotton Bowl, in nearby Arlington, Texas, is certainly a high-profile reward.

Marshall’s league Conference USA brought in Brener Zwikel & Associates to shape opinions, even before the College Football Playoff committee released its initial rankings.

Brener Zwikel came in the season early, knowing it had a challenge since Marshall is not a part of the so-called Big 5 conferences, which contain most traditional football powerhouses. College Football Playoff senior communications director Gina Lehe recommended the firm. Lehe had worked with Brener Zwikel as the media director for the Rose Bowl.

“Marshall University (Huntington, WV) makes for an interesting case study as to where it stands among the N.C.A.A.’s Football Bowl Subdivision,” according to the preliminary email outlining why the Thundering Herd (at 7-0) deserves to be in the same category as Alabama and Oregon.

Lobbying may not bring favorable articles, so the conferences agreed not to lobby all 12 voting committee members directly, but Brener Zwikel tried to outflank them.

“I can’t pick up the phone and call Pat Haden,” Steve Brener, the firm’s president, told the Times, referring to the Southern California athletic director on the committee.

“We’ve tried to focus around the markets these voters live in,” Brener added.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.